Once maligned as the “dark ages”, it was a period in which arts and literature flourished.
The era produced many of the beautiful illuminated manuscripts in the British Library’s major exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms.
The Germanic-speaking Saxons, Angles and Jutes settled in Britain after the decline of the Roman Empire in the 5th century.
Anglo-Saxon society lasted until England was conquered, first by Cnut of Denmark in 1016 and then by William of Normandy in 1066.
The exhibition includes the immense Bible known as the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest single-volume Latin Bible in existence.
It was produced in Wearmouth-Jarrow and sent to Italy as a gift to the Pope in the year 716.
The book is back in Britain for the first time in 1300 years.
The powerful Benedictine monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow would later decline in influence as the kingdom of Mercia in the Midlands began to dominate.
By the 9th century, under threat from repeated attacks from Viking raiders, a new king, Alfred, emerged.
He consolidated the various peoples vying for power into a single kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons.
Alfred and his descendants popularised the Old English language, with its Germanic roots and Latin alphabet.
The epic story Beowulf, set in Scandinavia, was produced during this period, as well as strange tales such as
The Dream of the Rood, an account of the crucifixion from the point of view of the cross itself.
The Anglo-Saxons had a sophisticated knowledge of science and technology. They recognised that Earth is a sphere and observed the planets as far out as Jupiter and Saturn.
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms tells us very little about the lives of ordinary people, although perhaps this is inevitable in an exhibition focused on valuable books—often used as gifts for the wealthy.
However, it does nod to the importance of agriculture. A fascinating piece suggests that in 11th century Ely, eels were used as currency.
The exhibition ends with the Domesday Book, a detailed record of the country’s wealth completed in 1086 by the Norman invaders. The survey, named Domesday as it reminded people of the Biblical day of judgement, recorded thousands of villages.
The exhibition could be interpreted as a nationalist story of how England came to be.
It shows how the borders of England were established and demonstrates the importance of the English language and of Christianity.
However, it also shows that, rather than being timeless, England came about due to different power struggles between the various peoples that settled on the island from elsewhere.
It also shows how willing the Anglo-Saxons were to build links with other parts of the world.
The influence of Celtic art and design is evident in the intricate knot designs on many of the artefacts. Scholars and scribes travelled far and exchanged ideas and techniques with others from the continent and from North Africa and the Middle East.
It’s impressive that 600 years of history have been explained in one exhibition, although at times it feels like a lot to take in.
While the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is understated, it brings together an extraordinary collection of books and artefacts and is a unique opportunity to see them.
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