I have been to see the Anglo-Saxons exhibition at the British Library which is full of thousand-year-old books. The first thing I would like to say is that the standard of handwriting has collapsed dreadfully in a millennia, and you should all be ashamed of yourselves.
Right, having got that out of the way, onwards. Now I am partial to a bit of Anglo-Saxon bling and very much enjoyed the exhibition of Staffordshire treasures which came to Bristol in 2017. It’s an under-explored bit of our history, and a fascinating one. Because the Anglo-Saxons tended to build a lot in wood rather than stone, there isn’t a huge amount of their remains in existance, and we have to deduce their civilisation from other stuff they left behind, like their metalwork and books, both of which were made to an enormously high standard of art and craftsmanship. Both of these are on display in the collection of precious books displayed at the British Library.
To start with, the books on display are mostly bibles, some as old as the 7th Century. But it’s as Anglo-Saxon society starts to cohere into something that roughly resembles England that the stuff on show becomes more interesting, varied and abundant, producing history books, biographies, translations of popular European bestsellers, legal treaties and even fiction. Some of which were allegedly or reputedly the work of King Alfred the Great, or his grandson, Athelstan, a prolific gifter or books. And it’s here that the exhibition is both potentially most interesting and also somehow fails to live up to that potential. It offers the books ordered by the era and area of predominant Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and includes very briefly, the process of how these separate realms became formed into one: the Kingdom of England. And I couldn’t help feeling that the curators, or whoever had written the explanatory panels, had shied away from telling this fascinating, important and relevant story, for fear of coming over a little bit Ukip. Instead it was all about links to Europe and how it was a multicultural society, yes, blah blah. I know there’s no such thing as an apolitical take on history but I felt like this excesive squeamishness took away from some of the marvels on show – as well as the marvels which weren’t on show – which is the story of how the territories that became England emerged from the post-Roman chaos of the dark ages and formed themselves into a functioning, prosperous society with an intelligentsia and centres of learning.
It was also obvious how much at that time Christianity was a monastic religion, about great houses of the church, and arcane debates about Easter. The later kind of Chrsitianity which we associate with the middle ages, with its enormous Cathedrals and glittering, popular saints and miracles was a later, populist invention. Anyway, one of the jobs of these early monasteries was to produce books, and by God they were good at it. The artwork on display is stunning in its skill and luxury, and makes you realise that there’s nothing to be ashamed of in coveting a book as an item of art, rather than just to be read: it’s been going on for centuries. It’s also interesting to see how very good much of the art in the books is, with tiny fine line drawings that have none of the lack of realism of later medieval art, but show awfully real-looking people, sketched niftily in pen-and-ink, doing awfully normal things.
The exhibition also left me wondering about the technology of the book. Roman society ran on scrolls and tablets, but by the end of the dark ages the rectangular, bound manuscripts that we use today seemed normal. A letter, dating from the 9th Century, contains the remains of folds. I wondered how, and why, this technological shift had happened.
The star of the show was undoubtedly the only existing copy of Beowulf, and there was certainly some fascinating items on display and some amazing artwork to see. What it lacked was an easily understandable flow of the history behind the exhibition, that fascinating emergence of the state of England, a political edifice which still stands twelve hundred years after it was first dragged from the marshes and wrested from the hands of competing warlords. I could practically hear a roomful of curators screaming ‘Nobody mention Brexit!’ in a planning meeting, which seemed to slightly put a pall over things, since the fact that we’re still wrestling with some of the same issues around the boundaries and duties of the state, more than a millennia later, make the nation-forming struggles of the Anglo-saxons more relevant, not less.
A final note: it really was very busy. If you want to spend hours leering at the rare manuscripts, maybe try an early morning slot.