Anglo-Saxons Invade The British Library In This Sensational Exhibition

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, The British Library ★★★★☆

Tabish Khan
By Tabish Khan Last edited 47 months ago

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Anglo-Saxons Invade The British Library In This Sensational Exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, The British Library 4
This massive and beautiful book is the oldest complete version of the Bible in Latin and it's a masterpiece. Copyright Sam Lane Photography.

White nationalists often hark on about some ridiculous notion of Anglo-Saxon purity, while not appreciating that there's nothing English about the Angles and the Saxons — they were Germanic tribes that came over to conquer and settle in large swathes of England.

Incidentally they were met with racist views themselves when they first came over, by a monk who wrote disparagingly about the early Germanic settlers. It's one of the things we learned in the superb Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition on at The British Library. Given many foreigners now feel less welcome in England after the Brexit vote, it feels apt to revisit this time in history.  

The British Library has some fantastic objects to tell the story of the Anglo Saxon kingdoms — both through books and plenty of other objects. There's a tiny man that would have been the lid of an urn holding cremated ruins and a gargantuan Celtic cross that towers over visitors. The cross is well preserved enough to make out scenes carved into it, including one of Christ healing a blind man.

The St Cuthbert gospel is the earliest known Western bound book to survive. Copyright Sam Lane Photography

There is a blindingly beautiful gold buckle with 15 snakes and an assortment of birds and beasts carved into it. It's unclear who it belonged to but it would have been a symbol of power and it's still intimidating many hundreds of years later.

It's remarkable how well preserved many of the early legal texts and copies of the bible are. Gold leaf inlaid into the pages and beautiful illustrations are a clear sign of how treasured these books were, it's enough to make any bibliophile swoon.

The most impressive book on display is the Codex Amiatinus, the oldest known version of the bible written in Latin. Created in the UK and gifted to the then Pope, but has returned home for this exhibition. It contains stunning illustrations and it's a monster — weighing 34kg the book is the height and width of our torso, and double the depth. It's a literary masterpiece and an ancient text that just has to be admired when seen.

The 'Alfred jewel' is though to be a pointer for assisting reading. Now that's one classy accessory. Copyright Ashmolean Museum.

Much of the fun is in uncovering the stories hidden in these documents and books, such as the infighting between neighbouring kingdoms, with King Offa of Mercia coming across as particularly combative:

There was in Mercia a King called Offa who terrified all the neighbouring kings and kingdoms.

Sounds like an Anglo-Saxon version of Trump. Offa was so presumptuous that in some documents he even had himself declared King of Britain, despite not coming close to having dominion over all of it.

This gracious limestone angel was uncovered near Lichfield Cathedral. Copyright Lichfield Cathedral.

The Anglo-Saxon view of the wider world was poorly developed, a map of the world is so inaccurate it's almost impossible to identify any countries. Then there's a book on medicine that offers remedies against elves and night visits from goblins — they may have seen World of Warcraft coming long before we did. We particularly liked the description of people in the East who are 20 feet tall, have lion's manes and eat anyone passing — sounds like a pretty accurate description of this writer's parents.

Fittingly the exhibition ends with the fall of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms to the Vikings and the Norman William the Conqueror. So we get to see the Domesday book cataloguing the country in the first thorough census, a move to a more ordered society.

The British Library pulled together a marvellous informative exhibition that uses literature to paint a vivid picture of Anglo-Saxon politics and society. As a quote on the wall says: "Books are glorious ... they gladden the soul". Head to this exhibition and you'll see why that quote is spot on.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War is on at The British Library until 19 February. Tickets are £16.

Last Updated 23 October 2018