Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: manuscript marvels at the British Library

In one of our very first sessions in Special Collections for the Records and Evidence course we were lucky to see a replica of the Domesday Book, created 1986-1992 (Sp Coll RF 446-451).

But now for a measly £8 you can see the real thing!*

It’s on show as the not-quite-finale of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library in London. It’s pretty exciting to see it in real life – the actual Domesday Book – one of the most famous books in the world – but weirdly it’s also almost an anti-climax.

This exhibition is just so over-flowing with beautiful books and marvellous things that looking at the relatively plain and simple pages of the Domesday Book feels a little like having a glass of fresh water after a huge piece of sticky chocolate cake.

So, where to start?

Probably with my own ignorance. I knew virtually nothing about the exhibition beforehand and had only a vague idea about the Anglo-Saxons. I also had a few notions about Alfred the Great, derived mostly from watching The Last Kingdom, the TV series based on the Bernard Cornwall novels, the cast of which actually visited the exhibition in this week!

Coming to it with almost complete lack of context may have lent this exhibition greater power but I doubt it. It’s just absolutely stuffed with stunning artefacts, largely but not solely manuscripts, that enable you to enter the story of the Anglo-Saxons.

That’s the story from them arriving in the island of Britain (5th century), to establishing the successive kingdoms of Mercia, Northumbria and Wessex, to creating a culturally rich and politically powerful kingdom of England in the 10th century, stretching from the south of Scotland to the south coast of England and the borders of Wales.

These stages of development are marked by not only the books but also metalwork including jewellery, coins, statuary and other artefacts such as a wonderful cremation urn with a serenely contemplative figure on top called Spong Man, on loan from Norwich Museums Service.

It’s fascinating to see the manuscripts in context with the artefacts, because you can then start to see the books in the context of a cultural world view. You see similar patterns and designs appearing across them all but you can also see the variations as styles develop and change or even as items are produced for different audiences.

It’s also amazing to get an idea of the variety of texts that were produced; the vast majority are religious – bibles, psalters, gospels and prayer books – but there are also letters, charters, books of riddles and a dictionary. There’s a will written for Wynflæd, a 10th-century English noblewoman, herbariums and ‘natural science’ books, calendars, music notation, and poetry.

It seems trite to mention highlights because everything is a marvel but it was really extraordinary to see some things.

How about a gawp at the only copy of Beowulf? It’s almost tucked away in a corner, but on display for the first time with the other three principal manuscripts of Old English poetry – the Vercelli Book, the Exeter Book and the Junius Manuscript. And, oh look, there’s Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731 AD) right there at the start.

Woden peers at us from a page in a 12th century history book. Serpents and birds twine in the Lindisfarne Gospels and a lion leaps from the page of the Echternach Gospels, also produced in Lindisfarne.

Lion in the Echternach Gospels. Available on Wikipedia. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

When I suddenly saw the Codex Amiatinus, I let out a wee yelp because it’s a book for which the phrase ‘massive tome’ was surely invented! More than a foot deep, it is open to an introductory image showing a man writing a book, while other volumes can be seen on shelves in an open cupboard behind him. What also struck me about it is that the figure almost looks Roman, wearing a toga-like garment. It is the earliest surviving complete Bible in Latin and was created in the Wearmouth-Jarrow monastery in Northumbria in the 8th century and sent to the Pope in Italy where it has remained for 1300 years, now at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence.

It was fascinating to me that so many of the illustrations show people reading or presenting books to others, such as King Æthelstan, the first King of England, in the Coronation Gospels, handing over a volume to a monastery.

The monarchs of the period, from Alfred the Great who ordered texts to be translated from Latin to Old English so the knowledge would not be lost, to King Æthelstan, who was known as a generous giver of books, obviously valued the manuscripts both as conveyors of information and as beautiful items.

There are also other ways of seeing some of the items.

Next to the giant bible is a very small closed book; the St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book with its original binding. You can see a CAT scan of this little book. As the scan ‘travels’ though the solid pages, tiny bright flashes of light mark the letters written in red lead paint. It’s mesmerising!

I also loved the folios from a Coelfrith bible, sister to the Amiatinus, which had once been used to wrap up legal documents by a Nottinghamshire family. “Copies of deeds and other writings relating to lands in Middleton” it says in brown 17th century handwriting upside-down across the bottom of the parchment.

There’s so much to see that the two hours I had were not enough and I had to rush through the last few rooms, no doubt missing some gems along the way.

But lots of people who are a lot more knowledgeable than me have written about the exhibition, helping to explain more about what the manuscripts mean, in content, in form and in history.

Here are a few things worth reading:

You can see on-going reactions on Twitter at #BLAngloSaxons

*student price

This blog was first published on IMPs in the Archive.

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