The five centuries between the end of Roman rule and the Norman Conquest were, for a long time, seen as a culturally desolate era in British history. Whereas classical civilisation was associated with political unity, a sophisticated economy and rich culture, Anglo-Saxon England evoked images of warring kingdoms, frequent invasions, blood feuds and illiteracy. In the 20th century, historians overturned many of these assumptions, demonstrating that Anglo-Saxon England was intellectually, artistically and economically productive with strong ties to the European mainland. In popular opinion, however, the Anglo-Saxon period is still sometimes thought of as the Dark Ages.
An exhibition at the British Library aims to dispel any lingering prejudice about Anglo-Saxon England, presenting it as an outward-looking, cosmopolitan country, enriched by the spread of Christianity. “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War” is what the curators describe as a once-in-a-generation chance to view a collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and artefacts side by side. Among the highlights are the manuscript of Beowulf and some fascinating scientific works. An early medical text includes remedies for elves, night goblins and devils, but also directions for plastic surgery for a cleft palate. A recent experiment found an Anglo-Saxon recipe for an eye salve to be effective in fighting a strain of the superbug, MRSA. There are several important archaeological finds on display, including the Lichfield Angel, a painted stone carving of what is probably the Angel Gabriel, found just 15 years ago during excavations at Lichfield cathedral in the Midlands. Coins with Arabic script, unearthed in England, show the extent of Anglo-Saxon trade. Taken together, these exhibits point to a society far more enlightened than its detractors would have us think.
Appropriately, the exhibition ends with the Domesday Book, the great survey of English and Welsh land and landholding that was commissioned by William the Conqueror and completed in 1086, 20 years after the Norman Conquest. The Domesday Book reveals pre-Conquest England to have had a highly developed economy and a well-run bureaucracy – which is why it was such an attractive proposition for the Normans.
Pectoral cross from the Staffordshire Hoard (7th century)
By the early seventh century, missionaries from Rome had begun to convert Anglo-Saxon kings to Christianity. This gold pendant cross inlaid with a garnet was found in 2009, part of the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest single discovery of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork to date. The treasure was buried in the kingdom of Mercia some time before 675 and is mainly comprised of military regalia, which shows the wealth and power of the region’s kings. The cross, one of a few religious symbols found within the hoard, was probably worn suspended by a cord or chain around the necks of senior clergy or rich lay-people.
The Codex Amiatinus (c.700)
The spread of Christianity encouraged the spread of Latin literacy. Northumbria, with its links to Ireland and Rome, was a hub for gospel publishing. It was there, at the Benedictine monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, that the “Codex Amiatinus”, the world’s oldest complete Bible written in Latin, was produced around 700AD. Abbot Ceolfrith had commissioned it as a gift for Pope Gregory II but died en route to Rome, leaving his fellow monks to deliver the text. Some time later Ceolfrith’s name was erased from the manuscript and replaced with that of another local abbot. It was not until the 19th century that its true origins were discovered. The “Codex Amiatinus” now resides in Florence – this is first time it has returned to England since it left, 1,302 years ago.
The Alfred Jewel (871–899)
Alfred the Great is one of England’s most famous monarchs, known as much for his military prowess as his commitment to educating his people. In 880 he neutralised the Vikings, who had been attacking the British isles for more than a century, by signing a peace treaty with them. This allowed him to focus on domestic affairs, like reorganising the taxation system, improving his kingdom’s legal code and promoting English as a written language . Alfred was worried that his subjects were missing out on important works of literature because they didn’t understand Latin – the language that all books were written in. He founded a school, in which children studied English as well as Latin, and sponsored a programme in which key religious and philosophical texts were translated into English. Before long, English had replaced Latin as the language of scholars and literacy rates across the kingdom improved.
This tear-shaped rock crystal, inlaid with enamel and encased in glimmering gold, is a fitting testament to Alfred’s love of literature and learning. It is inscribed with the words AELFRED MEC HEHT GEWYRCAN – or, in modern English, “Alfred ordered me to be made”. Historians believe it formed the bulbous end of an aestel, a device used to follow along with a text while reading. The dragon-shaped head has a hole for its “mouth”, into which an narrow ivory stick would have been placed to point with.
“Beowulf”, from the Nowell Codex (c.1000AD)
“Beowulf” – arguably the most important poem written in Old English – is set in Scandinavia among the Geats, a Germanic tribe that once inhabited Götaland, in modern-day Sweden. It details the exploits of its eponymous hero and his violent conflicts with a monster called Grendel. After defeating both Grendel and Grendel’s mother, Beowulf returns home to Geatland to be crowned king. He rules confidently for 50 years, until he dies fighting a dragon. We do not know who wrote “Beowulf” or when exactly the legend originated, but it was probably at some point between 700 and 1000AD.
This page comes from the Nowell Codex. More than 1,000 years old, it is one of the four major surviving Anglo-Saxon poetic manuscripts. Even if your knowledge of Old English is scant, the large, illuminated letters BEO, which stand out from the sharper, more runic surrounding characters, imply that Beowulf is guiding the action in this particular section of the epic.
“Marvels from the East” (c.1000AD)
The world beyond Anglo-Saxon England was a source of great curiosity to contemporary scholars. The “Marvels from the East”, an illuminated manuscript, which illustrates a variety of mythical creatures from far-flung shores, is part-travel guide, part-anthropological textbook. This particular page features a wolf-like creature and an androgynous, human-like figure whose face is uncannily imprinted onto its chest. Although these illustrations are clearly fantastical, they demonstrate that Anglo-Saxons craved knowledge about the rest of the world.
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War British Library until February 19th 2019