Visiting Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War at The British Library
From the 19thof October 2018 to the 19thFebruary 2019, The British Library in London hosted an exhibition titled ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War’. It displayed a range of and manuscripts and archaeological objects dating from the end of Roman Britain to the Norman Conquest. I had the pleasure of visiting this exhibition during its final weekend and this article will discuss my personal experience of it.
As an early medievalist, an exhibition holding a wealth of material from Anglo-Saxon England was an exciting prospect. It certainly did not disappoint, I spent over three hours looking around and could have stayed several more. The gallery was organised into a number of different areas, which were often simultaneously thematic, geographical and chronological. For example, a section on ‘Origins’ contained a range of artefacts and documents from the earliest years of the Anglo-Saxon period. ‘The Golden Age of Northumbria’ represented the cultural output found in the north of England during the seventh century. Whereas ‘Science, Technology and Magic’ was more broad containing both astronomical and medical texts. These and other areas gave the exhibition structure.
Unlike some museums or exhibitions I have visited, the text accompanying the displays was minimalist. However, it was still detailed enough to frame the objects into the wider narrative of the exhibition. In many ways this approach was beneficial, as it allowed the often beautifully decorated manuscripts to do the talking themselves. The fact that the room was dimly lit for preservation, with the lights on the objects, only added to the atmosphere by giving an almost reverent-like focus on the exhibits.
The exhibition mainly consisted of manuscripts, many of which I have studied in
translation during my degree or read in my spare time. Personal highlights included a tenth-century copy of Gildas’ On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain (which itself was most likely originally composed in the sixth-century) and the earliest surviving copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, dating from the eighth century. I particularly enjoyed looking at the manuscripts relevant to my undergraduate dissertation, which is on Ostrogothic Italy. These included Latin and Old English editions of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and also a version of Cassiodorus’ Commentary on the Psalms. It was interesting to see how a period of interest to me was likewise important for the cultural activities under the House of Wessex from the ninth century onwards. Perhaps, the biggest surprise for me was how surreal and emotional I felt while visiting the exhibition. It felt strange, with many of the manuscripts almost acting like a bridge between the period I am passionate about and myself.
Aside from a large number of manuscripts, the exhibition also contained a range of archaeological objects. The most famous of these being the richly-decorated Alfred Jewel, most likely a handle for a reading pointer. The eighth-century Ruthwell Cross was also impressive, a monument standing five metres high, it is representative of the insular art tradition that developed after the departure of the Romans from Britain.
One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition was how it forced me to think about my approach to sources for the early medieval period. Many of the documents most important for early medieval scholars, such as Bede and Beowulf, were not very well decorated. Whereas religious writings, such as the Augustine and Lindisfarne Gospels, were lavishly embellished. It served a timely reminder that it is easy to focus on the sources which are most useful for the historian in the present, rather than those which may have been the most important in the past itself.
Visiting the exhibition also allowed me to appreciate more the ideological component of many of the objects. A gospel-book of Judith of Flanders, an eleventh-century patron of the arts, was one of the most beautiful items in the exhibition. Seeing manuscripts like this with my own eyes made it easier to understand how books could have acted as status items. It was particularly interesting in this instance, due to the role of its female patron. The exceptionally large Codex Amiatinus, the earliest complete Latin Bible, underlined this. If books such as these look impressive now, then one wonders about the impact they originally would have had.
Naturally with its focus on manuscripts, the exhibition also educated me about how many documents have survived for modern scholars. This was especially insightful regarding Asser’s Life of King Alfred, a biography of the titular ninth-century King of Wessex. The manuscript that survived into the modern era originally belonged to the collection of the Elizabethan antiquarian Robert Cotton. Likewise, this only survived due to a copy made by the sixteenth-century Stephen Bateman, after a fire in 1731 destroyed the manuscript owned by Cotton. Asser’s Life is a pivotal source for the reign of King Alfred and it was frightening to find out about how we might have easily lost it.
While visiting, I also had the opportunity to look around the ‘Treasures of the British Library’ exhibition. This was more temporally broad and contained some of the Library’s most important possessions. In particular, I enjoyed seeing the 1225 version of the Magna Carta and several notebooks of Leonardo Da Vinci. As this was my first time at The British Library, this gallery was a pleasant addition to my visit.
Overall, ‘Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War’ was both informative and on a personal level exciting. While the exhibition may now be closed, The British Library created a special website for it and this is still accessible. It contains a catalogue of many of the objects found in the exhibition, as well as a number of articles. I would recommend viewing this if you found the discussion of my visit interesting.
Written By Liam Greenacre