The Who’s Who of Anglo-Saxon England

The British Library’s new exhibition is a star-studded tour of the Anglo-Saxons at their most eloquent.

Kate Wiles | Published 22 October 2018

Detail of the Lindisfarne Gospels, f.27r (c) British Library Board.

This is billed as a once-in-a-generation exhibition, but that is selling it short. More properly, it might be called once-in-a-millennium.

Compared to some periods, surviving manuscripts from Anglo-Saxon England are few; so few that we know most of them at a glance, or by name. In Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, every case holds ‘a name’; it is like walking through a hall of fame and recognising every face.

Thanks to the recent surge in digitisation, most of the manuscripts on display can now be seen online. The internet has enabled access to rare items and those spread across the globe, which the majority of us, even those who work and research in the field, once had trouble getting to see. Digitisation allows us to flick through the pages, read every word, zoom in closer than the eye can manage and reveal details lost to dirt or damage. In the making of this exhibition, the British Library has digitised over 200 of their manuscripts and documents and, in doing so, has changed the face of Anglo-Saxon studies. Despite all this, not even the best scan can prepare you for the reality of these books. Wrinkled, dirty and brown, they are magnificent.

Some, like the Encomium Emmae Reginae, Queen Emma’s forceful piece of propaganda, are smaller than expected. The Codex Amiatinus is somehow even bigger than its reputation, despite knowing its measurements (49cm x 34cm x 18cm and 34kg; the weight of a fully-grown female great dane; the skins of 500 goats and sheep). Perhaps it is the knowledge that this is its first time back in England after 1,302 years – having being sent to Italy from Wearmouth-Jarrow in 716 and stranded there ever since – that makes it more monumental. Seeing them all in the (literal) flesh is overwhelming.

But this collection has not been brought together simply to show off its stars; rather, it showcases the breadth and depth of what the Anglo-Saxons were. We see the development of kingdoms and the concerns of kings (and queens). The early history of England is shown through the earliest surviving copy of Bede's Historia ecclesiastica and Waldhere’s letter, which documents the friction between early Essex and Wessex; in the middle, the work of King Alfred precede a room dedicated to Athelstan, the first king of England; and, at the end, the Normans throw their not inconsiderable weight around with the Domesday Book. Alongside these, there are manuscripts written by women and texts recording the manumission of slaves, as well as less prestigious texts: miraculous survivals such as the Ely farming memorandum, a scrap of parchment with notes on the everyday practicalities of running a farm (a fen can be rented for the meagre sum of 26,275 eels), as well as a doodle of a face.

None of these could have come into being, however, without the Church and the proliferation of learning it brought with it. The gospel books and psalters are some of the stars of the show. Through them, we see how connected Anglo-Saxon England was to the rest of the world. The Codex Aureus, a stunning masterpiece of gold and purple-dyed parchment, is back in England by way of Spain and Sweden. Probably made in Canterbury in the eighth century, it was looted by the Vikings in the ninth and ransomed back by Ealdorman Alfred and his wife, Wærburh, who donated it back to Canterbury and inscribed all this in English in the margins around the opening lines of the Gospel of St Matthew. The Echternach Gospels were probably made in Lindisfarne but were taken by St Willibrord in 698 to Luxembourg, where the monastery he founded produced manuscripts in the Insular (Britain and Ireland) style to convert the Continent. And there are the Utrecht and Harley psalters, the former brought from Francia, the latter an English copy – the Continent coming back to England.

Despite these connections, however, Anglo-Saxon England is unprecedented in its use of the vernacular as a written language. While the rest of Europe cleaved to Latin, England was making use of its own language: in religion, in literature and in the legal domain. Here, we see land grants, wills and letters all written in English, not just by kings and queens, but by otherwise unknown figures, such as the noblewoman, Wynflæd, through whose will we glimpse the concerns and lives of a network of women. In an unassuming charter on the wall of one of the first rooms, we have some of the earliest words written in English to have survived, written in Reculver, Kent, in 679: Tenid (Thanet) and Uuestan ae (probably, ‘place in the west of the island’, perhaps St-Nicholas-at Wade).

The Lichfield Angel (c) Lichfield Cathedral.
The Lichfield Angel (c) Lichfield Cathedral.

The rise of Old English as a language for learning, for the Church and for being used, spoken and heard comes to a head, however, with the poetic books. Brought together in one room for the first time are the Beowulf manuscript, the Vercelli Book, the Exeter Book and Junius 11 (the kinds of books that have their own names). It is a heady thing to realise that this case contains about 75 per cent of all the Old English poetry to have survived; 30,000 verses. Side by side, they each have distinct personalities. Beowulf (pleasingly open, not at the poem’s opening line, but later, on a page where Beowulf’s name is written clearly enough for anyone to read) is worn and ragged, but a survivor; Junius 11 is surprisingly delicate; while the Exeter Book is sturdy, elegant and refined (belying the subversive smut of some of the riddles it contains). There are also biblical texts translated into English, unprecedented in the Christian world at this date.

While the manuscripts are the undoubted stars of the show, they sit alongside a wealth of other objects. The Lichfield Angel, discovered in 2003, is a carved stone block, still with remarkable traces of its original paint – black, red and yellow. The Fuller Brooch is a deceptively simple silver disc, which showcases the eloquence of Anglo-Saxon art, encapsulating their view of the world, from the physical to the metaphysical. And the Alfred Jewel, tiny and delicate, shows the intersection between art, power and learning.

Despite the broad promise of Art, Word, War, however, it is clear that the pen is mightiest here. In her opening speech, Jinty Nelson suggested a fourth word, Peace, which is perhaps more appropriate. War leaves a vacuum; but it is in peace – its creation, in laws and treaties, and its perpetuation, in prosperity – that these books get written. Despite the slings and arrows, the Anglo-Saxons flourished. From this strength, they left a powerful record of themselves: prosperous, connected, learned, flawed and, ultimately, human.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is at the British Library until 19 February 2019.

Kate Wiles is Senior Editor at History Today.

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