Michael Wood on Anglo-Saxon manuscripts: “It was a time of great violence and cruelty – but beauty too”

It's the final week of the British Library's major Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (it ends on 19 February 2019). With visitor numbers exceeding forecasts and social media "humming with delight", Michael Wood reflects why the exhibition has struck such a chord…

Michael Wood on Anglo-Saxon manuscripts. (Illustration by Femke de Jong for BBC History Magazine)

I cycle to the office every day past the British Library, and recently I’ve been feeling a bit doleful seeing the huge poster for the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, with the fourth and final month drawing to a close. I was on the planning committee, and unbelievably, looking at my emails, it was well over four years ago that the curator, Claire Breay, mailed her early thoughts about the exhibition. That’s how long it takes to create a show like this. I remember the first meeting in early 2015 to think about what we might hope to see in it. Not just the stars – Beowulf, the Lindisfarne Gospels, Domesday – but texts and artefacts that illuminate social history or provide insights into women’s lives, like Wynflaed’s will: the first for a woman in our history. We talked about how to weave in other parts of the British Isles, and how pivotal Europe was to the whole story. You can imagine how hard it was to whittle hundreds of ideas down to the 180 treasures that finally made it.

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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)

The response has been terrific. Numbers of visitors have greatly exceeded all forecasts. Twitter has been humming with delight; and the reviews were great: “By far the most important exhibition you’ll see this winter,” said one. Another paper suggested the BL was underselling the exhibition to call it “once in a generation”: it was once in a lifetime. Where else could you see the greatest productions of over 500 years of our island story in one place? And it is unlikely to happen again any time soon: the Codex Amiatinus – the oldest complete Latin Bible, produced at Wearmouth in around AD 700 – hasn’t been back to these shores since it left for Italy in 716.

So, with not long to go, I went back the other day and took a moment to reflect on why it had struck such a chord. Why, in these gloomy times – overshadowed by Brexit, fraught with questions about national identity, regionally divided – should it have found such a response? After all, these wonderful manuscripts and treasures are products of a violent, unequal and superstitious era.

Maybe that in part is the appeal. There is a whiff of Game of Thrones or Vikings about it: when men were men, but women could also be leaders of kingdoms and armies. There’s nothing fantasy history likes better than charismatic women in burnished chain mail; the real Lady of the Mercians may not have been like the feisty heroine of The Last Kingdom, but she sure worked on TV.


Podcast: Claire Breay, lead curator of a major new Anglo-Saxons exhibition at the British Library, explores the cultural highlights of 600 years of English history


It was a time of violence and cruelty – a hierarchical society where most people were poor and/or unfree, with slaves comprising maybe 20 per cent of the population. And yet, in the BL show, you can see the huge effort men and women made to try to build just societies, to transmit culture and learning and to create beauty. And all of it was done in self-effacing loyalty to the past, and to a dream of Christian civilisation.

In my days as a graduate student, when we studied the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, one of our academic heroes was Arnaldo Momigliano – a great teacher of what came to be known as Late Antiquity, who made us look at history in a different way, breaking down narrow views of cultures and periods. Like Primo Levi, Momigliano came from Italy’s Piedmont region, close to Turin, where he first taught until the Fascist anti-Jewish laws drove him out in 1938. He took refuge in England, where he lectured at UCL and made his name as one of the great 20th-century historians, always believing that the study of the past gives value and meaning to our present.

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

Momigliano was especially interested in the sixth and seventh centuries, that ‘Age of Iron’ after the fall of Rome, and the people who created libraries and copied manuscripts to pass on the traditions of classical and Christian Latin civilisation. Having witnessed European civilisation descend into the Holocaust, he wrote: “We who have lived through our own Age of Iron have learned not to disdain the lesser people, those who did not disdain the task of elementary education when elementary education was what was needed.” And that, surely, is what the Codex Amiatinus stands for. The effort of civilisation. The people who built up from the bottom. And in some distant, magical way, that was us.

Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester. He has presented numerous BBC series, and his books include The Story of England

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This article was first published in the February 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine