The museum I work for is very keen on Anglo-Saxons (they’re one of the few things our borough is known for. Well, that, and Korean food), so even though Saxon Britain is not one of my favourite periods of history, I’ve been looking for opportunities to learn more about it. (And I am VERY partial to our wax figure of Athelstan, who I’ve started dressing up for various holidays, though that has more to do with the fact that he’s a wax figure than any specific traits of the real King Athelstan, who seems to have been fairly pious and boring.) So it was with some interest that I headed to the British Library’s latest exhibition: “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War” which runs until 19th February 2019.
Admission is £16 (half off available with Art Pass) and I saw there were plenty of spaces available online, so I didn’t bother to book in advance. Like all exhibitions at the BL, we could not take photos, so I’m relying on photos of some of the objects there that Marcus kindly found online for me. It was a similar layout to most of the BL’s exhibitions, which meant a crowd built up in the initial, narrow part of the exhibition, than dissipated as the galleries widened (you’d think they would have sorted that out by now, but no); but it was much less atmospheric than most of the exhibitions I’ve seen here, as the only real theme seemed to be “dark.” This was unfortunate, because like at everything I’ve been to at the BL except Harry Potter, 80% of the visitors were extremely elderly people. Now, I’ve got absolutely nothing against older people (I certainly like them more than young people most of the time), but most of the ones that patronise the BL clearly cannot see a damn thing when the gallery is dark, and I really wish the BL would realise this.
I understand that the galleries have to have low lighting in order to preserve these very rare objects, but maybe they could consider providing some kind of miniature, non-damaging (LED?) torches for those visitors who need them so they wouldn’t have to bend completely over the cases to see them, making it so that no one else can look at the objects (also, I think it’s kind of rude to block a case with your body when other people are clearly trying to look at it, but that’s another story). This happens every single time I come here, and it’s really starting to get to me.
Anyway, annoyances aside – I should talk about what was on display! The galleries were arranged roughly chronologically, though because so many of the manuscripts that survive today were the result of monks copying even earlier manuscripts, most of the texts here could be grouped into one of a few different themes that repeated throughout the galleries (mainly religious ones. There were about four nearly identical drawings of St. Chad, which is fine because they amused me, but c’mon, maybe vary the saints a little bit? I know there had to be more saints than that, even back then, like St. Guthlac from Lincolnshire, for example, as seen near the bottom of this post). The exhibition started with Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica, which is the source of much of our knowledge about the Anglo-Saxons (I believe Bede’s original manuscript no longer exists, but the BL has a copy from the 8th century, made just a few decades after Bede’s death), ended with the Domesday Book, and included a hell of a lot of things written by monks along the way.
As you might expect from the British Library, the vast majority of artefacts in here were old books and texts, but there were a few swords and crosses and Alfred’s Jewel, which was quite exciting because there’s an image of it in the stained glass in the museum where I work (the actual thing was probably intended to be a pointer, and may have been included with a copy of Alfred the Great’s book, Pastoral Care (or more accurately, Alfred’s Old English translation of Pope Gregory I’s book. Alfred’s version is the oldest surviving book written in English), which, contrary to what I was initially expecting, is not about taking care of sheep, but about the responsibilities of the clergy (still involves a flock, but I prefer sheep!)). I took a class on Anglo-Saxon literature as an undergrad, so it was pretty cool getting to see the oldest surviving copies of Beowulf and “The Dream of the Rood” – without these, we never would have known they existed (which I guess some people might not necessarily see as a bad thing, but I quite like Beowulf. I dig kennings)!
But I have to admit that some of the other books in here were more interesting to look at because they had illustrations. And what illustrations! You’ve probably gotten a good idea of the wonders here already by this point in the post, but man, derpy animals, rather adorable saints, and teeny perfect elaborate little black ink illustrations – this exhibition had it all!
Honestly, there was a lot of information here about the Anglo-Saxons, but the names of most of the kings (other than Athelstan) kind of just all blurred together since I knew virtually nothing about them before coming in, and frankly, despite my best efforts, Anglo-Saxons just aren’t interesting enough for me to retain a significant amount of information on them in my brain (I just really don’t care about religion or war. I need some social history to pique my interest, which is why this post is thin on actual historical facts). But I did like the few medical texts in here, and I thought it was neat that they’ve recently re-created the recipe for an eye salve from one of the botanicals and have found it effective against MRSA (the main ingredients seemed to be garlic and leeks).
I think my favourite thing on display had to be the book about exotic creatures, including giants and the race of people with a face on their chest that I seem to remember still cropping up centuries later in some early modern text I read for my Master’s (maybe Paré’s On Monsters and Marvels?), clearly based on this much earlier illustration. So so great. I also love the little demon being exorcised, below (I think I’d be tempted to keep him as a pet after he was expelled from my body), but everything in here was striking simply by virtue of being so damn old.
I can’t get over how incredible it is that these books still survive over 1000 years on, and I think getting to see them was probably worth the price of admission (or the half price admission I paid anyway, dunno about the full £16), despite my brain’s failure to absorb any of the information in here except trivia and amusing illustrations (isn’t that always the way though?). I was also disappointed that there wasn’t more about the development of the English language, given all the manuscripts on display (there was a bit of information of this, and it could also be seen in the progression over time from mainly Latin manuscripts to mainly Old English ones, but I think the Weston Library’s exhibition was more comprehensive). So I’ll give it 3/5 – not the best I’ve seen at the BL, but still pretty impressive by virtue of the artefacts on offer, though they really need to sort out a solution to the problem the low lighting appears to cause for the bulk of their visitors.