c. 200-250

Crude braided metal thermometer with leather strap.

Thermomètre en métal tressé avec sangle de cuir.

Jean Malsain
Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, Cambridge
Adelaide de Saint-Étienne
Thermometer: 17 cm x 2.2 cm; Cushion: 22.7 cm x 8.3 cm x 3.2 cm
Aegerium and ribbon
Aegerium and velvet cushion

Nature of fake object: An aegerium: one of the first crude “thermometers.” The word aegerium is attributed to Pheobe of Rome who is mentioned by the Apostle Paul in his Epistle to the Romans (16:1-2). Aegerium comes from the Latin verb for sick “aeger.” The aegerium was used from the early Roman period until about the 13th century when it seems to have fallen out of use.  

Description and historical circumstances of the fake object: This particular artifact was found in France in 1650 by one of the first French nurses, Adelaide de Saint-Étienne and remained there until it was rediscovered by Dr. Jean Malsain in 1995. While she was praying for the recovery of a small local boy from what we may now call scarlet fever, Adelaide de Saint-Étienne discovered this aegerium preserved in a secret compartment behind the alter at the Église Saint-Étienne de Vignory. The braided metal design is a particular feature of the more ornate aegerium that were used in this particular area of France.  Although, we have never recovered another artifact like this one, the familiar braided design can be seen in drawings from the time period.  The leather necktie secured the aegerium around the necks of the nuns and monks that helped the sick. Since metal was well-known as a conductor of heat, the aegerium would have been held under the armpits of sick patients and then held directly against the wrists of the nuns and monks to check for fever.” The above excerpt was written in 1996 by “Dr.” Jean Malsain and was attached to this artifact for 20 years while it travelled to museums.  

Biographical details of the “real” author behind the fake; circumstances that might have led the author of the fake to produce the object; circumstances surrounding public display and reception: Jean Malsain is, in fact, not really a doctor of anthropology but posed as one for over 20 years while she retained a coveted position at l’Université de Montréal.  A mother of ten children and an amateur anthropologist, Malsain first posed as a doctor of anthropology and presented a paper on the use of ancient medical devices at a conference in London, England, where she was visiting her ex-husband.  Her success at the conference, and her need of a stable career as a single mother supporting her large family, led her to return to her home in Montreal and hire a metal worker who lived near Orford to create this artifact. She then applied for a grant, which she received, and she travelled to France to the Église Saint-Étienne de Vignory where she “discovered” the aegerium.

Malsain was so greatly skilled in the arts of persuasion that the artifact travelled in prestigious anthropology exhibits for over 20 years.  This “discovery” helped Malsain secure her tenured job at l’Université de Montréal while she became the leading world expert in the aegerium.  

The aegerium was discovered to be a fake in 2016 by one of Malsain’s graduate students who became suspicious after meeting the metal worker who created the object at a wine and cheese at Malsain’s house in early 2016. However, it was only once this story broke that the archeology community realized the aegerium never existed at all.

Malsain claims that this hoax was not for personal benefit.  Rather, her intentions were to “highlight the unseen and unacknowledged work done in service of others by women, such as mothers and nurses.” This amazing fake came into the possession of the Friends of the Library in 2016 when it was acquired quite cheaply and quietly from MAA (Museum of Archeology and Anthropology) in Cambridge, England.