Illuminating a thousand years ago

By | Category: Headline

An Anglo-Saxon map of the UK

It is a shame that the British Library’s exhibition called Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War  has just a week before it closes. It is even sadder for all those who haven’t seen it that it is sold out for the remainder of its opening.

This, then, is a plea for an extension or for it to go on the road to other museums and galleries around our country.

Why?Because this has been a blockbuster exhibition. Every time I have been to the BL there have been queues outside in the square leading to the main entrance. Now whilst that isn’t unusual when the library opens but it is at other times of the day. That interest has been caused by this exhibition.

It is very unlikely that some of the items on display will be seen in the UK again for decades if not hundreds of years unless an extension can be negotiated with the lenders. .

Take one of the largest books that you will ever see, the Codex Amiatinus, one of three huge single-volume Bibles made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early eighth century and taken to Italy as a gift for the Pope in 716. Since then it has never returned to the British Isles so unless you are planning on living for another couple of hundred years if not a thousand years then you are unlikely ever to have the chance of seeing it again.

When you think that monks might take weeks doing just one page you can understand the amount of effort and time that must have gone into it.

You might think that versions of the old English poem/story of Beowulf would all be in the UK. Three of the four versions are but one, known as the Vercelli Book, is on loan from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli in Italy. Why is it there? How did it get there The other three are from the British Library itself, from Exeter Cathedral Library (known as the Exeter Book) and the Junius Manuscript from the Bodleian Library. You can see all four together something that may never been seen in one place again.

If this sounds dry and dusty to some people then look at the Staffordshire Hoard, found in 2009, including the pectoral cross and the inscribed gilded strip, on loan from Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

When I was at school the Dark Ages was the name given to the period between when the Romans left and when William the Conqueror arrived in 1066. Even about one of our greatest kings, Alfred the Great, we knew little. Archaeology and the work of aerial photography using planes and drones and finally, metal detectorists have substantially altered how we view those dark years.

Finds like the Staffordshire Hoard should put a lie to them ever being called “dark” again. For those who haven’t been to the Birmingham Art Gallery and Museum or the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent then this is your opportunity to see some of the gold and intricate design work that those “dark Age” crafts people produced.

Frankly it was some of the lesser known exhibits that appealed to me.

Bishop Aethelwold’s Book of Blessings is probably not your average bedtime reading but it contains some wonderful illustrations and In Praise of the Holy Cross by Hrabanus Maurus embeds 28 poems in a grid sequence whilst a large cross carries a palindrome around it.

There is only one world map surviving from Anglo-Saxon times. That it includes India and the Mediterranean suggests that England at that time knew more about the rest of the known world than we might have thought and further that it had some clue as to the coastlines. Look at the section that includes Great Britain and Ireland and you can see recognisable shapes. In that “Dark Age” someone knew the elements of cartography.

Wynflaed is unknown to the overwhelming majority of us. (me included until I went to the exhibition) Her significance is that she left a will and that will is the earliest surviving Anglo-Saxon one. In addition to leaving lands, livestock, a hall tapestry, her best holy-veil and nun’s vestments she also decreed that all her slaves be freed. We forget that slavery existed as a normal occurrence for hundreds and hundreds of years and many of our ancestors might well have been slaves once.

You’ll also see the oldest surviving letter in the English language which was written about 920 almost 1,100 years ago. In fact there is so much that records our past that The Dark Ages, as my old tutors used to call them, are not dark any more. And exhibition like this have shone a lot of light on a time which was much more sophisticated than many think.


the Codex Amiatinus, one of three huge single-volume Bibles made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow
Bishop Aethelwold’s Book of Blessings
Wynflaed’s will which frees some of her slaves
Tags: , , ,