Monday, January 28, 2019

"Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War"

I have a thing for exhibition catalogs. It drives my wife crazy, especially if the exhibition is in another country or city and we’re flying back home. All those books to pack! But I’ll usually buy the book that accompanies an exhibition, especially if it’s something I’ve really enjoyed. Or, I’ll buy the book for an exhibition I haven’t seen but would really like to see, like the current Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibitionat the British Library in London.

The book for the exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, is a big one. It’s edited by Claire Breay, head of Ancient, Medieval and Early Modern Manuscripts at the British Library, and Joanna Story, professor of Early Medieval History at the University of Leicester. It includes an introduction and five essays, followed by almost 300 catalog pages tracking the 11 sections of the exhibition.

The essays cover the relationships between Anglo-Saxon England the continent; language, learning, and literature; interactions with Ireland; the emergence of a kingdom of England; and conquests and continuities. The essay authors are all experts in their fields and provide an overall summary of the Anglo-Saxon period.

The catalog section includes origins, or where the Anglo-Saxons came from; the kingdoms that were established and how Christianity gained a position among them; the kingdom of Mercia and its neighbors; the rise of the West Saxons; the emergence of England; language and literature; natural science; reforming the kingdom and the church; music; art; and the conquests of the 11thcentury (the Norman Conquest of 1066 was only the last of several). 

Authors of the period provided some of the best-known works of literature in what eventually developed as the English language. The Venerable Bede finished his Ecclesiastical History of the English People in 731 A.D., and an unknown author created the epic poem Beowulf about a century later. The exhibition manuscripts are few; some 90 percent of the surviving Old English poetry are included (some six documents). But its writings and poetry like these that drove the development of Old English well into the time of Chaucer and influenced Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible. 

At least two themes of special note emerge from the essays and catalog descriptions. 

First, while some still refer to this period as the “Dark Ages,” they were anything but that. There were repeated warfare and invasions, and the Vikings helped keep things upended for the last 200 years of Anglo-Saxon history (William the Conqueror and his Normans were themselves descended from Vikings). But a rich literary life was maintained at various palace courts and especially the monasteries; this was the great period of illustrated manuscripts.

Second, the influence of religion was enormous, and likely because it provided some stability in an unstable time. The Roman Catholic Church was the church universal in Anglo-Saxon England, and while kingdoms emerged and disappeared, and Danes and Norsemen and others were always available for sacking and conquest, the church not only lasted but thrived.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is a big, beautiful book, rather lavishly illustrated, displaying important artifacts and manuscripts from a formative period for British history and the English language.


Top illustration: A feasting scene from the Bayeux Tapestry. Bottom illustration: the Domesday Book, the earliest surviving public record in Britain.

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