The great Alcuin once praised a time (in his past) when he sat with a friend, quiet inter librorum copias – amid piles of books. I have had the privilege of doing the same, and if I didn’t get a PhD out of it, well, more fool me – but I did spend time with chant books, books of hours, office books, the I’m-sure-this-is-interesting-but-it’s-page-after-page-of-crabbed-writing-with-the-occasional-red-capital books… So I wasn’t a complete novice when Lizzie and I went to the British Library for
…even if my “own period” was six or more centuries later, the late C15th and early C16th MSS. The printing press; the rise and fall of Norman-French; complex harmony; Wycliffe; America… In coming to this eagerly awaited event exploring the piety and power of the kingdoms of what is now called England, I thought I knew what I was getting into – naive of me: this is so much richer than a timeline of MSS.
It is simplistic to say so, but six hundred years is a long time for any scholar, committed professional or amateur, and the thousand years between Cnut the King and us seems more than that by a huge stretch. These are works that never were designed to come together – they span five hundred years themselves – but together they make the most wondrous kaleidoscope of a culture – or of a string of shifting cultures. The BL has skillfully collected material that is not only of monumental importance but also illustrates very well what a different world the peoples of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms inhabited. The lady Wynflaed who left her nun’s veil in her will, as well as naming her slaves that were to be freed; the warning illustration in a bilingual psalter against deceit, showing Cupid firing arrows at a cuddling couple; the elegant copy of Alcuin’s letters; Aelfric’s Grammar… The exhibition is designed to lead the visitor roughly through the first peoples we might think of as “The Anglo-Saxons” (book after book is available on this shorthand; suffice it here to say that, while explaining the rise of Germanic kingship in Southern Britain, the curators steer mercifully away from Our Island Story) through to one of the final cases, The Domesday Book. And for similarities we have not only a growing and changing view of power and relationship with the rest of Europe (and Africa: it was lovely to hear the astonishment of two visitors reading about the African Archbishop Hadrian of Canterbury), but the growth of ‘our’ language from the grey, tatty wonder that is Beowulf through to Bishop Wulstan’s poem in praise of…. well, himself. There is enough here to challenge and to enlighten what it is to be English – or even English-speaking – in the uncertain times we live in, partly because we are shown a story – uncertain, faltering, violent, pious – of the growth of English identity.
I’m thinking about the books, principally: they were what I wanted to see. I have mentioned my love of manuscripts before in the blog and although I love them, I know there are crowds of people with more enthusiasm and expertise: my passing note (twice, I think) of Christopher de Hamel’s wonderful Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts just points to who I have read and learned from. (And in such a list I can’t miss out Tolkien (the model for the Dwarves Chronicle in Moria is in this exhibition) or Lewis (and Pauline Baynes, who must, I think, have seen the Utrecht or Harley Psalter) or indeed M R James, whose works I used in paleography tutorials in the 80s.) His book, especially, and Daniel Wakelin’s Designing English book and exhibition were in my head as I looked forward to – and then looked round – the British Library exhibition.
Just sometimes hyperbole around amazement and treasure is justified. It wasn’t just the size of the great Codex Amiatinus that astonishes, but its story: how it got to Italy with Abbot Ceolfrith and why it never got to Rome; what happened to its equally massive sisters; what it shows in illustration and skill. It is open at a wonderful interpretation of a scholar (Ezra, the exilic historian) at the task of writing , a common enough image (not wishing to damn Lindisfarne’s spare and lovely images with faint praise!), but here with his library open, a book on the floor, his ink-mixing stuff to hand… It sums up to me so much of what I love about scholarship both as an activity and as an object of study. Ezra is inter librorum copias, and so I am here, not changing the world by restoring Jerusalem, or making a bid to be made Archbishop like Ceolfrith, but just a tourist into this world of manuscripts, inspired by their beauty and fragility, intrigued by their world(s), glimpsed, like a friend’s face in a crowd.
This is a majestic and vitally important exhibition. It is improbable that I will get to see many of these treasures in another, and it may be that conservation practices will mean they will never come together again. Once in a lifetime? Once in a thousand years.