“An absolute gem”: Anglo-Saxons at the British Library

From the remarkable Codex Amiatinus, which would have required the skins of 500 calves to make the vellum for its pages, to masterpieces of Old English poetry such as Beowulf – the new exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is far more than a 'once-in-a-generation' opportunity to see the treasures of the Anglo-Saxons, writes David Musgrove…

The remarkable Codex Amiatinus, a "brute of a book", and part of a new exhibition at the British Library. (c) Sam Lane Photography/British Library)

The centrepiece of the British Library’s extraordinary new exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is an absolute brute of a book. It’s 1,300 years old, as big as a seaman’s chest (it has more than one thousand parchment leaves and the spine of the book is over a foot thick), and would have required the skins of 500 calves to make the vellum for its pages. It’s the very remarkable Codex Amiatinus, one of three huge Latin bibles produced at the twin monasteries of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early eighth century. Each of the monasteries was to hold one of the bibles, and the third was destined for the pope in Rome.

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The ninth-century Alfred Jewel, adorned with the inscription: "Alfred ordered me to be made". This masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon art is thought to have been an aestel, a pointer used to follow text. (Picture by Alamy)

In the year 716 AD, the abbot Ceolfrith (who founded the Jarrow monastery) set for off the holy city, intent on delivering the third book, now known as the Codex Amiatinus, but he died en route. Some of his companions carried on to Rome, and a copy of the pope’s letter of thanks, which probably refers to this gift, is preserved in the Anonymous Life of Ceolfrith. The bible eventually found its way into the possession of the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, in Florence, and only now – more than a millennium and three hundred years later – has the great work finally returned to England. As the historian Tom Holland drolly observed on Twitter some months ago: “It’s coming home, it’s coming home, Codex Amiatinus is coming home”. And now it’s here, not back in the monastery at Jarrow, but in the equally auspicious surroundings of the British Library in London – and among many, many friends.

Anglo-Saxonists and medievalists have been getting very excited indeed at the thought of this stunning object once more being on show in the UK, along with a wealth of other manuscripts, books, and artefacts drawn from the British Library’s own collections and from a host of loan institutions. The displays cover the gamut of the Anglo-Saxon period from its origins in the fifth century right through to its closure in the late 11th century, at the hands of the incoming Normans under William the Conqueror. The British Library is billing it as a ‘once-in-a-generation’ opportunity to encounter original evidence from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, which seems like something of an understatement, given that it’s probably more like 50 generations since the Codex Amiatinus was last on these shores.

ilver penny of King Alfred

There are some enormously important documents illustrative of the cultural and historical story of the Anglo-Saxon period gathered here. Alongside the huge rock of a book that is the Codex Amiatinus, you see the much more manageably sized St Cuthbert Gospel, also made at Jarrow-Wearmouth, and only recently acquired by the British Library after a massive fundraising campaign. It is the oldest intact European book with its original binding. Four masterpieces of Old English poetry – Beowulf, the Vercelli Book, the Exeter Book and the Junius 11 Manuscript – all sit together for the first time in one display case that simply drips with cultural significance. You can also see early charters and wills and letters (including numerous superlatives – the earliest surviving English charter, the oldest original letter written in England, and the earliest surviving letter in English – they are all there), along with a wealth of illuminated and decorated manuscripts, including the St Augustine Gospels, the Echternach Gospels and the Lindisfarne Gospels.

Four absolute masterpieces of Old English poetry are featured in the exhibition, including Beowulf. (Photo © British Library Board)
Four absolute masterpieces of Old English poetry are featured in the exhibition, including Beowulf. (Photo © British Library Board)

If you’re not blessed with the palaeographical or linguistic skills to read the Old English and Latin on these documents, though, is it worth your while to make a trip to the British Library to see them? The short answer is yes. It’s an absolute gem of an exhibition, and an amazing treat to be able to gaze on such a remarkable collection of such venerable objects. All the items on display are remarkable in their own right, and the impact is in truth a little overwhelming as you are hit by a stampede of astonishing texts and manuscripts one after another.

To counter the potential risk of the overload of riches, there is superb context provided by the curators about how the display items encapsulate the changing face of Anglo-Saxon England, with the rise and fall of kingdoms, and the social and cultural developments that took place over the period (bear in mind that this is covering a great deal of ground – a lot can happen in 600 years). Video screens allow expert voices to comment on the items, including none other than BBC History Magazine’s own regular columnist Michael Wood. Interspersed among the manuscripts and books are some brilliant artefacts and archaeological objects that further add to the story, including some objects from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard, the ever-enchanting Alfred Jewel, plus a very imposing replica of the eighth-century Ruthwell Cross. There are some less famous items that are worth lingering on, too: for example, the metal mounts that share artistic similarities with the Book of Durrow (displayed adjacent to them), to remind us that art was not limited to the illuminated manuscripts.

Edward the Confessor, the penultimate Anglo-Saxon king of England, depicted here in a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

A particular highlight comes towards the end of the exhibition where the curators have managed to bring together three stunning – and connected – tomes: the Utrecht, Harley and Eadwine Psalters. These books are collections of psalms and are essentially copies of one another. They are remarkable for showing both continuity and change in the latter part of the story, notably as they transcend the big boundary point of the period, the Norman Conquest of 1066. All are beautifully illustrated and follow each other in style. The Utrecht Psalter was probably made on the continent in the early ninth century and is acknowledged as a masterpiece of Carolingian art, while the Harley Psalter was an Anglo-Saxon version of it from the early 11th century, and the Eadwine Psalter an Anglo-Norman copy made in the mid-12th century. Together, they span a goodly part of the Anglo-Saxon period, and show how successive artists borrowed from their predecessors. What’s notable is that the Eadwine Psalter includes translations of the psalms from Latin into both Anglo-Norman French and Old English, to reflect both the reality of the Norman Conquest and the stubborn resistance of the English language, despite the change at the top after 1066.

Harold Godwinson is proclaimed king of England in the Bayeux Tapestry. It may have been commissioned by a Norman but this magnificent artwork repeatedly acknowledges the English leader’s piety and courage. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images)

The Utrecht and Harley Psalters, which were housed in Canterbury at the time of the Conquest, are thought to have provided inspiration and artistic models for the Bayeux Tapestry: there are similarities in both style and substance between these psalters and the Tapestry, which famously records the events of the Norman Conquest. The Tapestry is referenced in the exhibition with a graphic wall illustration of part of its portrayal of the Battle of Hastings. It’s generally accepted by Tapestry scholars that it was made by English hands in England, despite showing the defeat of the English. It would of course have been marvellous to see the Tapestry, as this crucial final Anglo-Saxon work of embroidery, on show alongside these other great Anglo-Saxon objects of art and wordcraft, but Norman Conquest enthusiasts will find much to divert themselves here anyway. Their eyes will, for example, be drawn to the utterly jaw-dropping filigree and cast-figure binding on the Gospel of Judith of Flanders. Judith was wife from 1051 to 1065 of Earl Tostig, the brother of the ill-fated King Harold, and it was of course Tostig’s revolt that forced Harold to wear himself out fighting a battle near York (which he won, and where Tostig died) a few weeks before his own demise at Hastings. The widowed Judith ended up in exile on the continent, where she remarried Welf IV of Bavaria, and it’s possibly Germanic craftsmanship on the cover of her bible. It’s a thought to conjure with, as you gaze on the gloriously ornate binding, that this book was so close to some of the key protagonists in the events of 1066.

We may yet see the Bayeux Tapestry on show in the UK in the years to come, if the proposed loan from France comes off. That would be a second once-in-a-generation exhibition, which is another rather overwhelming thought. In my podcast interview for History Extra with Dr Claire Breay, lead curator of the exhibition (which you can listen to next week), I put a frankly churlish and ill-judged final question to her, which was along the lines of: “What one extra item would she have wanted to have secured for the exhibition to make it complete?” Claire gracefully dealt with the query, but in truth, it shouldn’t have been asked because Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is quite superb as it is. You should go to see it and let yourself be wowed and awed by the treasure trove of Anglo-Saxon art and beauty that you’ll find within.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is open at the British Library until Tue 19 Feb 2019. Find out more here.

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David Musgrove is the content director and former editor of BBC History Magazine