Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library
Arendse Lund visits an outstanding, once-in-a-generation collection of Anglo-Saxon art and literature
On the night of 23 October 1731, the most important collection of medieval manuscripts ever assembled went up in flames. Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631) had spent a lifetime accumulating medieval manuscripts and these works included the Lindisfarne Gospels, Beowulf, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and two Magna Cartas, just to name a few. After his death, the collection eventually entered the holdings of the British Museum where they were stored in the entirely aptly named Ashburnham House. That fateful night, a raging fire blazed its way through the library. While some manuscripts were saved—thanks to the quick-thinking of the Deputy Librarian amongst others—we may never know the extent of the collection lost.
Of the 180 treasures on display at the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War exhibition, approximately a quarter are survivors of that ill-fated Cotton fire. They bear their battle-wounds graciously. The epic of Beowulf sustained fire damage around the edges and began to disintegrate before the manuscript was inlaid and rebound; now it’s on proudly on display as the only known copy of this text. The Otho-Corpus Gospels are similarly damaged and repaired. The manuscript is open to a lion in red leaping across the page, the decoration of its fur making it seem as if the creature too is on fire. These manuscripts alone form an incredible collection and yet are just a small portion of the works on display.
The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is a star-studded tour de force. From the Alfred jewel to the Lindisfarne Gospels, it’s a nonstop whirlwind of early medieval celebrity sightings. The Beowulf manuscript is displayed alongside the Junius Manuscript, the Exeter Book, and the Vercelli Book. Particularly astonishing is that these four manuscripts contain almost all the surviving Old English poetry and yet fit in one glass display case. It’s therefore impossible to overlook even the smallest of works exhibited as each piece is celebrated for something significant.
Various single-leaf charters are displayed on the walls, each with an outsized impact on English history. Ready yourself to see the earliest surviving English charter, the oldest original letter written in England, and the earliest surviving letter in English. Then steel yourself for the Codex Amiatinus, a giant Northumbrian Bible taken to Italy in 716, which astonishes with its sheer physical magnitude. (It consists of 500 sheep and goat skins, weighs 75lbs, and needs a cart to move it around.)
The exhibition covers everything from literacy to technology to music-making. Exhibited in the section on science are images of the constellations, a treatise on the orbit of the planets, and a map of the Anglo-Saxon world; the curators are conscientious to dispel such assumptions that medieval people thought the world was flat. Nearby, Bald’s Leechbook, a collection of medical remedies, includes a poultice for an infected eye—a remedy that’s recently found to be effective against the superbug MRSA.
All the works on display are so famous, and the exhibition so popular, it can be overwhelming at times. (Booking ahead is a must!) While you’ll find yourself queuing early on to see Æthelberht’s Code, the first known English law, visitors spread out later in the exhibition and by the time you’re concluding with the Domesday Book, you might find yourself lucky enough to have the manuscript to yourself for a few minutes.
The British Library is right to bill this as a “once-in-a-generation exhibition.” It’s taken the Codex Amiatinus 1300 years to return to England. It’s unlikely to return in such esteemed company during our lifetimes.
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is at the British Library, London until 19 February, 2019. For more information, visit bl.uk.