Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library

And it seemed, while we waited, he began to walk towards us              he vanished                                 he left behind coins, for his lodging, and traces of red mud.

(Geoffrey Hill, Mercian Hymns)

If, like Philip Larkin, you wonder what will survive of us, you must hasten to enter the mysterious, dimly lit world of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library.  Between the time of the Romans and the Norman Conquest, shadowy generations wrought and sang. What survives of them is curated and connected here; the Anglo-Saxons significant in their own right.

In shafts of light, artefacts tell us about the peoples who lived, fought, worshipped and conquered in the first millennium up to the time of the Domesday Book. The exhibition ends with that huge reckoning of plough-teams and manor-places, when the rent of a fen might offer you 25,000 eels for your dinner table. What survives of those lords and ladies, serfs and servants? What did they do (apart from eat eels), what did they hope for, what did they love?

Certainly, what will survive of us is gold. In the dark, the Sutton Hoo buckle, with its thirteen intertwined snakes and its intricate triple lock shines out shockingly, almost offensive in its purity, proclaiming beauty and artistry as status. The Alfred Jewel too, offers up its exquisite workmanship, and its promise of the precious power of the word, of reading aloud, making community through listening and repeating (no reading in heads). Some gorgeous gold-work, as if straight from Rivendell, offers up mysterious, unknown runes, and a woman’s brooch carries a heavy and terrifying curse, the only protection against thievery: words to worm their way into a sinner’s heart and poison it slowly from within. A sad carved figure adorns a funerary urn. Perhaps the ashes were those of a thief.

What will survive of us is words. But such words! So much is lost, but styli, the little ‘pens’ for wax tablets, remain behind to show that there was literacy in the decayed hands of the past. The exhibition is full of ancient manuscripts, which tell us heartrendingly of those lost lives of the Anglo-Saxon world. Some things are surprisingly contemporary. The first letter in English, beautifully scribed, comes from Bishop Wealdhaere, writing politely to Archbishop Berhtwald of Canterbury for permission to attend a meeting to discuss local disputes. Similar letters get written to the Archbishop of Canterbury today, but they are certainly not as beautiful, and are often rather worse spelled...There is a calendar, with notes by Willibrord, not unlike the very diary entries we all make to sort our lives out. Meanwhile, in a Leechbook, there is a recipe for an eye salve which has been made in our modern era and found to be effective against MRSA. Bede’s Reckoning of Time (725) tells us that the earth is not a circle, but ‘round like a ball’. If only today’s burgeoning Flat Earth movement would listen to the wisdom of Bede, who had no millions to send up a satellite to ‘check’. And someone, somewhere, took around with them, a little portable sundial and painstakingly checked the time against the shadow, depending on the season, helpfully worded on the instrument. Be gone, Apple Watch!

What will survive of us is the Word. We are reminded in the exhibition of the modes of conversion to Christianity during this time. Missionaries from Rome who went straight to the local ruler of a kingdom and converted them to Christ, so that the king then pronounced that all the people should be Christian too.  Mission by hierarchy, governance and power. And at the same time, missionaries who arrived and settled in the distant parts, the coasts and islands, all those strangely named saints we (maybe) remember on feast days  (check with Willibrord’s diary) there to found Christian communities which perhaps were much more egalitarian and communitarian, weaving people into a life of prayer and practice, feeding and healing. A copy of the Rule of St Benedict falls open at a page which includes rules for the readmission of prodigal monks who have run away and then changed their minds, the chastising of boys,  -and the duties of the cellarer. Here is the Sermon of the Wolf, and one of Aldhelm’s Riddles, here a book of Blessings. Fear and mystery and love.

Surely the pinnacle of the exhibition, beyond gold or manuscript, is a facsimile of the Ruthwell Cross, with its depictions of scenes of the life of Christ, but round the sides strange runes, which when deciphered, are passages of the extraordinary poem, The Dream of the Rood.  This poem was embedded deep in oral tradition, sung from person to person and here sunk deep in the stone of the Cross. The Dream of the Rood is the crucifixion told from the point of view of the Cross itself, terrified, agonised, pierced, but standing strong and tall to support the Saviour and his glorious wounds. Christ is the heroic victor, gladly embracing the Cross, and lifted in triumph. What will survive of us is Love.

The exhibition is heavy on manuscripts and books as you might expect in a library. But perhaps the heaviest is the enormous Codex Amiatinus, at 34kg and with a half metre spine, the oldest complete Latin Bible. It was produced at the Benedictine monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow and not seen here for 1302 years. The monks wept as it left our shores as a mighty gift. More than a thousand animal skins made its parchment to bear the precious words of God.

The whole exhibition takes hours to absorb simply because everything on display is an extraordinary treasure with its own story, the scribes and communities just evident in the background, bequeathing us our faith, breathing it into us, their future. And by the end of the journey, it seems ironic somehow, re-entering the street and its screaming headlines, that so much of this Anglo-Saxon world came from interaction and learning from Europe, including Christian faith itself. Language, craftsmanship, religion, fantasy, emerged from waves of different encounters: conquest, mission, learning, trade. But there is so much more treasure in the darkness to explore of those vanished kingdoms, coins and red mud.

Go see, marvel and enjoy.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is at the British Library, London until February 19th 2019.
£16 and concessions.

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