On 19 October 2018, our major exhibition on the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will open. Ranging from the 5th to the 11th centuries, the exhibition will explore this long, dynamic period when the English language was used and written down for the first time and a kingdom of England was first created. Drawing on the British Library’s own outstanding collections and a large number of very significant loans, the exhibition will examine the surviving evidence for the history, art, literature and culture of the period, as preserved in books, documents and a number of related objects.
Codex Amiatinus, the earliest complete Latin Bible, will be returning to Britain for the first time in over 1,300 years ago for display in the exhibition. This giant illuminated Bible was made at Wearmouth-Jarrow in Northumbria in the early 8th century. Abbot Ceolfrith took it with him on his final voyage to Italy, as a gift to the Pope in 716. It is now held in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence which is generously loaning the manuscript next year. It will be shown with the St Cuthbert Gospel, the earliest intact European book, which was also made at Wearmouth-Jarrow and was acquired by the British Library in 2012. The two books are very different: while the St Cuthbert Gospel, which contains only the Gospel of John, can be held in one hand, the spine of Codex Amiatinus, containing the whole Bible, is nearly a foot thick. These two books will be exhibited alongside the Lindisfarne Gospels, one of Britain’s greatest artistic treasures, and other illuminated manuscripts of international significance made in the late 7th and 8th centuries.
The tiny St Cuthbert Gospel, British Library Add MS 89000 and the gargantuan Codex Amiatinus (image courtesy of Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana)
Two other complete Bibles were made at the same time as Codex Amiatinus. Only a few leaves of one of the other Bibles survive; the third has been completely lost: British Library Add MS 45025, f. 2v.
The exhibition will include a number of outstanding objects, including key pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard discovered near Lichfield in 2009, and kindly loaned by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils. Objects drawn from the unique array of military equipment which makes up the bulk of the hoard will be on display, as well as the pectoral cross and the gilded strip inscribed with text drawn from the biblical book of Numbers.
The pectoral cross and an inscribed strip from the Staffordshire Hoard, to be loaned to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition by Birmingham and Stoke-on-Trent City Councils (images courtesy of Birmingham Museums Trust)
A key theme in the exhibition will be the development of the English language and the emergence of English literature. We will explore the use of writing on inscribed objects and in documents as well as in books, and will present highlights of the bilingual literary culture. The major works of Old English poetry survive in only four manuscripts, and all four will be brought together at the British Library next autumn for the first time. The unique manuscript of Beowulf, held in the British Library, will be displayed with the Vercelli Book on loan from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli, the Exeter Book on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library, and the Junius Manuscript on loan from the Bodleian Library in Oxford. This will be the first time that the Vercelli Book has been in England in at least 900 years.
Beowulf spoke … (‘Beoƿulf maþelode …’): British Library Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r
All the items in the exhibition are remarkable survivals. Over the centuries they have lasted through wars, the Norman Conquest, the Dissolution of the Monasteries (and their libraries), natural disasters and fires. A significant number of the exhibits have never been seen together before, and some have not been reunited for centuries.
Far from being the ‘Dark Ages’ of popular culture, the kingdoms in this period included centres of immense learning and artistic sophistication, extensively connected to the wider world. The movement of artists, scribes, books and ideas between England, Ireland, continental Europe and the Mediterranean world was fundamental to the development of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and will be a key theme of the exhibition.
The opening of St Mark’s Gospel, from the Cnut Gospels, southern England, before 1018: British Library Royal MS 1 D IX, f. 45r
Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms will be open at the British Library from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019.
Claire Breay and Alison Hudson
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