Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War at the British Library

Vespasian psalter

MGM, at its zenith in the 1940s, used to boast that it had more stars than there are in heaven on its roster. It’s a phrase that came back to me walking round the current, jaw-droppingly good exhibition at the British Library, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. By the time I was half way through it, perhaps sooner, I was planning my next visit. And I’m not sure that one will be my last either.

It’s an exhibition so prodigal in its glories that it is almost casual about them: one case alone houses four manuscripts that contain about 90% of all surviving Anglo-Saxon literature: the Nowell Codex, which includes Beowulf; the Vercelli Book, which includes the Dream of the Rood; the Exeter Book, which includes Deor, The Seafarer and The Wayfarer; and the Junius manuscript, which includes Genesis and Exodus.

If English literature is important to you, this single case is worth the exhibition’s entry price alone. It is not just that these are the earliest manuscripts of these works, or the best. They are in most part the only manuscripts. Without these few handfuls of parchment, there would barely be any pre-Conquest literature to speak of. And when you think how heart-stoppingly tenuous their survival has been, you realise with some force how precarious and vulnerable our connections to the past are. The 10th-century Vercelli Book is back in England for the first time in perhaps 900 years: it was left behind by an unknown visitor to the northern Italian town of Vercelli, a resting point on the road to Rome, at some point early in the second millennium. The Exeter Book, also 10th century, shows evidence of having been used as both a chopping board and a beer mat in its long life. The Nowell Codex – written c1000 – in common with a number of manuscripts in the exhibition was part of the library of Sir Robert Cotton, the great early 17th-century antiquary, which was caught in a fire at the prophetically named Ashburnham House on 23 October 1731. It was only just saved: the edges of its pages are heavily scorched. Other manuscripts, of course, were far less fortunate.

On one level the abundance on offer is dazzling: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is the best and most comprehensive exhibition about the Anglo-Saxons you will ever see, covering the period from Gildas, a Romano-British monk of the 6th century who bore bitter witness to their arrival in his excoriating De excidio Britanniae (‘On the Ruin of Britain’), and ending in the aftermath of the Norman Conquest. One should avoid superlatives, but the exhibition invites them because it contains so many itself. I defy anyone to walk around it and keep track in their head of all the firsts, the earliests, the oldests, and the onlys among the manuscript descriptors.

Everyone will have their favourites here, things that offer hair-on-the-back-of-the-neck moments of recognition, surprise and awe. You expect to be overwhelmed by the lavish intricacies of the illuminated gospels and psalters and you are: the pages are careworn, creased and stained with age, but the sheer energy caught in these thickets of colour and invention remains startlingly fresh. Again, the Lindisfarne Gospels, created in Northumbria, are worth the entry price alone; set alongside the Mercian Barberini Gospels, or the Kentish Stockholm Codex Aureus with its purple-stained pages, or the aptly-named Harley Golden Gospels from East Francia, or the Irish Book of Durrow – to name just a few – they give vivid life to the phrase ‘an embarrassment of riches’.

More surprising, for me, was the line work that emerged in gorgeous clarity and simplicity towards the end of the period. It’s displayed here in a range of marginal and other illustrations, from the strange five-person Trinity of Aelfwine’s Prayer Book to the dynamic figures accompanying the psalms in the Harley Psalter and the watchful portrayals of agricultural life on the Julius Work Calendar. The latter is an inadvertent reminder that agriculture and book production – the preserve of monastic scriptoria throughout the period – were intimately connected. Monastic wealth was predicated on gifts or bequests of farmland. Books themselves were made from animal hides, stretched and pared and scraped to provide a smooth writing surface; scribes who made mistakes could simply scratch away the top layer of skin and start again.

I was also surprised to find myself particularly drawn to the St Cuthbert Gospel, one of the more modest exhibits on display, being a small pocket-sized book of the gospel of St John created by the scriptorium at the great double monastery of Jarrow-Wearmouth in Northumbria. It was once said to be the personal gospel book of St Cuthbert himself – “the most benevolently charismatic of all British saints” the DNB says – who died in Lindisfarne in 687. It was found beside his head when his coffin in Durham Cathedral was opened in 1104, but is now thought to post-date his death by a decade or two.

I think the appeal is its intimacy. Whether it belonged to Cuthbert or no, it is designed to be held in the hand, for its owner to carry with them as they went about their rituals and devotions. I find it hard to think it doesn’t carry something of the freight of that connection, rubbed somehow into its red leather covers, caught somewhere on the ink and skin of its pages. And it is, besides, the earliest European book still in its own binding. Its intactness gives me a little of the same kind of charge later pilgrims to his shrine must have had holding it in their hands and exulting in the spark of sanctity they felt from its little heft, its light aura of holiness.

Ironically, the same scriptorium also produced the vast Codex Amiatinus, which weighs in in at some 75lbs. It is a book so big it required the skins of some 500 animals to produce.

The technical term for the Amiatinus is a pandect: a single manuscript volume containing all the books of the Bible. This one is the oldest complete Latin Bible in existence. It was commissioned – along with two other pandects – by St Ceolfrith, abbot at Jarrow-Wearmouth at the close of the seventh century. The mere fact that such a project could be countenanced is a testament to the expertise available in Northumbria at the time; indeed, the early part of the exhibition demonstrates what an engine of learning and culture the kingdom was, one of Europe’s greatest bulwarks against the chaos that consumed so much of it. Likewise, the fact that the earliest known copy of the Rules of St Benedict is English – more properly, Mercian or West Saxon – exemplifies both the strength of the English monastic community c700, and the instabilities and vicissitudes elsewhere on the continent.

Two of the pandects were intended for each of the abbey’s churches. The third, Ceolfrith himself took to Rome in the summer of 716 on what would prove to be his final journey: he died en route in Burgundy on 25 September at the age of 74. At some point over the next few hundred years it found its way to the Tuscan monastery of San Salvatore at Monte Amiata, from which it gets the name by which it is now known. It is the only one of the three to have survived.

Of the other two, one has disappeared entirely. The second was dismembered, presumably during or shortly after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, which saw the gutting of England’s great monastic libraries alongside its other destructions. Some dozen folios from it are known to survive: one turned up in a shop in Newcastle in 1882; another among estate papers in Kingston Lacey in Dorset a century later. Most of them, however, were found being used as wrappers for the Willoughby family’s estate papers in Nottinghamshire – as powerful a symbol of the post-reformation desacralisation of England’s catholic cultural heritage as you could wish for. It is these – known as the Wollaton Leaves – that are on display here alongside the Amiatinus.

If there is a frisson from the Amiatinus being on these shores again for the first time since it left with Ceolfrith from the mouth of the River Humber on 4 July 716 – and how powerful the specificity of such information is when so much of these centuries’ history is blank – then surely there is another from the juxtaposition of it with the Wollaton Leaves a few feet away. Two once identical works created at the same time by the same hands in the same scriptorium, using the same ink and the same hides from the same herds – but with antithetical fates: one magnificently whole, the other broken up five centuries since, carelessly reused, scribbled on, abused.

This duality of survival and loss is something runs throughout Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. The sheer profusion of the exhibition – its ability to offer display after eloquent display of deep history and often high art – sharpens our sense of how arbitrary and rare these survivals are. So much has been lost, destroyed by the vagaries of time, by the violence of determined men and by the determined neglect of others, each indifferent in their own way to the dead and to the beauty and mystery and importance of the past.

It is a fitting thought, however, because endurance and loss – the plaintive awareness of how closely ruin shadows even the brightest civilisations – are very Anglo-Saxon qualities. It is there quite explicitly in the Codex Amiatinus, which has a frontispiece featuring a painting of the prophet Ezra sitting and copying out the scriptures on his lap. Behind him is a full shelf of books. Above the picture a scribe has written in Latin, “When the sacred books had been consumed in the fires of war, Ezra repaired the damage”, referring to the tradition that Ezra used memorial reconstruction to recover the Hebrew Scriptures for future generations after the Babylonians had destroyed them. It is also quite clearly making a claim on behalf of the Amiatinus, of Ceolfrith, and of the scribes at Jarrow-Wearmouth: their work is one of recovery, restoration and rebuilding from a period of darkness and war.

The same point – which of course itself also echoes the laments of Gildas about the Anglo-Saxons themselves – is made by King Alfred in his preface to the translation of Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care, which he distributed to his bishops in the 890s. Alfred had fought the vikings to a standstill and prevented them from over-running his kingdom. But after suffering their attacks for decades, England was much decayed. “[B]efore it had all been ravaged and burnt… the churches throughout all England stood filled with treasures and books, and there were also a great many of God’s servants… [M]en from abroad came to this land in search of wisdom and teaching [but]… now we must get them from abroad if we shall have them.” There were very few south of the Humber who could translate Latin, Alfred said, and not a single one south of the Thames when he came to the throne. Wisdom and learning, like the land itself, had to be fought for if it was to be won again. Alfred wasn’t alone in feeling civilisation to be vulnerable: some 9th-century charters have caveats specifying that their land grants should only endure while Christianity endured among the English, clearly suggesting some scepticism about that eventuality.

There is a wider emotional sense behind this – elegaic yet defiant, or, more accurately, elegaic and defiant – which is expressed most powerfully in some of Anglo-Saxon England’s most memorable poetry. It is there in Deor, with its ubi-suntish refrain, ‘That passed away, and so may this’, and it is there in The Wanderer and the extraordinary passage beginning (in Robert Hamer’s translation):

Where is the horse now, where the hero gone?
Where is the bounteous lord, and where the benches
For feasting? Where are all the joys of hall?
Alas for the bright cup, the armoured warrior,
The glory of the prince. That time is over,
Passed into night as it had never been…
All is hardship
On earth…
Here property and friendship pass away,
Here man himself and kinsmen pass away.
And all this earthly structure comes to nought.

It is hardly surprising that Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy – represented here both in Latin and Anglo Saxon versions – was so popular. Alfred himself has been claimed as the author of the latter and around 20 per cent of all surviving manuscripts of the work pre-1100 are English.

I wrote earlier that this was the best exhibition about Anglo-Saxon England you will ever see. But I’m tempted to add that it may also be the best exhibition about nation-building you will ever see; and, for the same reason, the best exhibition about the power of literacy and the power of the book you will ever see. The English language was Alfred’s chosen cultural weapon against the erasure that the Danes represented, and he described his translations as being made word for word and sense for sense. You might say that, word by word and document by document, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms bears witness to the capacity of literacy to order a both society and a landscape, and of language – vernacular and Latin alike – to shape and sustain a people. And thereby to remember that people when time has swept them aside.

I have only mentioned a few manuscripts, but really the exhibition touches on so much: politics, poetry, history, riddles, music, medicine, wills, farming, laws, letters, land-ownership. In one sense or another, we see history everywhere being written and rewritten, made and unmade.

And yet it is all so achingly fragile. Here are what must be thousands of animal hides laboriously worked up into parchment on to which the our ancestors poured their souls in line after perfectly inscribed line, in voluptuous ornament, in sometimes rough and sometimes elegant design. I don’t know what should strike us as more remarkable, that these memorials to an entire culture should be so vulnerable they could simply be scraped from the very skins on which they are written. Or that their frailties should have endured for so long, undefeated by time, and tenderly, piercingly human in their doubts and certainties, their hopes and fears.

Read more of Mathew’s reviews here.

Image: King David composing the psalms, Vespasian Psalter, 8th century, Kent ©British Library

2 thoughts on “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War at the British Library

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  1. The exhibition sounds truly remarkable. I went to the BL’s website to check the dates; unfortunately for me it will have ended before I’m next in the UK. Thanks for this.

    1. That’s a shame! But the catalogue is really good and a lot of the exhibits have been scanned and made available digitally online, if you wanted to explore things that way!

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