Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War at the British Library has been hailed as “a once-in-a-generation exhibition“. Edoardo Albert finds that, in this giant treasure-hoard, the brightest jewels are often in the smallest details.
Would you give a thousand acres of the best land for a book?
Benedict Biscop, founder of the double monastery at Monkwearmouth-Jarrow, did. For the Anglo-Saxons, newly Christian and freshly literate, books were things of awe: repositories of the Words of God and storehouses of wonders. For such treasures, even a thousand acres seemed a small price.
To visit the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library is to enter this world and to find there – well, pretty much everything. Every significant surviving manuscript from what became Anglo-Saxon England up to and including the Domesday Book, the ledger of its death knell, with a few illuminating examples from beyond our shores, is on display at this exhibition.
For writers of historical fiction writing in English, there can be no more worthwhile display. The roots of our words are here, and the first flowering of the wider love for books and learning that sustains us.
To pick just a few of the highlights: the gospel book brought to Britain by St Augustine in 597; the earliest copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People; earliest surviving original charter, from 679, attested by Hlothhere, king of Kent; the earliest surviving letter sent in England, complete with fold marks, which was dispatched in 704 or 705; the Winchester recension of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle; the sole surviving manuscript of Beowulf; and the Domesday Book. The writing hands are, almost always, clear and even: try to pick out some of the words – I was delighted to read ‘Cantua’ (Kent) in Hlothhere’s charter.
This is an exhibition to linger over, poring over each script, so try to visit when it is quiet. Many of the exhibits repay long and careful scrutiny, and none more so than the Lindisfarne Gospels.
It is shown open at the beginning of the Gospel of Matthew, the carpet page on the left leaf, the first verse of the gospel, LIBER/GENERATI/ONIS IHESU/CHRISTII FILII DAVID FILII ABRA/HAM (The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, son of David, son of Abraham) on the right leaf.
I could have spent hours poring over these two pages alone: it was like diving into a fractal, fresh intricacies and details unveiled with every reduction of scale. Even the red dots that outline and fill characters are marvels of design. But my particular favourites were the duck snails – creatures with the heads of mallards but the bodies of snails that form the finials of the x-shaped ‘S’ at the end of GENERATIONIS.
The exhibition is full of exhibits like this that make the viewer review everything they think they know about the early Medieval period, from the extraordinary bulk of the Codex Amiatinus – seeing this earliest surviving complete Bible it’s clear why most early versions of the Bible were part works rather than the complete text – through to the wit and economy of line in some of the intertextual drawings, such as those in the Paris Psalter and the Julius Work Calendar, that call to mind the ink wash painting of the Far East.
Hwæt ic eall feala ealde sæge. “Listen, I have heard many old tales.”
The tales that survive of the obscure centuries when all the basic building blocks of these islands were fired and laid – language, nations, faith – are all here on display at the British Library until 19 February. If you only go to one exhibition in the next decade, it should be this one.
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is at the British Library until Tuesday, 19 February, 2019. It’s advisable to book in advance.
Edoardo Albert writes fiction and non-fiction about Britain in the early Medieval period. Conrad Monk and the Great Heathen Army injects humour into Viking depredations, while the Northumbrian Thrones trilogy takes the reader to the culture that produced the Lindisfarne Gospels. Find out more at www.edoardoalbert.com, www.facebook.com/EdoardoAlbert.writer or on Twitter @EdoardoAlbert.