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282 posts categorized "Anglo-Saxons"

03 November 2018

The real Lake of Grendel

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What if we told you that Grendel’s lake — the scene of the epic underwater battle in the epic poem Beowulf was a real place? Well, it was, according to a charter written in 931.

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Charter of Æthelstan for Wulfgar, England (Lifton, Devon), 931, with Wulfgar's will attached: Cotton Ch VIII 16

This charter is a grant of land in Ham from Æthelstan (d. 939), the first king of England, to his ‘faithful official’ Wulfgar. The amount of land involved is considerable: 9 hides, or roughly the size of 9 Hyde Parks. In order to be clear about exactly which pieces of land were being transferred, this charter, like many other Anglo-Saxon documents, included a boundary clause in Old English, describing the path you would walk around the edges of the gift.  

'First, [go] to the east ... Then westward to the mossy bank. Then down to the hedge/boundary of Beow’s home, eastward to the blackberry thicket. Then to the black pit/cave. Then north by the head to where the short dyke [is]. [Take] out of this one acre, then [go] to the bird’s pond (mere) to the path ... After that to the long meadow. Then to Grendel’s lake (mere). Then to the hidden gate, then back east ... '

Since the landscape includes Beow’s home and Grendel’s lake, it is tempting to think that these names were inspired by the poem Beowulf (although Beowulf is set in Scandinavia, not Wiltshire). At least three other Anglo-Saxon documents mention ‘Grendel’: there is another instance of ‘Grendel’s lake’, there’s a reference to ‘Grendel’s gate’, and on charter has an added boundary clause referring to ‘Grendeles pytte.’

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‘Grendeles gatan’ (line 2), from a record of Archbishop Dunstan purchasing land to give to St Peter’s Westminster, England, second half of the 10th century: Stowe Ch 32

Of course, some people have suggested that these Grendels aren’t ‘Grendels at all, but rather a ‘green delf’ (green quarry) or even Greendales. However, the association with pits and swamps does link these names to some sinister places from Old English literature. Alternatively, a ‘grendel’ could have been a generic term for 'monster', and these 'grendels' could have inspired the poem, and not the other way around. Whichever way, this charter provides a vivid account of one corner of the landscape of early 10th-century Wiltshire, as well as offering some intriguing possibilities about the mental associations and myths that overlaid that landscape in the minds of its early medieval inhabitants.

Ham today
A road near Ham today, courtesy of Google Street View

Beyond the shades of Beowulf, this document is interesting for a number of reasons. It is a work of literature in and of itself. It begins with a dramatic preface, lamenting the costly sins of the ‘tottering’ world and ‘filthy and dreadful mortality’. It urges the audience to flee the ‘wearisome nausea of melancholy’ and instead hold to the Gospels’ promise: ‘Give and it will be given to you.’ This purple prose was drafted by the same scholar who composed many of King Æthelstan’s early charters. Æthelstan’s court was a cosmopolitan centre of learning that attracted scholars from all over the British Isles and Europe. The drafter of this charter was clearly highly educated, with a particularly intricate knowledge of Latin and frequently using Latin words so obscure that they only appear in one or two other sources.  

This charter also touches on major political developments in the British Isles, even though it is ostensibly concerned with land in Wiltshire. In the text of the charter, Æthelstan is described not only as ‘king of the English’ (rex Anglorum), but as ‘king with sole rule of flowering Britain’. This language reflects Æthelstan’s military and political ambitions. Six years later, Æthelstan would win a major battle at Brunanburh against the massed forces of the king of the Scots, the king in Dublin, the king of Strathclyde, and others.

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Detail of the names of the Welsh sub-kings, Hywel (Howael) and Idwal (Iudwal): Cotton Ch VIII 16

The charter suggests that, in 931, Æthelstan already had control over a fairly substantial portion of the British Isles. The charter was witnessed by, among others, two Welsh ‘sub-kings’: Hywel Dda of Deheubarth (d. 949/950) and Idwal Foel of Gwynedd. Hywel was later credited with codifying Welsh law and he may be the only early medieval Welsh ruler who issued surviving coins. He also frequently visited England and even called one of his sons Edwin, an English name (whether out of taste or political expediency). Idwal allegedly died fighting the English in 942. However, he witnessed several of Æthelstan’s charters and there is no evidence he fought against Æthelstan at Brunanburh.

From Beowulf to bramble thickets to British kings, this charter is a good example of the wealth of material that single-sheet documents can contain. Today, the charter is even attached to the will of the recipient, Wulfgar, which reveals how he bequeathed his land and offers further insight into his social networks.

You can come and see this remarkable document in person at the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (on until 19 February 2018). Additionally, all of the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon single-sheet charters are now on Digitised Manuscripts, where you can explore them for monsters, meres and more!

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

01 November 2018

A calendar page for November 2018

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The weather’s getting colder, so come warm yourself by the (drawing of a) fire  in a 1000-year-old calendar page for November.

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A calendar page for November, from a calendar made in southern England in the first half of the 11th century: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8r

The fire in this image is depicted by a few red lines. Three figures on the right extend their hands towards it. I feel particularly sorry for the middle figure, who seems to be stuck out in the cold in bare feet and legs. This figure is also under-dressed in the image for November in another 11th-century calendar,  in Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1.

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Detail of men by a fire: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8r

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Detail of men by a fire, from a calendar in a scientific collection made in southern England in the 11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 8r

While the figures on the right of the image are warming themselves, the figures on the left-hand side are working. They appear to be smiths. There were many different types of smiths in 11th-century England, as explained in Ælfric’s Colloquy, a dialogue exercise designed to help young monks learn Latin. The Colloquy lists smiths, blacksmiths, farriers (who shoed horses), goldsmiths, silver smiths and bronze smiths among the most skilled craftsmen. Indeed, the characters in the Colloquy include a blacksmith who claims that he has the most important job in society, because he makes the tools all the other workers use. The other characters object, arguing that the enslaved ploughman is actually the most important because he grows the food that feeds everyone.

Smiths were clearly an important part of early medieval society. They appear throughout Old English literature, from the mythical figure known as Wayland the Smith to riddles in the Exeter Book.


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Detail of different types of smiths, from Ælfric’s Colloquy, part of an archbishop’s handbook made at Canterbury in the 11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius A III, f. 63r

Above the image of the smiths, two feast days marked in gold on this calendar page. They are the feast of St Martin of Tours and the feast of St Clement. Rather appropriately, given the scene depicted on this page, St Clement eventually became the patron saint of blacksmiths, and his feast is still associated with blacksmiths’ competitions to this day. This year, St Clement’s Day also coincides with the conference France and England: Medieval manuscripts between 700 and 1200 // France et Angleterre : manuscrits médiévaux entre 700 et 1200 in Paris, if you’d like to mark your own calendars.

This calendar page also depicts the constellation Scorpio. Scorpio was represented in various ways in medieval art. This Scorpio is notable for his clearly segmented tail.

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Detail of Scorpio: Cotton MS Julius A VI, f. 8r

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Detail of Scorpio, from a calendar page for September in a Book of Hours, St Omer or Thérouanne, c. 1320: Add MS 36684, f. 10r

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Detail of Scorpio, from a calendar page for October from the Bedford Hours, Paris, c. 1410-1430: Add MS 18850, f. 10r

You can see this 1000-year-old calendar — and many other amazing manuscripts — in person at the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, on until 19 February 2019. You’ll also be able to see some examples of gold- and silver- and blacksmiths’ work, from jewellery to weapons.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

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31 October 2018

Pumpkins and pagans

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A few years ago, an American historian was contacted by the creators of a quiz show who were doing some fact-checking for their Halloween episode. Were pumpkins used in pagan rituals in the British Isles, they asked, and did early medieval paganism inspire pumpkins' role in modern-day Halloween celebrations? The historian had to break it to them pumpkins are native to North America and were not introduced to Europe for another thousand years, so that Anglo-Saxons could not have invented pumpkin carving.

There are few reliable sources about early Anglo-Saxon pagan practices. We cannot be sure which holidays they celebrated or how they celebrated them. But Anglo-Saxon pagans did influence some aspects of modern culture, from the days of the week to ideas about supernatural sprites.  

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The Loveden Hill Urn, a 6th-century pagan funerary urn with a runic inscription found in a cremation cemetery in Lincolnshire, on loan to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition from the British Museum. © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The earliest English speakers — the Germanic-speaking migrants who settled in southern and eastern Britain between the 4th and 6th centuries — were pagans. Very little written evidence survives from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in that period, apart from runic inscriptions that are only a few words long. You can see some examples in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (open until 19 February 2019).

Evidence of pagan practices has to be pieced together from place names (such as Wednesbury, Woden's burg and Tyesmere, Tiw's lake) and burials. For example, tombs that contain objects such as weapons, pots, combs, jewellery and other ‘grave goods’ are often believed to be associated with pagans. The most famous burial of this kind was excavated at Sutton Hoo in the 1930s, although it also included items associated with Christianity. There, archaeologists discovered the tomb of a rich warrior buried in a 27-metre-long ship along with weapons, a helmet, jewellery, objects used in feasts, and silver from Byzantium. Cremation cemeteries are also associated with pagans, since Christians did not tend to be cremated at this time. 

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Portrait of a pagan? Lid of a 6th-century pagan funerary urn from Norfolk, known as Spong Man: Norwich Castle Museum, 1994.192.1, image courtesy of Norwich Castle Museum

Archaeological evidence suggests that there was no one, monolithic ‘Anglo-Saxon paganism’: practices could vary widely across regions, time periods, and even within individual communities. 

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Image of Woden and five early kings allegedly descended from him, from a 12th-century historical text: Cotton MS Caligula A VIII, f. 29r

Indirect evidence about early Anglo-Saxons’ beliefs may also be derived from the impact of pagan traditions on sources made after they converted to Christianity. Some pagan gods, such as Woden, continued to appear in the genealogies of Anglo-Saxon kings, sometimes alongside figures like Adam and Eve.

The names of certain modern English days of the week may also preserve the names of gods worshipped by pagan Anglo-Saxons, as well as a Roman god (Saturn), the Sun and the Moon.

Old English

Modern English

Meaning

sunnandæg

Sunday

Sun day

monandæg

Monday

Moon day

tiwesdæg

Tuesday

Tiw’s day

wodnesdæg

Wednesday

Woden’s day

þunresdæg

Thursday

Thunder’s day

frigedæg

Friday

Frig’s Day

sæterndæg

Saturday

Saturn’s day

Belief in pagan gods gave way to belief in a single, Christian god in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. Nevertheless, later Anglo-Saxons may have retained beliefs from pagan lore. For example, elves appear in the writings of Anglo-Saxons long after the conversion to Christianity. Indeed, the earliest written reference to an elf appears in a 9th-century, Christian prayerbook, in a prayer that compared Satan to an elf. 

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Earliest written reference to an elf: from the Royal Prayerbook, Mercia, late 8th or early 9th century, Royal MS 2 A XX, f. 45v

Later writers were not always reliable when describing the pagan past. These writers were churchmen and churchwomen who had never met a pagan and whose primary knowledge of paganism came from sources that described Roman religions. This is true even in the case of someone like Bede, who lived only a few decades after the last major Anglo-Saxon kings converted to Christianity. In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede appears to offer a detailed account of a pagan priest called Coifi, right down to very specific rules about pagan priestly attire: ‘it was not lawful before for the high priest either to carry arms, or to ride on any animal but a mare’ (translated here). Bede claimed that, in his day, you could still visit the place where Coifi’s temple had stood before Coifi converted to Christianity. However, scholars have pointed out that Bede seemingly copied his descriptions from the Roman and ancient Near Eastern religions he had read about, rather than from any knowledge of 7th-century religious practices. Similarly, there are doubts about Bede's claims that 'Easter' was the name of a pagan goddess. 

Later writers, including Ælfric, abbot of Eynsham, explicitly set out to prove that the Roman, 'Danish' and Germanic gods were the same. Ælfric claimed that the days of the week were essentially named after the same pagan gods in Latin and Old English. He argued that gods with similar characteristics gave their names to the same days in the Latin and English weeks, like the fertility goddesses Venus and Frigg. However, Ælfric deliberately conflated these different religions in order to condemn them all. 

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Ælfric explains the names of the days of the week in Latin and English in his 'Sermon on False Gods': Cotton MS Julius E VII, f. 240v

Ælfric mentioned 'Danish' as well as Roman gods because many Viking raiders were pagan, especially in the 9th century. Some who came to and settled in England were pagan. Small amulets in the shape of Thor's hammer have been found in parts of England. That said, the surviving texts from this period were all written by Christians, who did not offer any details about these pagans' practices; Alfred the Great's biographer, Asser, used 'paganus' as a derogatory term for all Scandinavians, even a Christian Scandinavian who had become a monk. 

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Charm invoking Thor to prevent gangrene: Cotton MS Caligula A XV, ff. 123v–124r

Nevertheless, knowledge of Scandinavian paganism existed in some circles. Shortly after 1073, at Christ Church Cathedral, Canterbury, a manuscript was made which included information about timekeeping, prognostics and some medical texts. At the bottom of one of its tables, someone added a medical charm which invoked the pagan god Thor. The charm is written in Old Norse runes, translated as:

‘Gyril, wound-stirrer, go now! You are found! May Thor ‘hallow’ you, lord of ogres, (G)yril wound-stirrer. Against rushing (infection?) in the veins.’ (translated here).

There remains a mystery about who added the runes, and why someone who knew pagan charms and Old Norse runes was present at Canterbury in the late 11th or early 12th century.

So what do we know about paganism in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms? We know the names of certain gods; we can see different burial practices; and we know that traces of Anglo-Saxon paganism remain in modern English culture. But we can be sure of one thing: they did not have pumpkins.

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

26 October 2018

Who was the greatest?

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Alfred, king of the West Saxons and Anglo-Saxons, is the only English monarch to be traditionally known as the ‘Great’. He was renowned for defeating the Vikings and for overseeing one of the first great periods of English literature, but he did not govern all of the region that we now know as England. Instead, his grandson, Æthelstan, was the first king to control the area that covers what we know as England. Æthelstan was more militarily successful than Alfred, and he had equally glowing cultural credentials. Both kings feature prominently in the British Library’s Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (on until 19 February, 2019), which leads us to ask: who was greater, ‘the Great’ or the grandson?

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Alfred and Æthelstan, as depicted by Matthew Paris in his Abbreviated Chronicles of England, St Albans, c. 1255–1259: Cotton MS Claudius D VI, f. 7v

The case for Alfred hinges on his resilience and also the intellectual activity at his court. He was, perhaps, an unexpected king, being the youngest of the six children of King Æthelwulf of Wessex. The start of Alfred’s reign was not auspicious. He became king during a period of fierce fighting with Viking forces and was forced to retreat into a swamp (contrary to popular myth, he probably didn’t burn any cakes in the process). Nevertheless, Alfred persevered and he eventually established a peace treaty with the viking leader Guthrum, who became his godson. A copy of this treaty is on display in the exhibition.)

Alfred’s endurance was personal as well as military. According to members of his court, Alfred had mysterious illnesses which became acute during communal events, including his own wedding. Alfred corresponded with distant figures including the patriarch of Jerusalem, seeking medical remedies that would ease his suffering.

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'All this Lord Elias, the patriarch of Jerusalem, ordered to be said to King Alfred', from Bald’s Leechbook: Royal MS 12 D XVII, f. 106r

Alfred owes much of his later reputation to the literary output of his court in the later decades of his reign. His reign saw a flourishing of Old English literature, from the compiling of the earliest manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to the translation and adaptation of classical Latin texts into Old English. Some of these translations were even credited to Alfred personally, although the extent of his involvement is debated. Alfred encouraged other people to learn, by sending some of these Old English translations round his kingdom. In the exhibition you can see the copy of the Old English adaptation of the Pastoral Care — Pope Gregory the Great’s tract on leadership — that Alfred sent to the bishop of Worcester.

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Opening page of Asser’s Life of Alfred: Cotton MS Otho A XII/1, f. 1r

Crucially for Alfred’s later reputation, a biography about him survives. The Vita Alfredi (Life of Alfred) was written by Asser, a Welsh clergyman at Alfred’s court who became bishop of Sherborne. No other biography survives for an Anglo-Saxon king. Asser presented Alfred as perfect in every way. Asser’s Alfred was an heroic warrior, a learned man who invented everything from new types of ships to a candle clock, and a generous friend. His children were amiable and intelligent. Even Alfred’s illness was presented as a gift from God. Asser provided an unusually intimate portrait of the king, although his account was designed to promote Alfred's wider interests.

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Portrait of King Æthelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert, by permission of the Master and Fellows of Corpus Christi College, Cambridge: Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 183, f. 1v

But was Alfred really the greatest king? What about his grandson Æthelstan, the first king of England? Æthelstan was the first southern king to exercise real control over the East Midlands, East Anglia and the North. He claimed control of Northumbria in 927, after the death of his brother-in-law Sihtric, the Scandinavian ruler of York. Æthelstan gained important northern allies, such as the powerful community of St Cuthbert. It was around this time that coins and charters gave him the title ‘king of the English’ (‘rex Anglorum’). But Æthelstan’s ambitions did not end there: his documents show him styling himself ‘king of all Britain’ and ‘emperor’.  In 937, Æthelstan and his brother Edmund defeated a combined force of the kings of Dublin, Scots, Strathclyde and others at a place called Brunanburh.

Æthelstan’s victory was celebrated in a dramatic Old English poem copied into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

‘King Æthelstan, lord of nobles, dispenser of treasure to men, and his brother also, Edmund atheling, won by the sword’s edge undying glory in battle ’round Brunanburh. [They] clove the shield-wall, hewed the linden-wood shields with hammered swords … the people of the Scots and the pirates fell doomed. The field grew dark with the blood of men … Never yet in this island before this, by what books tell us and our ancient sages, was a greater was a greater slaughter of a host made by the edge of the sword, since the Angles and Saxons came hither form the east, invading Britain over the broad seas, and the proud assailants, warriors eager for glory, overcame the Britons and won a country.’ (translated by D. Whitelock and others, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation, London, 1961), pp. 69–70.)

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End of the Brunanburh poem from Anglo-Saxon Chronicle MS B: Cotton MS Tiberius A VI, f. 32r

Æthelstan was also involved in European politics. At least four of his half-sisters married into noble continental families, while the rulers of Brittany, Norway and Francia sent their sons to be fostered at Æthelstan’s court. Æthelstan also helped his nephew Louis try to claim to the throne of West Francia, and even sent ships to help him attack the Flemish coast. 

As was the case with Alfred, Æthelstan’s court was an intellectual hub that attracted scholars from Ireland, Italy, the Frankish realms and beyond. Æthelstan himself was a noted bibliophile: four of the books he owned are on display in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. Even the charters produced during Æthelstan’s reign can be read as learned works of literature as much as legal documents.

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Opening lines of St Mark’s Gospel, from a gospel-book apparently given by the future emperor Otto I to King Æthelstan: Cotton MS Tiberius A II, f. 75r

Æthelstan was also generous. We have proof of this in the form of inscriptions that note the books and treasure he gave to churches, some of which still survive.

In addition to being a successful warrior, a bookworm and the first king of England, Æthelstan has the distinction of being the first Anglo-Saxon king for whom a contemporary, painted portrait exists. A manuscript on loan from Corpus Christi College Cambridge depicts Æthelstan presenting a book to St Cuthbert. The book itself seems to have been intended as a gift from Æthelstan to St Cuthbert’s community, to ensure their continued support of the first king of England.

So who was the greatest, Alfred or Æthelstan? Come to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition (on at the British Library until 19 February 2019) and decide for yourself.

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

24 October 2018

The Utrecht Psalter on loan to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms

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At the end of the British Library's landmark Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition are three incredible and interrelated works of art. The earliest — and the one that sparked an artistic revolution — is the Utrecht Psalter, made in Reims (now northern France) during the reign of Louis the Pious (814–840). We are extremely grateful to Utrecht University Library for its generous loan of this beautiful manuscript to our exhibition.

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Psalm 14 from the Utrecht Psalter: Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 32, f. 8r

The drawings in the Utrecht Psalter are revolutionary in their approach to illustrating the Psalms. Previously, the Psalms were sometimes ornamented with scenes from the life of King David, either on a few pages or painted inside initials, as in the Vespasian Psalter, made in Kent in the 8th century.

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Detail of an historiated initial showing King David saving a sheep from a lion: Cotton MS Vespasian A I, f. 53r 

By contrast, the Utrecht Psalter’s ink drawings illustrate every phrase from the text of the Psalm on a given page. Check out the annotated version produced by Utrecht University to see how each element in the drawing was inspired by a different line in the text. In addition to literally representing the Psalms, these drawings offer visual interpretation and commentary.

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‘Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns’, as depicted in the Utrecht Psalter: Utrecht, Universiteitsbibliotheek, MS 32, f. 12r

The Utrecht Psalter was hugely influential for the style of its drawings. This manuscript was one of many books that travelled between the Continent and the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. By AD 1000 it had arrived in Canterbury where a direct copy of it was made, now known as the Harley Psalter, and also currently on display next to the Utrecht Psalter.

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‘Save me from the lion's mouth: for thou hast heard me from the horns of the unicorns’, as depicted in the Harley Psalter: Harley MS 603, f. 12r

The vivid style of line-drawings in the Utrecht Psalter had a huge impact on early English art beyond the immediate copies of the Psalter. Many manuscripts associated with Canterbury, from calendars to canon tables to archbishops’ handbooks, contain lively drawings that show its influence. Drawing was considered a high-status art form on a par with painting in late 10th- and 11th-century England, and some images mix both styles.

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Psalm 14 from the Harley Psalter: Harley MS 603, f. 8r

The Utrecht Psalter continued to inspire art at Canterbury after the Norman Conquest. One of these later copies was the 12th-century Eadwine Psalter (Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1), which is also displayed alongside the Utrecht and Harley Psalters in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition.

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The Eadwine Psalter: Cambridge, Trinity College, R.17.1, f. 24r

The three Psalters ultimately ended up in different collections. The Harley Psalter was acquired by the earls of Mortimer and Oxford and became part of the Harley collection. The Eadwine Psalter was sent to Cambridge and is now in the Wren Library in Trinity College. In turn, the Utrecht Psalter came into the possession of Sir Robert Cotton (1571–1631), a noted collector of manuscripts. At the back of the volume, Cotton added some leaves from an 8th-century gospel-book, which seems to have been made at Wearmouth-Jarrow, Bede’s monastery. At some stage, the oldest surviving charter from England was also part of the volume, but it was subsequently removed and is now Cotton MS Augustus II 2.

Cotton loaned the Utrecht Psalter on at least two occasions. James Ussher, archbishop of Armagh (1581–1656), probably borrowed this manuscript around 1625 and described it in his notebook. Later, Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel (1585–1646), borrowed seven books from Cotton’s library including ‘an auncient coppie of the Psalms. Literis maiusculis, in Latin, and pictures’.

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Sir Robert Cotton owned the Utrecht Psalter in the 17th century. In this portrait, commissioned in 1626, he is shown resting his hands upon the Cotton Genesis (courtesy of the Rt. Hon. Lord Clinton, D.L., Heanton Satchville, Devon).

Cotton's collection was used by writers who were looking for political arguments and precedents. In 1629, Charles I ordered that Cotton’s library be closed, on the grounds that it included a tract that advocated for absolutist monarchy, and Cotton himself was briefly imprisoned.

Robert Cotton died soon afterwards, in 1631. Meanwhile, Thomas Arundel seems to have taken the Psalter with him to the continent. There, his family lived rather lavishly, and the possessions of his son William Howard, Viscount Stafford (1612–1680), were auctioned twice to pay off debts. Eventually, Willem de Ridder acquired the Utrecht Psalter, and he bequeathed the manuscript to Utrecht Library on his death in 1716.

We are very grateful to Utrecht University for generously loaning this superstar to the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, so that it can be displayed alongside the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter. You can book tickets to see it here. The manuscripts discussed in this blogpost are also featured in a catalogue published to accompany the exhibition, available in both hardback and paperback from the British Library shop.

 

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

The British Library

19 October 2018–19 February 2019

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

23 October 2018

Fire in the library

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Our new exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, has been receiving rave reviews. Don't just take our word for it, read here why The Guardian and the Evening Standard have both given it a coveted 5 stars. The show features outstanding archaeological finds alongside incredible illuminated manuscripts and literary treasures, from Sutton Hoo and the Staffordshire Hoard to Beowulf and Codex Amiatinus.

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The Old English epic poem Beowulf survives uniquely in a manuscript from the Cotton collection: Cotton MS Vitellius A XV, f. 169r

Approximately a quarter of the manuscripts on display come from one collection alone, namely that of the 17th-century politician and antiquary, Sir Robert Cotton. They include books such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Vespasian Psalter, and documents such as the oldest surviving charter written in England. We are incredibly lucky to have them in our show, but even more so because they escaped near-total destruction in one of the most devastating events in modern library history: the Cotton fire, which broke out on the night of 23 October 1731.

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The manuscript of Gildas' The Ruin of Britain was almost ruined by fire in 1731: Cotton MS Vitellius A VI, f. 15r

A quick look at the pages of the unique surviving manuscripts of Beowulf and Gildas' The Ruin of Britain gives some idea of the damage they sustained in that fire. Their parchment pages started to warp in the heat of the flames, and the edges began to crumble. In some sad cases, the manuscripts were blackened and rendered almost useless, and in a handful of instances — such as that of the only medieval copy of Asser's Life of King Alfred — the volume was destroyed for ever.

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A page from the London portion of the Otho-Corpus Gospels, showing the severe damage this manuscript sustained in the 1731 Cotton fire: Cotton MS Otho C V, f. 27r

The story of the Cotton library fire has been told elsewhere. Essentially, the Cotton collection was  presented to the British nation in 1702, upon the death of Sir John Cotton, Sir Robert's grandson. It had ultimately been taken for safekeeping to the (inappropriately named) Ashburnham House, located near Westminster School in London. When the fire took hold, desperate efforts were made to save the books from the flames. The next morning, the Westminster schoolboys were reported to have collected scraps of burnt parchment, which were blowing in the breeze.

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The Marvels of the East: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 82r

A miraculous and pioneering programme of restoration, carried out at the British Museum in the 19th century, managed to preserve the burnt Cotton volumes for posterity. The manuscripts seem to have been soaked in a 'solution of wine', enabling their pages to be separated, and then they were often inlaid (like Beowulf and Gildas) in paper mounts. This whole process has been documented meticulously in Andrew Prescott's seminal article, ‘“Their present miserable state of cremation”: the restoration of the Cotton library’, in C. J. Wright (ed.), Sir Robert Cotton as Collector: Essays on an Early Stuart Courtier and his Legacy (London, 1997), pp. 391–454.

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The Æthelstan Psalter was singed in the Cotton fire: Cotton MS Galba A XVIII, f. 21r

Below is a full list of the Cotton manuscripts and charters on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. To their number, we could also add the magnificent Utrecht Psalter, which was alienated from Cotton's collection in the 1620s, and which ultimately made its way to the Universiteitsbibliotheek in Utrecht in the 18th century.

The Cotton collection was recently added to the UNESCO Memory of the World UK register. We feel sure that you would agree that, without the enterprise of Sir Robert Cotton himself, and without the endeavours of those who salvaged the damaged manuscripts in the 18th and 19th centuries, our knowledge of the Anglo-Saxon period — as well as our Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition — would be much the poorer.

Cotton Charter VIII 16 (grant of King Æthelstan and the will of Wulfgar)
Cotton Charter VIII 38 (will of Wynflæd)
Cotton MS Augustus II 2 (grant of King Hlothhere of Kent, AD 679)
Cotton MS Augustus II 3 (grant of King Æthelbald of the Mercians)
Cotton MS Augustus II 18 (letter of Bishop Wealdhere of London)
Cotton MS Augustus II 20 (Council of Kingston)
Cotton MS Augustus II 61 (decree of a synod of Clofesho, 803)
Cotton MS Caligula A VIII (Libellus de primo Saxonum uel Normannorum aduentu)
Cotton MS Caligula A XIV (Caligula Troper)
Cotton MS Claudius B IV (Old English Hexateuch)
Cotton MS Cleopatra B XIII (Old English coronation oath)
Cotton MS Domitian A I (Isidore, De natura rerum)
Cotton MS Domitian A VII (Durham Liber Vitae)
Cotton MS Faustina A X (Ælfric's Grammar)
Cotton MS Galba A XVIII (Æthelstan Psalter)
Cotton MS Julius A VI (Julius Work Calendar)
Cotton MS Julius E VII (Ælfric's Lives of Saints)
Cotton MS Nero A I (law-code of King Cnut)
Cotton MS Nero D IV (Lindisfarne Gospels)
Cotton MS Otho A VI (Boethius)
Cotton MS Otho C I/1 (Old English gospel-book)
Cotton MS Otho C V (Otho-Corpus Gospels)
Cotton MS Tiberius A II (Æthelstan or Coronation Gospels)
Cotton MS Tiberius A III (Regularis concordia)
Cotton MS Tiberius A VI (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle B)
Cotton MS Tiberius A XIII (Liber Wigorniensis)
Cotton MS Tiberius B I (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle C)
Cotton MS Tiberius B IV (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle D)
Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1 (Marvels of the East)
Cotton MS Tiberius C II (Tiberius Bede)
Cotton MS Tiberius C VI (Tiberius Psalter)
Cotton MS Titus D XXVII (Ælfwine’s Prayer Book)
Cotton MS Vespasian A I (Vespasian Psalter)
Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII (New Minster Charter)
Cotton MS Vespasian A XIV (letter-book of Archbishop Wulfstan)
Cotton MS Vespasian A XIX (Libellus Æthelwoldi)
Cotton MS Vitellius A VI (Gildas)
Cotton MS Vitellius A XV (Beowulf)
Cotton MS Vitellius C III (Old English herbal)
Cotton MS Vitellius C XII/1 (St Augustine's martyrology)

Our once-in-a-generation exhibition Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is on at the British Library until 19 February 2019.

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Julian Harrison

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

20 October 2018

Golden oldies

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When we say the early medieval period was a golden age of art, we mean that literally. Skilled craftsmen made intricate golden jewellery, belt buckles and sword fittings. Kings such as Offa and Coenwulf of Mercia issued gold coins. Books, too, were covered with gold, inside and out: some of the most precious books were given jewelled treasure bindings. You can find examples of all of this at the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library (on until 19 February 2019), including two manuscripts written entirely in gold, as well as objects from the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found.

Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII  f. 2v shiny
Detail of King Edgar from a charter for the New Minster, Winchester, 966: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 2v

Gold was used in highly illuminated manuscripts relatively early in the Anglo-Saxon period, as in Ezra's golden halo in the Codex Amiatinus, and the names written in gold and silver in a Northumbrian monastery's book of benefactors. Indeed, one 8th-century gospel-book is known as the 'Codex Aureus' because of the lavish gold writing and gold backgrounds on some of its pages. Its pages alternate purple-plain-purple-plain. According to an inscription on one of the gilded pages, this book was seized by a viking army in the 9th century, but the nobleman Ælfred and his wife Werburg 'acquired these books from the heathen army with our pure gold'. 

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Page with inscription about Ælfred and his wife Werburg: National Library of Sweden, MS, A 135, f. 11r

Gold was very heavily used in illuminations from the 10th and 11th centuries, as artists and their patrons demonstrated their devotion to God. 

  Cambridge  Trinity College  MS B.10.4  f. 60r
Opening of the Gospel of St Mark, Cambridge: Trinity College, MS B.10.4, f. 60r; image courtesy of the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge 

One surviving manuscript from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms was written entirely in gold. This is an unusual charter for the New Minster, Winchester, issued in 966. It begins with an image of King Edgar, flanked by St Peter and the Virgin Mary, offering a golden book to Christ. You may recognise this manuscript from the exhibition poster. This is followed by 60 pages of text, all in gold.

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Beginning of the list of witnesses: Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 30r 

This dramatic document was made in the aftermath of a dramatic event. When the reformer Æthelwold became bishop of Winchester in 963, he expelled those clerics who refused to become monks from the two biggest churches in Winchester: the Old Minster (now Winchester Cathedral) and the New Minster, which later became Hyde Abbey. The expulsion was controversial, and some disgruntled clerics even tried to poison Æthelwold. The situation in Winchester may have still been unstable in 966, when King Edgar — Æthelwold’s former pupil — issued this charter. Æthelwold himself probably composed the text. The lavish use of gold underlined the monks’ sophistication and their connections to powerful supporters such as the king.

Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII Lea
Detail of 
Cotton MS Vespasian A VIII, f. 12r (Photo credit Lea Havelock) 

Gold could be applied to parchment in two main ways. The first involved writing/drawing in gesso (a type of glue or light cement) and then applying gold leaf to the gesso. The second way involved using powdered gold mixed with liquids to create a sort of gold ink. In the case of the New Minster Charter, the way the letters and golden details are slightly raised off the page might suggest a layer of gesso underneath (or very globby gold 'ink'). Gesso was certainly used in the lavish artwork and illuminations in other manuscripts from this period. 

The other manuscript in the exhibition that is written entirely in gold — known as the Harley Golden Gospels — used powdered gold mixed with glair or gum. The decoration and text on its pages therefore appears flat. The Harley Golden Gospels were made in the Carolingian Empire in the first quarter of the 9th century. Elements of the decoration and layout of some initials in this book show connections to the art from Ireland and England. In turn, the lavish use of gold in Carolingian manuscripts may have inspired artists working in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. 

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Beginning of St Matthew’s Gospel, from the Harley Golden Gospels, E Francia (Aachen), first quarter of the 9th century: Harley MS 2788, f. 14r

Some precious books were covered with gold on the outside as well as within. These jewelled 'treasure bindings' are recorded in inscriptions, but very few survive intact to this day. Thanks to a generous loan from the Morgan Library in New York, there is a rare example of an early medieval treasure-binding in the exhibition. This covers one of the gospel-books owned by a noblewoman called Judith. Judith was born in Flanders, and she married Tostig, the brother of King Harold II (who was killed at Hastings). Her book  is covered in silver-gilt and jewels, with cast, 3-D figures depicting Christ in glory and the Crucifixion. 

Morgan Library  MS M 708
Treasure binding from a gospel-book owned by Judith of Flanders, New York, Morgan Library, MS M 708, upper cover

In addition to books, the exhibition contains golden objects, including the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found: the Staffordshire Hoard. This was found in 2009 and it seems to have been deposited before 675. Most of the pieces are associated with military equipment, including pommels from at least 74 swords. Some of these were made from gold and some were encrusted with garnets, like the cross pendant that was also found in the hoard.  The exhibition also includes golden sword hilts and two snake-or eel-like decorations, also crafted from gold.

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Golden sword hilt from the Staffordshire Hoard; Photo © Birmingham Museums Trust

The exhibition also features gold and jewellery found at other sites. The Alfred Jewel, found near Alfred's fortress at Athelney, has a golden beast's head and the inscription 'Alfred had me made' in wrought gold around the side.

Alfred Jewel
The Alfred Jewel
; © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford  

Perhaps the most amazing example of goldsmithing from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms is the belt buckle found at the Sutton Hoo ship burial of a 7th-century warrior. The buckle doubles as a hinged box with a triple-lock mechanism. It is decorated with 13 biting beasts that twist around each other. Each creature is stamped with a different pattern to give it a different texture. How practical it would have been to wear is another matter: it weighs just under half a kilogram! 

Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle
Sutton Hoo Belt Buckle
; © The Trustees of the British Museum. All rights reserved.

The Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition is a literal treasure-trove of amazing art, as well as unique historical documents and literary masterpieces. It's on until 19 February 2019, and you can book your tickets here.

 

Alison Hudson

Follow us on Twitter @BLMedieval

18 October 2018

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: a once-in-a-generation exhibition

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Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War, the largest ever exhibition on the history, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, opens at the British Library on 19 October.

We are delighted to give you a brief glimpse here of some of the stunning exhibits that will be on show. They range from outstanding archaeological objects to unique literary texts, alongside intricately illuminated manuscripts, some of which are returning to England for the first time. The exhibition highlights the key role manuscripts played in the transmission of ideas, literature and art across political and geographical boundaries, spanning all six centuries from the eclipse of Roman Britain to the Norman Conquest.

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The Utrecht Psalter, on loan from Universiteitsbibliotheek, Utrecht

 

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Spong Man, on loan from Norwich Museums Service

 

The exhibition presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to encounter original evidence from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, a time when the English language was used and written for the first time and the foundations of the kingdom of England were laid down.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms is on display at the British Library in London from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019. You can buy your tickets here. A book accompanying the exhibition, edited by Lead Curator Dr Claire Breay (The British Library) and Professor Joanna Story (University of Leicester), is available to buy from the Library's online shop.

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Don't forget that the British Library has made its outstanding collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and charters available online in full, allowing people around the world to explore them in detail, and to support future research in the field.

Regular stories about the exhibition will be published on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. You can also follow us on Twitter, @BLMedieval, using the hashtag #BLAngloSaxons. We'd love you to tell us which is your favourite exhibit, from the selection published here. 

 

Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Bible in Latin, was made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century and taken to Italy in 716 as a gift for the Pope. It has returned to England for the first time in more than 1300 years, on loan from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence.

Codex Amiatinus  MS MAD Amiatino  f.1v (c) Firenze  Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana

Codex Amiatinus, on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana, Florence

 

Here is a small selection of some of the outstanding illuminated manuscripts on display. They include the St Augustine Gospels, the Book of Durrow, the Echternach Gospels, the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Durham Cassiodorus, the Codex Aureus, the MacDurnan Gospels and the Boulogne Gospels.

St Augustine Gospels (c) The Parker Library  Corpus Christi College  Cambridge

 The St Augustine Gospels, on loan from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge

Book of Durrow (Ms.57  ff.85v-86r) (c) The Board of Trinity College  Dublin

The Book of Durrow, on loan from Trinity College Dublin

 

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The Echternach Gospels, on loan from Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

 

Lindisfarne Gospels p.2 (c) British Library Board

The Lindisfarne Gospels (The British Library)

 

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The Durham Cassiodorus, on loan from Durham Cathedral Library

 

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The Codex Aureus, on loan from Kungliga Biblioteket, Stockholm

 

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The MacDurnan Gospels, on loan from Lambeth Palace Library

 

129. Boulogne-sur-mer MS 11

The Boulogne Gospels, on loan from Bibliothèque municipale, Boulogne-sur-mer

 

The exhibition also presents an opportunity to compare side-by-side the Utrecht Psalter with its later descendants, the Harley Psalter and the Eadwine Psalter. 

Utrecht Psalter (MS 32  ff. 8r) (c) Universiteitsbibliothek  Utrech

The Utrecht Psalter, on loan from Universiteitsbibliotheek, Utrecht

 

Harley Psalter (Harley MS 603  f. 7v) (c) British Library Board

The Harley Psalter (The British Library)

 

Eadwine Psalter (MS R.17.1  ff. 24r) (c) the Master and Fellows of Trinity College Cambridge

The Eadwine Psalter, on loan from Trinity College, Cambridge

 

Also on display is the magnificent treasure binding on the Judith of Flanders Gospels.

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The Judith of Flanders Gospels, on loan from The Morgan Library, New York

 

The four principal manuscripts of Old English poetry are on display together for the first time. The British Library’s unique manuscript of Beowulf is on show alongside the Vercelli Book, returning to England for the first time 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.

Beowulf (c) British Library Board

Beowulf (The British Library)

 

Exeter Book ff. 112v (c) University of Exeter  Digital Humanities and the Dean & Chapter  Exeter Cathedral

The Exeter Book, on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library

 

Vercelli Book (c) Biblioteca Capitolare de Vercelli (Italy)

The Vercelli Book, on loan from Biblioteca e Archivio Capitolare, Vercelli

 

Junius Manuscript p.35 (c) The Bodleian Library  Unviersity of Oxford

The Junius Manuscript, on loan from the Bodleian Libraries, Oxford

 

Domesday Book, the most famous book in English history and earliest surviving public record, is on loan from The National Archives. It provides unrivalled evidence for the landscape and administration of late Anglo-Saxon England.

Domesday (c) The National Archives

Domesday Book, on loan from The National Archives

 

Also on display are a number of recently discovered archaeological objects including the Binham Hoard, the largest collection of gold from 6th century Britain, on loan from the Norfolk Museums Service; the Lichfield Angel, which has never been displayed outside of Lichfield since it was excavated in 2003, on loan from Lichfield Cathedral; and key objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found, on loan from Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent.

Binham Hoard (c) Norwich Castle Museum

The Binham Hoard, on loan from Norwich Museum Service

 

Lichfield Angel (c) Lichfield Cathedral

The Lichfield Angel, on loan from Lichfield Cathedral

 

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The Staffordshire Hoard, on loan from Birmingham Museums Trust and the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent

 

Other objects on display (did we say that this is a once-in-a-generation exhibition?) include the Sutton Hoo gold buckle on loan from the British Museum, and the Alfred Jewel, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum.

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The Sutton Hoo gold buckle, on loan from the British Museum

 

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The Alfred Jewel, on loan from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

 

The River Erne horn, a wooden trumpet from the 8th century discovered in the river in the 1950s, is displayed for the first time alongside the Vespasian Psalter, which includes the oldest translation of part of the Bible into English and depicts two musicians playing very similar instruments.

River Erne horn © National Museum NI

The River Erne Horn, on loan from National Museums Northern Ireland

 

Vespasian Psalter (c) British Library Board

The Vespasian Psalter (The British Library)

 

A number of important documents are on display in Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms. They include the earliest surviving English charter, issued in 679 and granting land to the Abbot of Reculver; the oldest original letter written in England, from the Bishop of London to the Archbishop of Canterbury, dating from early 8th century; and the earliest surviving letter in English, the Fonthill letter, from the early 10th century on loan from Canterbury Cathedral.

Earliest surviving English charter (c) British Library Board

The earliest surviving charter (The British Library)

 

Earliest surviving original letter from England (c) British Library Board

The oldest letter written in England (The British Library)

 

Fonthill letter  earliest surviving letter in English (c) Reproduced courtesy of the Chapter  Canterbury Cathedral

The Fonthill Letter, on loan from Canterbury Cathedral Archives

 

The St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book with its original binding, was made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century. It was acquired by the British Library in 2012 following the Library’s most ambitious and successful fundraising campaign for an acquisition.

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The St Cuthbert Gospel (The British Library)

 

Last, and certainly not least, the exhibition has on display a number of significant historical manuscripts from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, such as the Moore Bede, Textus Roffensis, the New Minster Liber Vitae, and the will of Wynflæd, a 10th-century English noblewoman.

 

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The Moore Bede, on loan from Cambridge University Library

  

 

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Textus Roffensis, on loan from Rochester Cathedral

 

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The New Minster Liber Vitae (The British Library)

Wynflaed Will (c) British Library Board

 Wynflæd's will (The British Library)

 

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

The British Library, London

19 October 2018–19 February 2019

 

 

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