bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The stories manuscript tell: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

Posted in Exhibitions, Manuscripts by bonaelitterae on 28 October, 2018

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is monumental. The British Library has become accustomed to putting on ‘blockbuster’ exhibitions that cram its gallery with items — and visitors — to the point of sensory overload: feasts for the eyes which go beyond an elegant sufficiency. At the end of any show, its curator must have an acute feeling of the passing of a moment, but when this exhibition closes, something more will happen. Never before has it been possible to look at the Exeter Book and the Vercelli Book side-by-side, or to stand looking at the diminutive Cuthbert (formerly Stonyhurst) Gospel and then turn to ninety degrees to see the outsize Northumbrian masterpiece, the Codex Amiatinus. A sweep of manuscripts that takes us from the first known book in England, the St Augustine Gospels, to Great Domesday, and beyond, with the exhibition’s coda being a stupendous case placing the Utrecht, the Harley and the Eadwine Psalters in dialogue with each other. An exhibition where the Lindisfarne Gospels are reduced to a walk-on part, upstaged by the Book of Durrow and the Echternach Gospels near by them. Those who saw the Bodleian’s recent Designing English will be insouciant about the Alfred Jewel and the Alfredian translation of Gregory the Great being together (and, in truth, Oxford did that combination better) but they will not have had the chance see the treaty between Alfred and Guthrun close by, or Beowulf in the same rooms, or items from the Staffordshire Hoard. Plus, mingling with books and objects, there are single-page letters and charters which enliven and deepen the story. Never before and, given the ravages of time exacerbated by the present resurgence of petty nationalism, most likely never again. When the curators oversee the exhibition being dismantled, it will be difficult for them not to have a tear in their eye because they will know that something unprecedented is being irrecoverably lost. Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is not, in the usual publicity parlance, a ‘once in a lifetime’ experience; it is once in the life of the world.

This is an exhibition, then, that cannot be judged by the usual standards. If it were, we might set the litmus test: does it make best use of the materials to hand for its stated aim? How good is it at telling the story of the English lands from the fifth to the eleventh century? I am not the person to answer that, and not just because my expertise lies much later than the Anglo-Saxon period. I have only, so far, had chance to make one visit of two-and-a-half hours. I will surely appreciate different elements when I return again and, hopefully, again. On this first occasion, my palaeographical interest informed my viewing: there before me, in the flesh, were so many of the manuscripts that I have mentioned to students and encouraged them to study, online or in reproduction. It was like having a bibliography of must-see manuscripts that reside on disparate shelves all flutter down and come to rest in one place. This makes it for me and (I have heard tell) for other scholars, an exhibition with a massive emotional punch. I admit all those points but, at the same time, I believe the items themselves dictated my response: in the vast majority of cases, each manuscript opening was so rich with information that it commands your focus, only for its neighbour to redirect you, at which point you step back and appreciate the contrasts and the comparisons between that coupling. And so on, taking the manuscripts and charters as small groups, sometimes separated between cases, sometimes making you move back and forth in the rooms to the annoyance of others present. That is to say, I did not so much ‘take in a show’ as wallow in its exhibits.

Not all the manuscripts hold equal allure: Beowulf is an unprepossessing volume, whose attraction is perhaps enhanced by the damage it suffered in the Cottonian fire of 1731. But why it should contrast substantially with the grandeur of others shown before and after it in these rooms is itself an interesting question. In other words, while the layout of the gallery encourages a singular linear progress, the items on display propose other itineraries: they encourage you to make the museumscape your own. I emphasise this because it provides for me a partial solution to a problem I have with exhibitions of manuscripts. Here is the issue: a book is not an art object in the same way as a painting or a statue — those latter artworks are intentionally single and, in the right conditions, can be observed as a whole. The virtue of a book, in contrast, is that it is plural, that it is intended to be picked up and its pages turned: it has kinetic energy. To put this another way, it is less an object than a performer. When it becomes an object is as part of a gathering of books: a library impresses by the quantity of packed shelves, and teases by its owner taking out just one of the volumes and opening it before you. The library offers the possibility of reading, but the exhibition display (as we know it) cannot. It reduces the books to being like other art objects; it captures these performers in tableaux.

So, for me in an exhibition of manuscripts, there is often a frustration at the static presentation of these mobile, plural items. That, though, would be too begrudging when faced with what is, in effect, the ultimate pop-up library, an unrepeatable conglomeration of outstanding codices. Each, yes, is forced into a single pose but at least each is open alongside others. As a palaeographer, I would have preferred fewer openings highlighting illumination and instead ones foregrounding the fundamental artistry of a book which is its script. Yet, with what we have here there is so much to read, not simply in the sense of deciphering words but, more widely, in looking at the object. At the most basic level, this is about matters of size: the exhibition ranges from the pocket-book to the all-too-heavy Amiatinus. The sense of the individual shape — I was surprised by how relatively thick the Cuthbert Gospel was — is brought home by each being placed in relation to the others. Issues of magnitude relate also to the script used. Some of the opening cases bring in close proximity fragments of the letters of Cyprian (BL, MS. Add. 40165A), the earliest copy of the Rule of St Benedict (Bodleian, MS. Hatton 48) and the earliest known charter of English origin, made by Hlothhere, king of Kent, at Reculver in 679 (BL, MS. Cotton Augustus II 2). They are all in a script we would term uncial but the differences between them and, in particular, how small and delicate the module is of the charter’s writing, are what is most noticeable in how they are presented here.

London: British Library, MS. Cotton Augustus II 2 (top part), Reculver, 679

The history of script is very much on display: the grandeur of uncial and half-uncial; the practical importance of insular minuscule; its later replacement by what we know as Anglo-Saxon minuscule, itself increasingly informed by and challenged by the presence of caroline minuscule, and the changes that bookhand underwent at the masterful fingertips of Eadui Basan and Eadwine — these can be traced through the exhibition, if you care to find them. Attention is not drawn to these issues by the captions but what matters is the material is available to allow you to investigate these elements.

 

So, I will end these musings with two pleas. One is to future curators of exhibitions: you will not be able to repeat the unforgettable success of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms but when you are looking for a successor worthy of its achievement, do think of having an event which takes a single period in western history and looks at its manuscripts primarily through their scripts and, more generally, through their physicality. Such insights are necessarily there in the exhibition and perhaps providing visitors with suggested multiple itineraries would be one way of encouraging them to see the multiple perspectives this display allows. As it stands, the viewer needs to make the exhibition their own and so my second plea is to anyone going to London: be like walkers in the city and when you are in the gallery, find your own routes through it, not expecting to travel in one required direction but, instead, toing and froing through its riches. That assumes, of course, you do visit it. If what I have said has not been explicit enough, let me be clear: your grandparents could not imagine this event, your grandchildren will envy you your tales of it. Go, go, go.

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One Response

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  1. kathrinluddecke said, on 30 October, 2018 at 9:51 pm

    This was already on my iist of things to see in London – now it’s moved up to right up to the top :)
    A really good review, personal but addressed to both your readers and curators, focusing on the exhibition but referencing the wider political context in which we sadly find ourselves.
    And I couldn’t agree more with your point about the frustration of having books on display in such a static way, though necessarily so in these cases. I did love the Bod exhibition and kept coming back to it, so will be amazing to see this one.


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