By Freya Thomas, First Year English Literature.
Heralded as a ‘once in a generation opportunity’, the British Library’s latest exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War brings together an incredible collection of manuscripts and artefacts covering a span of six-hundred years – from the fall of the Roman Empire in AD 410 to the Norman Conquest in October 1066.
The exhibition, curated by Dr Clare Breay and running until the 19th of February, works through time to tell the story of the Anglo-Saxons. This is inclusive of their art, literature, wars and rulers – through the culmination of 180 prized artefacts. Some of these artefacts hold relevance to Durham itself: the Durham Cassiodorus, for example, is on loan from Durham Cathedral Library, an intricate illuminated manuscript from the 8th century, containing an explanation of the Psalms from Roman scholar Cassiodorus. This is exhibited alongside the St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book with its original binding, made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century.
The items on display show an astonishing expanse and richness of Anglo-Saxon history, with literary treasures including: the Beowulf manuscript, the only surviving book of the longest epic poem in the Old-English language; the Vercelli book, an incredible collection of 10th century prose and verse on loan from Italy; and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, ‘the chief source of information about English history from the arrival of St Augustine in Kent in 597 until 731’[. These sit alongside other equally priceless treasures: the Domesday Book, an early 11th century survey of land which forms Britain’s earliest public record; items from the Staffordshire hoard, a collection of 3,500 Anglo-Saxon metalworks, the greatest hoard found to date; and the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Bible in Latin.
The codex Amiatinus was made at the monastery at Jarrow in the North-East of England in the early 8th century and was then taken to Italy: this is the first time it has been available to view in England for more than 1,300 years. It’s size is what first took me by surprise as I had only previously heard about this treasure, with the effect of adding to the awe I felt at being in front of such a significant item in English history. At 18cm thick and 49cm high, the book weighs 34kg. Such a multitude of artefacts work together to weave a magnificent tapestry of Anglo-Saxon life and history: a kingdom rich in European influence, and from which English Literature and the English Language itself first emerged.
One of the things that struck me the most as I worked my way through the exhibition was the reminder of England’s deep-rooted ties to Europe; how the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms were a product of Germanic invaders from the Scandinavian nations, who had taken over from the Italian invaders of the Roman Conquest, and whose rule ended with Franco-Norman invasion and defeat. These reminders are particularly poignant against the backdrop of current negotiations to leave Europe, and contemplations of what ‘Englishness’ and Britishness really mean. We are a nation formed by our history, and a huge part of that – including much of our language – is shaped by our European influences and ancestry.
The exhibition follows a winding route that guides you past countless glass displays, each with a detailed description of the objects enclosed and their role in Anglo-Saxon society. Rooms progress through blocks of time, as changes in rulers, kingdoms and culture take place.
To capture such a clear overarching view of the historical changes of a six-hundred-year expanse, and the intertwining and multi-layered European influence upon British History, yet simultaneously to capture such intricate details – minute wax writing tablets, myriad ecclesiastical writings, ancient legislative records of eel trading from the Ely fens – is what makes this exhibition so remarkable, and so worth visiting.