It's one of the finest exhibits at the British Library. Aimed at both specialists and non-specialists, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms – curated by Clare Breay alongside Jo Story and Alison Hudson – takes viewers on a familiar historical journey that includes memorable kings like Alfred and Edgar, and features locations with recognisable names. Alongside all this, the exhibition presents the period's manuscript and book culture to provide a narrative that explores the extensive networks of influence at home and abroad that gave rise – and fall – to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms.

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)

To explore the historical, literary, art historical, and cross-cultural contexts that gave rise to these Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, the exhibition organisers arranged a two-day conference – Manuscripts in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms – in mid-December, followed by a one-day Early Career Researchers symposium, to highlight the current scholarship on some of the manuscripts present in the exhibit.

Here’s some of what we learned…

The Codex Amiatinus was written on predominantly parchment made from goats, not calves

For decades, scholars believed that the 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 – was written on calf skin, hence why the parchment is so fine in certain places in the book.

Jiří Vnouček of the University of York revealed, however, that the book is predominantly written on parchment made from goats. The parchment is thin in certain places because the skin was peeled into two pieces to be more efficient (there are more than 500 sheets of parchment in the Codex Amiatinus).

Modern technology can help to recreate burned or damaged manuscripts

This innovation is thanks to Christina Duffy, an imaging scientist at the British Library, and her multi-spectral images [an imaging technique that produces images in different spectral ranges. It can reveal can reveal information in a document that cannot be seen by the human eye].

As a result, Jon Wilcox (University of Iowa) and Alison Hudson of the British Library (among others) were able to read previously illegible manuscripts. Wilcox was able to analyse one of Wulfstan's lost sermons from the early 11th century, which were on sheets that were recycled as binding fragments and were later dyed blue by a reagent in an attempt to enhance the faded text. Hudson presented the now charred Æthelweard's Chronicle, which was imaged along with other burned Anglo-Saxon manuscripts – some of which had not been read since 1731.

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We heard what chants with two-part singing technique might have sounded like at 10th-century Winchester

Susan Rankin, a professor of medieval music at the University of Cambridge, introduced us to a 10th-century manuscript that provides evidence of how monks at Winchester learned to sing in two parts. She also talked about the earliest techniques for singing in two parts, and showed how it was done at Winchester with assistance from two of her doctoral students, Chloe and Adam, who performed this polyphonic chant.

Anglo-Saxon England was extremely well-connected with the continent

Lawrence Nees, a professor of medieval art at the University of Delaware, demonstrated how scribes with different backgrounds and styles – Insular and Continental – came together as teams to produce some unwieldy codices, and left marks of their individual training on the composite tomes, particularly through similar illuminations.

Becky Lawton of the University of Leicester discussed the papal letters that were received in early Anglo-Saxon England. These letters would have been written on papyrus and would have needed to be read aloud by the messenger, because the script was difficult to read and not everyone was literate. Very few survive, perhaps because papyrus does not fare well in damp, cold climates.

Anglo-Saxon manuscripts moved – both at home and abroad

Francesca Tinti (University of the Basque Country) demonstrated the connection between travelling ecclesiastics and literacy, as well as the production of medieval books on the road. A canon prescribes that priests travelling to their annual diocesan synod [church council] needed to bring their liturgical vestments and books. The priests needed to also bring ink (blaec) and parchment (bocfel, literally meaning bookskin) so as to be able to write down the ordinances emanating from the synod itself. They would probably refer to the resulting written parchment also as a boc (or book).

Jo Story, a professor of early medieval history at the University of Leicester, illuminated how close the continent really was – tidal charts suggest that it was easier to get to Quentovic (in modern day France) than Lundenwic (Anglo-Saxon London) from Canterbury. Books could move easily between Anglo-Saxon England and Europe, and approximately 80 per cent of surviving manuscripts in Insular script made before c850 are found in repositories outside Britain and Ireland (about 45 per cent survive in Germany alone).

Objects from Anglo-Saxon England are indicative of far-reaching trade

Louise Garner of Durham University revealed findings from Team Pigment (based at Durham and Northumbria Universities) that suggest some Canterbury-made manuscripts used lapus lazuli, which indicates there was trade between Anglo-Saxon England and what is now Afghanistan. Other pigments were easier to obtain, including the incredibly toxic orpiment (yellow), and others were more local, such as indigo or verdigris.

Alfred The Great

Old English was far more prolific and survived for much longer than we might think

Helen Gittos of the University of Oxford explicated how some liturgical rituals – like the trial by ordeal, confession, and marriage – would have involved the use of the vernacular, Old English, rather than only Latin.

Stanford University’s Elaine Treharne described how Old English writing did not die with the Norman Conquest. Instead, English continued to be produced throughout the 12th century, as indicated by the Letter of Eadwine of New Minster to Ælfsige, Bishop of Winchester – an English visionary text probably adapted in the 12th century from earlier stories, and surviving in two versions.

Beowulf. (Photo by British Library Board)
Beowulf. (Photo by British Library Board)

Anglo-Saxon England and its literature were connected to the classical past

Andy Orchard of the University of Oxford demonstrated that the Beowulf poet employs sophisticated patterns of unique compounds throughout the poem to create a highly developed and complex poetical structure that strongly suggests literary-formulaic rather than oral-formulaic production. He also showed how Anglo-Latin poets, notably Alcuin and Bede, employed very similar techniques and themes, so highlighting the value of comparing the twin traditions together.

Robert Gallagher of the University of Oxford established that, in addition to being connected with the classical past, later Anglo-Saxon England was also creating new Latin poetry. During the reign of King Aethelstan (924–939) we specifically see the composition of Latin poetry at the cosmopolitan royal court, most of which praised the king.

The medieval people who owned books interacted with them in various different ways

Teresa Webber of the University of Cambridge explained how books could be experienced visually as symbolic objects and aurally when their contents were read aloud. In religious communities, in addition to the Gospel and Epistle readings intoned by the deacon and subdeacon at Mass, lectors [readers] intoned readings each day from the Bible, the commentaries and homilies of the Church Fathers, and saints' lives in the office of Matins and during mealtimes in the refectory. Instruction in this 'public reading' formed part of the grammar teaching received by children being brought up as monks and clerics, who would participate as lectors from a young age.

Christine Voth of the University of Göttingen presented on a 10th-century medical manuscript to which medical professionals continuously added new remedies. These remedies use vocabulary that is consistent in translation of medical terms from Latin, which indicates that this was highly specialised knowledge.

Edmund II - better known as Edmund Ironside - shown in a 14th-century manuscript. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons)

Scribes in Anglo-Saxon England could – and did – change their script, which was indicative of wider cultural shifts

Richard Gameson of the University of Durham demonstrated how monks at Wearmouth-Jarrow changed between uncial, a continental script made up of capitals, and insular minuscule, a regional script consisting of upper and lowercase letters – even in the same manuscript. This change was structured and intended to distinguish between biblical text (uncial) and biblical commentary (Insular minuscule). Additionally, the change in script demonstrates an openness to meld continental and insular features.

Julia Crick of Kings College London explained how points of continuity with the scribal past existed in 11th-century England, even after the Norman Conquest. We tend to think of the Norman Conquest as decimating all facets of English culture, but Crick showed how Norman and English scribes worked side by side and learned various scribal elements from each other.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms runs at the British Library until 19 February 2019.


Dr Colleen Curran works for the Consolidated Library of Anglo-Saxon Poetry at the University of Oxford. You can find her on Twitter @cmcurran21.