Having specialised in Old and Middle English at university, it was with great excitement that I saw the British Library’s announcement of its major exhibition on the Anglo-Saxon period: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War. Earlier this month, I travelled down to London and spent a little time poring over some of the most beautiful material objects to have survived from the period.
The exhibition brings together manuscripts and artefacts from the fifth century to the eleventh. Boasting a number of big hitters, from the Lindisfarne Gospels to the Domesday Book, the Spong Man to the Alfred Jewel, alongside other wonders perhaps less well-known among the public, such as the enormous Codex Amiatinus, an eighth-century Northumbrian Bible that has not been back in Britain for 1300 years, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is an exhibition on an epic scale and one that numbers among the largest I have seen.
In spite of countless other priceless objects, I was mainly there to see the four major manuscripts preserving Anglo-Saxon poetry: the Beowulf manuscript, the Exeter Book, the Vercelli Book, and the Junius manuscript. Without these four manuscripts, we would have no record of works as monumental as The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and The Dream of the Rood, and our canon would be greatly impoverished without them. I have fond memories of these poems from my time as a student and have wanted to see the manuscripts containing them for many years. I had expected them to occupy a prime position in the midst of all the other items on display, but they were rather unassumingly assembled against a wall of a room in which a replica of the Ruthwell Cross took centre stage.
I have seen many photographs and illustrations of the Ruthwell Cross (which features lines from the Vercelli Book’s The Dream of the Rood carved in runes), but until I saw the replica at the exhibition, I had no accurate conception of its scale. Standing at more than five metres tall, it dominated the room in which it stood, and I was forced to linger there a while to fully take it in. It was only when I turned that I realised my four must-see manuscripts were gathered right behind me.
As a graduate student a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to see the Vercelli Book in its usual home at the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli, Italy, to handle it with my bare hands and transcribe from its pages a homily on Saint Guthlac (a favourite holy man of mine who also features in two poems in the Exeter Book and in illustrations on the Guthlac Roll, yet another item present at the British Library’s exhibition). To have seen the book again, albeit this time covered by a case, would have been delight enough, but to see it with its peers was an awe-inspiring treat. The four manuscripts are rather plain and nothing like the ostentatious pages of the specimens featured elsewhere in the exhibition. The illustrations of Adam and Eve in the Junius manuscript, for example, are very simply drawn, while the damaged leaves preserving Beowulf seem a far cry from the poem’s status as the greatest work of Anglo-Saxon literature. In these manuscripts, it seems that the text is more important than the look, and I could not help but admire the understated nature of their design and presentation. They are not the most exquisite books to be found within the British Library, but they have still managed to cement themselves as major players in the material culture of the Anglo-Saxon period.
A vast and sprawling exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms needs a good few hours to make the most of viewing all its treasures. I had only a couple of hours to spare, and there were so many items to look at in that time — many more than I can mention in this brief review — that I found the exhibition overwhelming. I generally prefer a much more focused exhibition, allowing as it does a much more leisurely experience and ample time to appreciate completely every object on display. That being said, it was a privilege to see so many important manuscripts and artefacts in a single place, and I will not forget the sight of the four major codices preserving Anglo-Saxon poetry sitting humbly side-by-side.
For more information about the exhibition, which runs until Tuesday 19th February 2019, visit the exhibition website at https://www.bl.uk/events/anglo-saxon-kingdoms.