600 years, 180 spectacular treasures, a once-in-a-generation exhibition
The British Library’s long promised exhibition on the Anglo-Saxons has finally arrived and the objects on display do not disappoint.
Who were the Anglo-Saxons?
The Venerable Bede writing in the seventh century described the arrival of the Saxons from the distance of three hundred years. He did his best to make sense of an uneven and messy situation. He writes how:
“They came from among the three most powerful Germanic tribes, those of the Saxons, the Angles and the Jutes. Of Jutish origins are the people in Kent and people of the Isle of Wight: that is the people who inhabit the Isle of Wight. From the Saxons, that is from that land which is called Saxony, come those in Essex, Sussex, and Wessex. And from the Angles come the East Anglians and Middle Anglians and Mercians and all the people of Northumbria”
Bede’s Account of the Settlements of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes
The captions follow this outline of history, with a helpful Dads Army style map, even though other historians painted a different picture. Procopius, writing at a greater geographic distance but much nearer in time, writes how the British Isles was inhabited by Angles, Frisians and Britons (Celts) in his History of the Wars 8.20.6-10.
As a digital historian of late Antiquity, I am always intrigued by the questions about whether German settlers emigrated and lived in Britain before the end of Roman rule.
Modern scientific research has revealed a more complex picture. It is not in the books written from/about this period, but objects, that the lived experience might be most clearly revealed. The show exhibits art (jewellery and book illustrations) which provide evidence for the complex interconnections of different communities in the British Isles, but it privileges literary history over other evidence.
I felt the curators might have done more to foreground the tension between text and archaeology and art history and to bring current scholarly debates to the fore.
The Anglo-Saxons today
The show’s subtitle – “Art, Word, War” – wants to make this a sexy exhibition for the Game of Thrones, Avocado on Toast, Remainer generation. Yet the subtitle is misleading.
Anglo-Saxons and Europe
The Anglo-Saxon’s connections to Europe are (rightly) emphasised. The exhibition was planned during the period which saw the EU Referendum take centre stage in the political life of the nation. Mentions of international trade are made against this modern-day backdrop, yet the Anglo-Saxons have also been raised as insular figures of defiance and freedom. Anglo-Saxon liberties were raised, by some, in the Civil Wars of the Seventeenth Century against the tyranny of Scottish Kings in thrall to European Queens and European religion. A simplistic mapping of history onto contemporary concerns is always complicated and ultimately breaks down on closer examination.
Art surviving from this period makes it clear however, that there was wide connections. Artistic motifs from different cultures merged in the British Isles. Luxurious goods arrived in Britain from as far a way as Egypt and Constantinople, and possibly even China and India. The intricate golden jewellery and enamel work is stunning and references Celtic and German styles. Sutton Hoo is famous for its Eastern Mediterranean inspired goods, but more intriguing is a gold coin minted by King Offa. It was a copy of an Arabic dinar and contains the Shahadah in Arabic, even though Offa was a Christian who paid the Pope a tithe. This coin might even be part of the payment to the Pope.
It is vital to stress these longstanding international connections at a time when they are being denied and denigrated.
The Anglo-Saxon Word
The one subject that predominates in the show is religion. Perhaps this is the “Word” of the subtitle, although it could also refer more literally to the books on show. Books dominate the space. Christianity was a literate religion and books were a major expression of piety. What other forms of religious expression are missed in this focus on books? This question remains largely unasked, although standing crosses might point to more vernacular forms of piety.
On show are several Latin bibles, some with Old English glosses, and even the Old English Pentateuch. It is not stated in the show why this is so radical. 600 odd years later William Tyndale was murdered (in Europe) for the same action.
England was at one point the intellectual centre of Europe. It exported missionaries and scholars which transformed early medieval intellectual life. Alcuin, the scholar courtier and confidante of Charlemagne was an Englishman. He helped start the Carolingian Renaissance. Boniface, who converted the Germans, was an English man.
Warriors not lovers
The “War” of the subtitle perhaps comes from the fact that is was a brutal age. Not least because of the Viking incursions and invasions culminating in 1066. Yet the greatest act of oppression, in popular memory at least, was not Hastings but Domesday. The show ends with a Domesday Book, a powerful reminder of the “Normal Yoke on Saxon neck” motif of popular culture (think Robin Hood and Ivanhoe). This motif continues to reverberate in Brexit mythology.
The show’s subtitle is perhaps an attempt to replicate something like “Eat, Pray and Love”. The Saxons were great feasters – whether in mead halls or monastic centres. The books depict the deep religiosity of at least some sections of their society. But we are still left with an image of the Anglo-Saxons as warriors. How true is this?
Poetry like Beowulf and the Battle of Maldon present the Anglo-Saxons as a society bonded by ethical rules of behaviour and loyalty. Many scholars reference Tactius’ Germania (written in 1st century CE) with its descriptions of a Comitatus or warband. Tactitus wrote how “to survive the leader and retreat from the battlefield is a lifelong disgrace and infamy”. We see this in the Battle of Maldon, the warriors fall honourably with Byrthnoth.
The reality is perhaps more complicated. 2018 also sees the centenary of the First World War, a moment when the nation will come together in reflection of that war and others. Why we think the Saxons might have feelings about conflict any less complex or painful than ourselves is beyond me. A more quiet reflection on the loss of life in war can be found in a monastic chronicle which mourns the loss of several brothers on the hill at Senlac in 1066. These brothers are presumably patrons, rather than monks; they are the aristocratic elite, the flowers of Saxon England. With their loss we are told, Anglo-Saxon England was lost.
The Anglo-Saxons and UX
The show stops short of discussing non-elite inhabitants of the British Isles during this period. Again this is perhaps understandable given the items on display, but it’s a missed opportunity. The show feels over weighed by the objects. It is an exhibition of objects not the history of the Anglo-Saxons told through the objects. Ultimately more curatorial intervention is needed to either ameliorate this, or at least to make this distinction explicit.
The show lacks flow. At sections queues form to examine display cabinets full of small objects. The queues are so placed as to make navigation around them difficult. A little more thought around exhibition flow and placing of objects, would have alleviated this problem as other rooms were less cramped.
The captions do not do justice to the complexities of Anglo-Saxon scholarship. It relies too heavily on literary evidence and doesn’t stray far beyond this. For a library show, exhibiting books and book art, is perhaps understandable. Yet more could have been done to translate scholarly work into a more easily understood format that didn’t lose the complexities and nuance of the underlying research
Finally, how accessible is this exhibition to non-English people, or at least non-Anglophone people who do not have a “connection” to the Anglo-Saxons? I doubt very little. The show challenges insular thinking but somehow replicates it through inaccessible captioning which presumes knowledge of key events, some of which would be obscure even to History graduates brought up in the English education system.
Overall the immense richness of objects on display would have benefitted from some UX oversight, but the exhibit is still worth a visit.
4 stars: ★★★★