Review of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, World, War (edited by Claire Breay and Joanna Story)
British Library, 2018
It now seems like several centuries ago that this reviewer struggled through the British Library’s blockbuster Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, attempting to see the various manuscripts obscured by school-children’s activity sheets, and waiting for an opportune moment to spring upon the Beowulf display case. Such opportunities for raised blood pressure and general fraughtness are still, sadly, behind us, but the impression of that spectacular show remains, as does this incomparable catalogue.
Together they definitively put paid to a number of common myths about Anglo-Saxon England, particularly the long-perpetuated legend that the Normans succeeded in conquering England due to their innate cultural superiority. Here the essay “Conquests and Continuities” by Julia Crick is notably frank: “the Normans took over England as a going concern. Despite the bloodshed and notwithstanding the aggrandisement of a new colonial aristocracy…..fundamental structures remained in place. Three great legacies of the Anglo-Saxons survived the conquest: a written language, a landscape populated by many of the places and place-names we know today, and a centralised system of administration capable of keeping the peace and raising tens of thousands of pounds of revenue each year.” The stunning exhibition, with the remarkable textual and artistic achievements on display, ranging from jewellery and illuminated manuscripts to a life-size replica of the Ruthwell Cross, ultimately makes the invading force look backward, despite its advantages on the brute-force and carpet-bagging side of the ledger.
It was England’s remarkable prosperity (following Alfred the Great’s extraordinary rebuilding feat after the Viking depredations) that proved its downfall by drawing the Conqueror’s eye. That England “was famously wealthy, a reputation amply borne out by the scale, sophistication and centralisation of its carefully regulated silver coinage, running into millions of silver pennies,” can be explained by its intensive exploitation of natural resources, with differentiated agricultural production and “the processing of surplus into commodities suitable for consumption and exchange—cheese, loaves, beer, salted meat and fish, timber, salt,” which brought with it a system of investment to build the necessary infrastructure, such as “watermills and salt-works,” in a country “as intensively governed as it was intensively settled and worked.” Of all the spectacular exhibits on show, perhaps none expressed this sophistication, wealth and cultural confidence more than the exquisite Alfred Jewel, with its famous inscription: “Alfred ordered me to be made.”
Another insufficiently-known aspect is the remarkable intensity of contact between the Anglo-Saxons, the Irish, and many Continental peoples, in the form of trade, scholarly collaboration, and intermarriage, which thoroughly dispels the myth of an isolated and insular culture. (For example, Joanna Story highlights the close connection with the court of Charlemagne in her essay “Anglo-Saxon England and the Continent.”) This is just one aspect of the ongoing revision of the 'Dark Ages' trope, in light of new research showing that people in the Middle Ages were in fact extremely mobile and adventurous. Andy Orchard’s essay on literature highlights a process of “multilingual and multicultural” exchange which continued from Bede’s remarking on it in the eighth century past the Norman Conquest, as English pilgrims to Rome, male and female, often came back “with books and accumulated knowledge.” Alfred followed Charlemagne’s example of importing foreign scholars, recruiting from Wales, Francia and Old Saxon, while Aethelstan, his grandson, headhunted from Brittany and Iceland. The extraordinary robustness of the Anglo-Saxon literary tradition, secured by Alfred with his promotion of writing in the vernacular, ensured the ultimate triumph of the English language through to Shakespeare and the King James translation of the Bible. Orchard discusses the highly individual voices of different Anglo-Saxon poets, such as Cynewulf, the Beowulf poet, and others, and their characteristic integration of allusions and borrowings to make something original and idiosyncratic, which shows that “many literate Anglo-Saxons across the period had access to impressive libraries of mainly Latin books, and could carry great swathes of text in both languages in their heads.” (Equally arresting is the fact that “women appear to have played a significant role in literature and learning throughout the period, whether as recipients of complex and challenging Latin works….or as teachers of poetry and producers of their own verse….Powerful women in the late seventh century also fostered learning and literature in the north.”)
One aspect of cultural cross-pollination deserves especial notice. In “Interactions with Ireland,” Brendan Meehan highlights cultural exchange between the two island nations before the Norman Invasions of Ireland ushered in a new age of unbalanced and tragic relations. It is a rich and fascinating history too often obscured by subsequent catastrophes and contemporary political tensions. The Irish monks who settled upon the Hebridean island of Iona were remarkably successful in their grand project of converting Europe to Christianity, reaching all the way to Italy and Switzerland, but it is the Northumbrian part of this endeavour that occupies Meehan. Amusingly, it got off to a rocky start when the first Irish bishop recruited by King Oswald of Northumbria returned to Iona in despair, having found his prospective converts (according to Bede) to be “intractable, obstinate and uncivilised.” Instead, Iona sent out the altogether more diplomatic Aidan, who was successful in establishing the monastery at Lindisfarne in sight of Bamburgh Castle, Oswald’s seat. Meehan notes that “Bede provides a charming account of linguistic difficulties: as Aidan’s knowledge of English was imperfect, he preached the Gospel in Irish, with Oswald acting as interpreter.” Later, Bede recounts, “many English recruits were drawn to monasteries in Ireland, where food, books and instruction were provided free of charge.” (However, some English clerics suspected Ireland to be dangerously glamorous, Aldhelm warning against its “bejewelled honeycomb of doctrine” and the potential for students to be exposed to too much pagan myth.)
Indeed, the “golden age of Northumbrian culture” is attributed to the influence of King Aldfrith, of mixed English and Irish lineage, who brought “to his kingdom mixed ethnic roots and a love of books,” apparently presiding over the production of the extraordinary Lindisfarne Gospels. The Irish influence was felt throughout England, but Northumbria was particularly closely connected to Ireland from 500 to 800 B. C. It is with a remarkably delicate tact that Meehan discusses the twentieth century reaction to this cultural exchange, which (on both sides) aimed to downplay it. Rupert Bruce-Mitford’s sneer that “Irish peat bogs and habitations and early monastic sites have singularly failed to produce anything to match the quality or variety that existed in the Anglo-Saxon background” was matched by an Irish scholar in 1913, during an age of rising nationalism, who refused to accept Anglo-Saxon involvement in the production of the Lindisfarne Gospels. Both were trumped, however, by Sir Alfred Clapham’s wild assertion in 1934 that Irish scribes first learnt how to produce “Irish Christian art” from the Northumbrians, not the other way around. Meehan wryly concludes that the whole topic of Irish and English religious, cultural, and familial interlacing in this period can “be a historiographical minefield.”
As the foregoing indicates, the Anglo-Saxons seem to have been very interested in other people and cultures. Many exhibits in the show contrasted dramatically with the dour caricature of the mediaeval poet wandering about in a mist-enshrouded funk. While melancholic and fatalistic heroism are certainly present in the literature, they are counterbalanced by the gnomic sense of fun in the riddle collections, the conviviality of scholarly and commercial life, the love of gold and other forms of decoration and adornment, and an obvious delight in the endlessly intertwining animal forms of the illuminated manuscripts. Some of the exhibits, in their creativity, curiosity and humour, struck an eerie chord of familiarity, hinting at a story of remarkable cultural resilience and survival amongst the common people of England despite the millennium which followed. Though this definitive exhibition may be long gone, its glorious catalogue belongs in the library of anyone with an interest in English history.--Isabel Taylor