‘The barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea drives us to the barbarians; between these two means of death we are either drowned or killed.’ So wrote the British monk Gildas in his 6th-century proto-polemic On the Ruin of Britain, recording the arrival of the hated ‘Germans’ to the island. Bad news for the Britons, but fantastic for visitors to the British Library, now running perhaps the most significant exhibition of recent times, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.
Historians dislike the term ‘Dark Ages’, but by any measurement western Europe saw a collapse in living standards, literacy, population, trade and significant cultural output from 500 ad. Yet that only makes the flame that appeared all the more striking, and the exquisite art so inspiring.
The first thing that greets you is a small figurine called ‘Spong Man’, dating to the 6th century and unearthed at a pagan burial site in Norfolk. Carved on to the lid of an urn, he looks like a middle-aged man sat down in his chair contemplating his worries. Spong Man represents a quite mysterious, distant world and the page only lights up with the arrival of Christianity from 597, which brought with it the written word and institutionalised learning. It was in far-off Northumbria where this culture burned brightest, King Oswald bringing over Irish churchmen to Christianise the kingdom, with the priory at Lindisfarne founded by St Aidan; the gorgeous Lindisfarne Gospels was one result.
Nearby Monkwearmouth-Jarrow monastery gave us Bede and his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731. Remarkably these items can now be viewed in the same room alongside the Codex Amiatinus, an absolutely gigantic bible made at Jarrow but taken to Rome as a gift in 716 by St Ceolfrith, an enormous undertaking that killed him. The oldest surviving bible in Latin, it later ended up in Florence although its origins were by now forgotten. Indeed, in the frontispiece the dedication to ‘Ceolfrith of the English’ was erased and replaced with ‘Peter of the Lombards’, and the great act of plagiarism was uncovered only in modern times. Just a metre or so away is the St Cuthbert Gospel, found in the saint’s coffin and the oldest western European book still in one piece.
This exhibition contains more words than war, but then the Anglo-Saxons, along with the Irish, had perhaps the most extensive vernacular literature of the early medieval era. And yet the metalwork is also captivating. The serpentine Sutton Hoo belt buckle and the pectoral cross from the Staffordshire Hoard must have been intensely prized once.
The Hoard dates from the 7th century, perhaps to the period of Mercia’s still-pagan king Penda, who killed Oswald in battle. Within a few decades the Midlands kingdom was ascendant, a time of growing Frankish influence as Europe’s collapsed trading routes began to open up. King Offa was a contemporary of Charlemagne, and numerous works such as the Utrecht Psalter reflect growing Frankish-Anglo-Saxon collaboration, the genesis of a long love-hate relationship. The tiny Mercian coins also show an increased awareness of the inheritance of Rome, one displaying Offa’s wife in the old imperial style. Another coin has Offa Rex and ‘There is no God but Allah’ in Arabic, which would have been as meaningless to Mercians as English T-shirts sold in the far east today with slogans like ‘Hamburger friend’.
A slightly tedious idea that has followed coverage of this exhibition is that it puts paid to those stupid Brexiteers and their notions of Anglo-Saxon exclusivity. It’s a straw man no one serious has suggested, certainly not the archaic English themselves. They called the Germans ‘the Saxons overseas’ in recognition of their kinship, and felt a strong connection to Rome, which had its own Schola Saxonum, from about 700. Indeed, so intimately did Anglo-Saxons feel part of a wider Christian world that they invented a word for it — ‘Kristintumr’, or Christendom.
The story culminates with West Saxon dominance, and that most famous of early Englishmen, Alfred the Great. As a child Alfred had been taken to Rome with his father and he became a scholar-king; even the gorgeous Alfred Jewel, found in Somerset in 1693, is now thought to be for pointing at text. After Alfred had saved Wessex from Viking conquest, England was united under his grandson Athelstan, a largely forgotten leader who was also an obsessive bibliophile. He is shown here in the oldest image of an English king, holding a book.
There is so much to see here — I haven’t even mentioned Beowulf — and the British Library’s pitch that this is a ‘once in a generation’ exhibition seems absurdly modest. The next time these great treasures are reunited we’ll all be as obscure as the Egberts and Ethelwulfs of the world, alas; but perhaps that is all just Anglo-Saxon understatement.