To enter the British Library's landmark exhibition, visitors assumed King Edgar's place in the famous frontispiece to the 966 New Minster Charter, the image that also serves as the cover to Claire Breay and Joanna Story's intricate catalogue (where Edgar returns to his usual spot on fol. 2v; cat. 112, click link for an image). The male and female saints who ordinarily flank the king appeared as sentinels on the doorframe, ushering visitors into the exhibition space as their right hands holding attributes bent around the corners of the posts, making a gateway of cross and key. Having been greeted by figures due to reappear in the second half of the show, visitors next approached the fifth–sixth-century starting point for the exhibition's long chronological arc. A large photograph of green forest defined the initial installation space, along with a wall map depicting the movements of Picts, Dál Riata, Irish, Britons, Franks, Saxons, Frisians, Angles, and Jutes (this map inaugurating a magnificent set distributed throughout the galleries and abbreviated in the catalogue, at pp. 398–403). The first vitrine set up a vivid confrontation, presenting the enigmatic earthenware figure sitting elbows to knees on the fifth-century urn lid found at Spong Hill, Norfolk (click link for an image).
The opening of the exhibition established several themes key to the projects of the catalogue and installation. Beginning with the Spong Man's stare, “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms” staged an extraordinary set of encounters with a range of objects, including 130 manuscripts. All the objects embody the centrality of the written word and its crafted media of transmission in the medieval history of (primarily) the land that is now England.1 The curators and catalogue authors effectively emphasized objects’ histories of movement as a factor just as crucial to the show's story as the works’ original production contexts. In turn, the travel of books contributed to the exhibition's landmark status. The British Library holds fully half the items installed, but, as is prominent in the press coverage, the exhibit represented several major events of return, including the first for the Codex Amiatinus (Biblioteca Laurenziana, Florence; cat. 34), which departed Northumbria for Rome in 716.
The gathering of objects and their well-considered groupings equally represented an extraordinary occasion to experience comparisons knit deep in the DNA of various medievalist fields. Literary historians and linguists (among others) will not soon forget the dense juxtaposition of nearly the complete surviving Old English poetic record in a single case (cats. 86, 87, 89, 90). A cluster similarly apt to quicken art historical pulses closed the installation: the eleventh-century “Harley Psalter” and twelfth-century “Eadwine Psalter” demonstrated Canterbury illuminators’ sustained conversation with the indelible precedent set by the ninth-century Carolingian “Utrecht Psalter,” which had arrived at Christ Church by the early eleventh century (cats. 137, 138, 139; click links for images).
As in the witty gate to the show, attention to the viewer's position in the galleries frequently opened possibilities for association between objects via page selection and physical setting.2 For a particularly dramatic example, the Old English poetic collection in the Vercelli Book was open to the poem, “The Dream of the Rood,” while the manuscript was displayed adjacent to a scale facsimile of the towering Ruthwell Cross with its stone rendering of the same verse. Such spatial coordination facilitated not only a point about the past popularity and resonance of the poem, but also the show's broader exploration of how medium and scale relate to text and language. A personal favorite, less canonical, installation placed Byrhtferth of Ramsey's diagram on the elements (cat. 106, fol. 7v) and the schematic frontispiece of a Boethius manuscript illuminated at Fleury (cat. 99, fol. 13v) in separate cases across an aisle, in easy view of one another (click links for images). This configuration rewarded a visitor's 180-degree turn with a visual comparison as rich as the thematic groups created within the two vitrines. One vitrine paired the Fleury book with another, formally quite distinct Boethius manuscript (cat. 98); in the other, the Byrthtferth diagram appeared next to further works of natural philosophy.
With very few exceptions (notably, re-location of the Utrecht Psalter cluster to the “Art in the Kingdom of England” section), the catalogue preserves the physical flow of the installation as far as its medium allows. If the catalogue, which seems to use primarily stock photography, tends to elide the impact of facing objects in person—the faded stippling of the Durham Cassiodorus (cat. 35), or the sheer bulk of Amiatinus (cat. 34 and fig. 7, splitting the opening shown in London)—reading the entries amounts to a carefully constructed journey of its own. Indeed, the experience of reading the catalogue as a book, rather than piecemeal, illuminates central aspects of the exhibition's character and contribution.
In both the installation and the catalogue, beginning the collection of objects with the Spong Man—the lid to a burial urn—initiates an awareness of particular people and their active presence in the past. The catalogue authors take every opportunity to flag identified scribes and draftspeople, personal copies, known gifts and commissions, annotations and changes to books. The Spong Man is anonymous and unique; figures like Bede and Alcuin pervade the collection with a sense of continual return. Interest in the work of these literary giants endured across centuries and geography, and the catalogue commentary makes visible the continuity and difference between various editions of their writing. In contrast to such steady presence, other people enjoy pointed reappearances, as when a sword supposedly owned by Offa of Mercia (r. 757–96, whose charters and coinage feature earlier, cat. 43 and 45) appears in the 1014 will of Atheling Aethelstan (cat. 142). Influential politicians like Queen Emma or Archbishop Wulfstan make decisive entrances, and their activities then pervade works of varying type in the later sections of the show. Other people with less widespread recognition, like the widow Wynflaed, contribute no less than the big names to the exhibition's sense of history—defined by people's correspondence, their travels, their religious and social practice, their studies, and their shifting priorities.
The catalogue generates prismatic views of a varied and widely connected society. It spotlights land-holding women like Wynflaed (cat. 85), and scholars like Boniface of Mainz and Dunstan of Canterbury, who engaged with work from across the Mediterranean (cat. 37). The ninth-century Bodmin Gospels, imported from Brittany to Cornwall, included for its added (and partially erased) manumissions, introduces enslaved people's names to the historical record (cat. 150) and also highlights the movement of both people and books. The exhibition shows people moving within England (cat. 16), and between Insular geographies and points including North Africa (cat. 17) and Frisia (cat. 36). It presents leaders cultivating connections between Insular kingdoms and the Continent (cat. 72), and bookmakers practicing the agility of their craft in aspects ranging from international teamwork (cat. 54) to the adaptation of motifs across media (cat. 25).
“Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms” demonstrates that items like books, documents, brooches, and weapons are integral to the making of history even as they bear witness to it. The materials, design, facture, movement, and adaptation of the objects chosen for the exhibition are as central to this active historical status as their contents. Bishop Wealdhere's letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury (704–5; cat. 20) exemplifies the point: a diagram in the galleries demonstrated its method of folding, thereby defining the missive's place in history not only through its textual matter and attribution as the oldest surviving parchment letter from the Christian west, but also by its physical form and conveyance. In the network of the exhibition, Wealdhere's lone communication converses with several letter collections copied later than their originals. In various similar subsets of objects, the exhibit depicts certain texts and genres modulating in physical and linguistic form across time, testifying to the varying needs and persisting concerns of the people involved (e.g., the Alcuin collections cats. 48 and 77).
In both the installation and the catalogue conception, the emphasis on movement established at the show's entrance never flagged. Nor did the cultivation of a sense of place, defined politically and linguistically as well as geographically and, in the galleries, topographically, through wall photographs of forests, beachheads, and fields. At the same time, the authors make a virtue of the notorious difficulties in ascribing precise origins to certain early works: ambiguity stands here as an index of cultural entanglement, fluidity, and exchange, opening new possibilities to inquire after modes of contact across a wide geography. “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms” thus argues for a combination of particularity and interconnection in its presentation of the local past, its Insular world not insular at all.
The show's trajectory ostensibly rests at the Domesday Book and the aftermath of 1066, but in other respects stretches well beyond the eleventh century, as when twelfth-century manuscripts preserve a memory of past events particular to the books’ later time (e.g., cat. 3). Effects of the 1731 Cotton Fire similarly serve as visible reminders of the collection histories that stand behind the objects’ preservation. Simultaneously, digital technology and a spotlight on modern archaeology showcase contemporary scholarly practice and how it can renovate our knowledge of the past. Conceived following the acquisition of the Cuthbert Gospels in 2012 (cat. 32) and on view at a time of both widespread migration, and tensions between Britain and the European Union, the contemporary acquired another kind of presence in the experience of visiting the show. Offering a singular gathering of objects from the past, like all exhibits this one testifies to its own scholarly and cultural moment as well.