By Minjie Su
The highly anticipated Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition has turned the British Library into a treasure hoard.
While there are 180 Anglo-Saxon artefacts, including beautiful pieces such as the great golden buckle from Sutton Hoo, the Alfred Jewel, and the intricately crafted items from the Staffordshire Hoard, it is the manuscripts that steal the spotlight in this exhibition. Some are the finest that England can ever offer, such as the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of the most cherished items in the British Library; and the Domesday Book (on loan from the National Archives). Some manuscripts travelled far and wide to be displayed here: Codex Amiatinus, a gigantic sixth century bible, has returned to England for the first time in 1302 years; Codex Aureus, loaned from the National Library of Sweden, is an eighth-century Northumbrian Gospel book written alternatively on purple and uncoloured pages; the Gospels of Judith of Flanders from the Morgan Library in New York City showcase stunning book-making and binding techniques and aesthetics.
The exhibition more or less follows a chronological order, though each room has been assigned a central theme. It starts with ‘Origins’, where the early artefacts – the Spong Man, the Sutton Hoo treasure, and the Staffordshire Hoard – are inviting comparison between the metalwork and the illustration designs in the manuscripts. Then it moves onto ‘Kingdoms and Conversion’, a room mostly devoted to Northumbria, where Lindisfarne was founded. From there, the exhibition follows the political movement and transition of power to the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex, then to literature and learning which King Alfred himself was so keen on promoting. Last but not least, the exhibition ends on ‘Kingdom and Church’ – including St. Æthelwold’s monastic reform – and ‘Conquests and Landscape’, which tells the story of 1066 and centres on the Domesday Book.
In a lecture titled ‘Word Hoards: The Origin and Survival of Manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms’, Dr Alison Hudson, one of the curators behind the exhibition, revealed its threefold purpose.
Firstly, and most obviously, the exhibition was created to showcase some of the greatest examples of Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship, art, and bookmaking techniques – it is, in other words, an exhibition that is meant to wow you, or at least to show that the early Middle Ages was no ‘Dark Age’.
Second, by bringing together these treasures, it demonstrates the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms’ connection to the wider world: for instance, there is Add Ms 40165a, a codex probably brought to England by Hadrian of Canterbury from North Africa in the eighth century. Codices such as the Lindisfarne Gospels reflect Celtic influence, while other continental works reflect Saxon craftsmanship.
Third, which is probably the most interesting and eye-opening, the exhibition displays several things that ‘technically do not survive’. One such thing is a manuscript that contains a few rough notes on farming, that provide vivid descriptions of Anglo-Saxon daily life. The text itself is preserved in post-medieval printed version, but whatever is left of the manuscript was only pieced together in the twentieth century. Add Ms 9381, a beautifully illuminated book copied in Bretagne in the last quarter of the ninth century, contains the Gospels and a blank page. It was thought that it would be impossible to restore the missing writing, but with help of multispectral imaging, five Cornish records of manumission were revealed, which were apparently added in the mid-tenth century and early eleventh century. Æthelweard’s Chronicle, damaged in fire, is reconstructed by multispectral imaging, too. The St Cuthbert Gospel is known as the oldest intact European book in its original binding, but it is actually never meant to be read again: the book was originally buried with the saint in 698, and it was only rediscovered when the coffin was taken to Durham and opened in 1104 during the transition of the holy remains.
Although every manuscript has a different survival story, a pattern can still be found. Manuscripts tend to survive in clusters: the surviving ones tend to come from a handful of powerful centres, mostly from southern England, where Canterbury dominates. Therefore, knowledge is being shaped by very specific scriptoria and scribes, such as Eadwig Basan and Wulfstan of Worcester. These examples also demonstrate that power can be obtained and maintained through parchments and ink.
Nevertheless, such evidence can be misleading, and one must be cautious about to what extent one can read into this evidence. Although there are only a few centres in the north, northern influence should not be underestimated. In various sources, northern figures have appeared as very powerful. In a frontispiece in MS 183 in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, King Æthelstan is showing off a book to St Cuthbert. The manuscript was presented to the community of St Cuthbert in 934, and Æthelstan’s reign ended in 939. This suggests that the king still bestowed luxury gifts on northern groups in the later period of his reign.
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War runs until 19 February 2019. Please visit the British Library website for more details.
You can follow Minjie Su on Twitter @minjie_su
Top Image: The Lindisfarne Gospel – photo by Sandra Alvarez, The Medieval Magazine