Making connections in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms: British Library exhibition review

As I posted a couple of months ago, the British Library’s exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is now open, and will be until February.  The Library has the world’s largest collection of manuscripts from pre-Conquest England, but these are paired with high-prestige manuscripts loaned by other institutions, and with other objects such as jewellery, a sword, and a horn, in order to illustrate all the better the culture of the period.  Although my job was not directly linked to the exhibition, I was very lucky to have been working at the Library’s Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern manuscripts section at the same time (you can check out what I actually did do here) as such a major exhibition dedicated to my subject reached completion.  So, needless to say, when I tell you that it is absolutely excellent, I am a little bit biased!  Except that it is in fact really, really excellent.

A journey through time and space

The exhibition is laid out as a journey through time, but also one through kingdoms, as it traces the balance of political, cultural and religious power shifting from the north of England, to the midlands, and then to the south. First of all, however, the lives of the earliest Anglo-Saxons are illustrated mostly through objects, such as Spong Man, a rare three-dimensional sculpture which was once part of the lid to a sixth-century cremation urn; a selection of items from the Staffordshire Hoard (you can read here about my visit to the hoard exhibition); and the belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo burial mound.  I’m sure I must have seen it on display in the British Museum before, but I was blown away by how golden and shiny it is.

BM 1939.1010.1 Sutton Hoo buckle
Great gold buckle, Sutton Hoo ship burial. British Museum, 1939.1010.1

The kingdom of Northumbria was the first to have a golden age of manuscripts.  In this part of the exhibition, we see some of the most famous Anglo-Saxon creations of all: the Lindisfarne Gospels, and the tiny St Cuthbert’s Gospels (small enough to fit in your hand, and, unusually, still in its original medieval binding).  But perhaps the most impressive of all is the Codex Amiatinus, an enormous, 30kg pandect – that is, a complete Bible copied at a time when such a thing was rare – one of three created together in Northumbria.  This one was given to the Pope as a gift and has remained there ever since, visiting the UK for the first time in 1300 years.  The other two were less lucky: one has been lost altogether, and only a few leaves remain of the other, but these sit side by side with the surviving manuscript in the exhibition.  Even though I was expecting it to be large, I must admit that when I first saw Amiatinus, I blurted out, ‘Oh my God, it’s MASSIVE!’  No manuscript will every look big to me again.  No less impressive, in their own way, are the purple and golden leaves of the Codex Aureus, once captured by Vikings and then bought back by an Anglo-Saxon couple called Alfred and Werburg.

From there, the exhibition turns to the ascendancy of the kings of Mercia, exemplified not just through manuscripts (such as the early prayerbooks known as the Book of Cerne and Book of Nunnaminster), but also through a rare and prized stone carving of an angel, loaned by Lichfield Cathedral.  The Wessex kings Alfred and his grandson, Athelstan, were the ones who ended up creating what is now known as England: the part of the exhibition which deals with this era explores the learned culture of the late Anglo-Saxon period, including medicine, astronomy, poetry and art.

Finally, the exhibition takes us through the days of the last Anglo-Saxon kings, including the Norseman Cnut, into the Norman Conquest, illustrated not just by the famous Domesday Book, but also through lesser-known manuscripts which hold related documents.  In some respects, a new era was beginning with King William, but it would be a mistake to assume that there were no continuities, no connections across the Anglo-Saxon period and across the conquest into the high Middle Ages.  These are beautifully illustrated, at the very end of the exhibition, by three illustrated books of the psalms, arranged side by side: the Utrecht Psalter, Harley Psalter, and Eadwine Psalter.  Though copied in different eras (the ninth, eleventh, and twelfth centuries), these were created to the same plan, by copyists working from the same design: each page of the psalms is accompanied by a line drawing of the scene described in the text, which can be seen in all three psalters: compare, for example, these three depictions of Psalm 51.


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Making connections

Indeed, as I look through the exhibition as a specialist in the manuscripts of the period, one of the things that stands out to me is the care that has been taken to coordinate manuscripts related by theme, genre and origin.  St Cuthbert’s tiny gospel book may seem to have little in common with the enormous Codex Amiatinus, but they were produced in the same place in the same era, and have been placed close by one another accordingly.  Nearly all surviving Old English poems can be found in just four manuscripts, each now held at separate institutions, but these have now been brought together for the first time and placed in a single case, beneath the shadow of a replica of the Ruthwell Cross.  The Vercelli Book is open to the poem of The Dream of the Rood, a version of which is inscribed upon the cross.  (I visited the real cross at Ruthwell church, near Dumfries in southwestern Scotland, in 2014: you can read about my visit here.)  Many of the manuscripts close to my research interests have also been thoughtfully arranged together: just as the early Saxon prayerbooks known as Cerne and Nunnaminster sit side by side, so also do three medical manuscripts, the Leechbook, Harley MS 585, and Cotton MS Vitellius C III, about which I have frequently written in this blog.


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Connections across continents

Another important aspect of the exhibition is the drawing of connections with different parts of Europe and the rest of the known world.  The reason why the Codex Amiatinus came to Rome is well known; as for the Vercelli Book, it’s not certain how it came to be in northern Italy, but it is generally believed to have been taken by pilgrims on their way to the Holy City and, for whatever reason, left or given away en route.

Add MS 40165 A, one of the oldest items in the exhibition, is a fragment from a collection of the letters of St Cyprian made in North Africa in the fourth century, and which may have come to England with Hadrian, abbot of St Peter’s and St Paul’s monastery in Canterbury.  Like the manuscript and indeed like St Cyprian himself, Hadrian came from northern Africa.  Although the fragment is written on parchment, it is striking for its resemblance to the scrolls which would once have been used for copying such works: the text is written in narrow columns, a format which makes more sense for a scroll which can only be opened a little at a time, as opposed to a book in a modern codex format.

add_ms_40165_a_f005r Cyprian letters
London, British Library Add MS 40165 A, f. 5r

Another notable aspect of the Cyprian text is the use of scripta continua, in which no spaces were left between the words.  These handy little word-separators, as discussed in an earlier blogpost, appear to have first been used in Ireland and Britain.  The common culture seen in Irish and English manuscript art, which can be seen best of all in the section dealing with early Northumbria, is illustrated in the exhibition through the seventh-century Book of Durrow, on loan from Trinity College Dublin, and high-status English books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels.

This exhibition shows the interconnectedness of Europe through the journeys of manuscripts from place to place; not only in the Middle Ages, but also, appropriately, through the great number of institutions from across the continent which lent manuscripts and other items to the British Library.  They will all be together until the 19th of February: if you have the chance, do go and pay them a visit.

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