Why, in the Venerable Bede’s briefcase, would you want to pay £9 to see a collection of battered old books? After all, there are plenty on free display upstairs in the Library’s permanent Treasures exhibition, aren’t there?
Actually, we’re setting up a straw-man. There are dozens of reasons why you might want to part with your money to see the British Library’s latest exhibition. Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination pulls together 900 years of feverish scribing, scrawling and gilding. The curators have plundered the shelves of England’s kings and queens to assemble 150 manuscripts, each one a stunner.
There’s a sumptuous contract between Henry VII and Westminster Abbey, plastered in Tudor roses and portcullis emblems and hung like a space donkey with the king’s dangling seals. Then there’s the collection of Edward IV, founder of the Royal Library, whose scribes crammed into the borders so many regal motifs, shields and images that the content is completely overshadowed – a bit like a web site that’s gone crazy with the advertising.
Case after case takes you on a journey through English history, from the earliest Anglo-Saxon skins to magnificent Tudor bibles. The Medieval royal reading list, it turns out, was much broader than the adventures of Christ. We find volumes on history, Arthurian legend, genealogy, law, warfare, chivalry and biographies of great kingly characters such as Alexander and Caesar. The occasional page from a music book, with early annotation, is also included. Taken together, the books form not only a collection of staggering beauty, but also provide a distant glimpse into the minds and manners of our long-gone overlords.
Studying the 150 exhibits takes about 2 hours – an exhausting but rewarding use of your time. Something a little different half way round might have helped – perhaps a short film about the craftsmanship behind these beautiful objects – but that would have reduced the number of works on display. All in all, this is one juicy medieval banquet for the eyes and minds.
Be sure to pick up the free audio guide, which provides much more information on around 25 of the more intriguing showpieces. The exhibition is also supported by an events programme, and you can get a taster for the art by visiting the Library’s Facebook albums.
Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination runs at the British Library until 13 March 2012. Entrance is £9 for full adult price, with various concessions.