Gifts that kept on giving and medieval alternative facts. ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Art, Word, War’ at the British Library. Exhibition review.

The exhibition at the British Library tells the complex story of the Anglo-Saxons from the early sixth century till the Norman Conquest. Art and books that survived from the period are good sources of information about the life of the Anglo-Saxons, mostly from the perspective of the rich and/or famous, such as princes, kings, nobles and the clergy.

Anglo-Saxon treasures usually held at the British Library are supplemented with beautifully illuminated manuscripts that have travelled from far and wide for this exhibition. On view are Lindisfarne Gospels, Book of Durrow, Book of Kells, Codex Amiatinus and many more. But Anglo-Saxon rich and famous liked not just their books to shine. You can feast your eyes on several pieces from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, and the Alfred Jewel is there too.

As for the written word, there are many significant Anglo-Saxon ‘firsts’. A life-size replica of Ruthwell Cross bears a rune carving of a fragment of one of the earliest and arguably the most beautiful Anglo-Saxon poems – the Dream of the Rood. The poem tells the story of the Crucifixion from the perspective of the Cross, and the text carved in runes on the monument comes from the Vercelli Book, also on display.[1,2] You can also have a look at and listen to fragments from Beowulf, the earliest surviving long epic in Old English, and see the earliest surviving letter written in English.

For me the star of the exhibition was the Codex Amiatinus which travelled from Italy back to England for the first time in 1300 years! This book really has to be seen, I imagine several people had to carry it back in the day. Absolutely worth the trip to London just to see it. Codex Amiatinus, a giant bible made in Wearmouth-Jarrow in Northumbria, was taken by Abbot Ceolfrith to the shrine of St Peter in Rome as a gift (he died on the way and the book stayed in Italy). For a long time it was thought that this book of exceptional quality was made in Italy. A forged inscription had scholars fooled till late nineteenth century. The original dedication was scraped out, the name of Ceolfrith of the Angles was replaced with Peter of Lombards. The forgery was only discovered in 1888. [3,4]

The appropriation of intellectual property happened often the Middle Ages. The gold coin of the Mercian king Offa was in fact a plagiarised (not very skilfully) dinar of Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur, but at least Offa’s contemporaries did not have a clue. Anglo-Saxon rulers liked to show off and re-gifting was also quite popular. Aethelstan, the grandson of King Alfred was a well-known collector of relics and books, which he eagerly re-gifted.

In the early medieval period there were not many ways to cross-check facts, especially when it came to foreign affairs and knowledge about distant lands. Maps and images of fantastic creatures supposedly inhabiting other parts of the world were given the air of authority by writers such as Bede, the celebrated author of the Ecclesiastical History. Anglo-Saxon Mappa Mundi (World Map) on display is a fascinating source of information about the state of medieval geographical knowledge. Whoever drew the map had a good general idea about the shape of the British Isles, but the other parts of the world are understandably much less accurate. While the facts from the medieval equivalents of foreign correspondents have to be taken with a grain of salt, hardly anything went amiss in the compilation of the Domesday Book, containing the results of a survey on an unprecedented scale commissioned by William the Conqueror, which provides a glimpse into the life of freshly conquered Anglo-Saxons.

Do not be put off by the understandably book-dense exhibition, you can easily spend between one to two hours there. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Art, word, war is a unique opportunity to see so many masterpieces from the Anglo-Saxon period under one roof.

The exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. Art, word, war runs at the British Library, London 19 October 2018 – 19 February 2019

Sources and further reading:





Featured image: Cotton MS Vespasian A I , f. 30v King David and musicians (detail),  source

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