ANGLO-SAXON KINGDOMS, ART, WORD, WAR
Having recently performed an extensive study of early English history through association with a rather ambitious scheme undertaken by myself to draft a comprehensive catalog of the many parks, breweries and museums that presently exist within the country’s capital, I was unsettled by what appeared, within my mind, to be an absence of accurate information pertaining to the nation’s formative years, a deficit that, in being accountable to both the comparative antiquity of any documentation relating to Britain’s early history and what seemed to be a parochial disinclination upon the part of the ancient scholastic establishment to either make or preserve records throughout the first millennium, had left me quite uncertain as to the character of the events which once served to consolidate human premise upon British soil.
As is the case in the instance of any protracted effort to extract truth from what often seems to be a purposefully diverse cross-section of peripheral information, my persistent attempts to qualify the exact time scheme of first millennial history were circumstantially cheated by the gauntlet of misconceptions that may incidentally be construed to occur between similar recurrent trends at vastly different dates, a term beneath which I was coincidentally driven by an obsessive compulsion to accurately hold the shattered residue of human understanding that genuinely remained from the most ancient eras of England’s past to account, an instance in which, it paradoxically seemed that isolated catchments separated from mainstream criticism for geographical or archaeological reasons, had fared better than those cursorily placed beneath the lens of subsequent scrutiny.
In this manner, I gradually refined my search, pursuing fragmentary texts derived from a selection of unusual sources located upon the pox of islands that presently exist off the coast of mainland Britain, locations in which monastic communities that had allegedly survived the combination of both conflict and profiteering which must presumably once have purged England of its heritage, were observed to have been granted an opportunity to preserve a testament of event which, in many instances, miraculously exceeded that of contemporary inland locations by many years.
Realising the rarity and thus importance of such records in historical terms, I was naturally delighted to learn that the “British Library” in St.Pancras was staging an extensive exhibition devoted almost solely to my sphere of interest, a “Once In A Generation” collation of first millennial material extracted from a number of regional locations situated about the extent of both Britain and Ireland.
Entitled “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms, Art, Word, War”, the British Library’s exhibition was, from what I could deduce, primarily concerned with the popularity of the Christian religion among the numerous Anglo Saxon communities which inhabited Britain between the fifth and the eleventh centuries A.D., a premium beneath which a number of literary records were noted to have been drafted in a diverse selection of languages including native Pictish, Brythonic, Anglo Saxon, Runic Norse and Latin to celebrate the procession of events that, in having long since been forgotten by contemporary scholars, must once have served to distinguish early English life.
Initially being thought to have originated from largely illiterate Germanic stock, the “Anglo Saxons” were, in keeping with the formal interpretation of cultural migration that has, through some fluke of mischance, served to define much of what is known about early English civilisation, deduced to have sailed to Britain across the North sea sometime in the fifth century A.D., a circumstance beneath which their arrival was noted to have coincided with the departure of what remained of the Roman Empire from England at approximately the same time, granting Anglo-Saxon culture precedent over what is conventionally perceived to be that of a more sophisticated Roman antecedent.
Achieving what is generally considered to be its cultural hiatus during the seventh century A.D., a period of cosmopolitan seafaring known as “Northumbria’s Golden Age”, the Anglo Saxons were recorded to have founded a number of sizable monasteries in Northern England and Scotland at a surprisingly early date, a selection of interests which, in extending to encompass an abbey legendarily granted to “St. Aidan” by Northumbria’s ruling sovereign “King Oswald” on the island of “Lindisfarne” and a church placed beneath the patronage of “St. Columba” on the remote Scottish island of “Iona”, notably included an ecclesiastical school founded by an abbot named “Benedict Biscop” in “Wearmouth Jarrow” among its list of freeholdings, a building within which a gathering of monastic scholars including “the Venerable Bede” was observed to have drafted both a catalogue of biblical tomes and an extensive corpus of documentation pertaining to the history of the British Isles as it then appeared.
The proliferation of such clerical endeavour in North East England was, in this instance, deemed to have been the result of a protracted attempt made by Roman missionaries to convert pagan kings to Christianity, a premium beneath which “King Aethelberht” of Kent was believed to have wielded considerable influence during the founding years of Canterbury Cathedral, a period throughout which a primitive legal system was coincidentally witnessed to have been drafted in South East England in efforts to maintain an amount of civil decorum, a mandate which, in circumstantially being entirely over-ruled by the military stridency of “King Offa” during the eighth century, was paradoxically to herald the submission of Anglo Saxon interests across most of Southern England to those of Mercia slightly further North.
Although Anglo Saxon civilisation was, during the ninth and tenth centuries, perceived, within the exhibition, to have floundered before the wide-scale assault of England’s East coast by the Norse, a circumstance beneath which Viking invaders were effectively at liberty to claim a right of ownership over whatever it was that they desired upon arrival, “Alfred the Great” was, in being recorded to have patronised both literature and classical science, noted to have been of Anglo Saxon stock, a term beneath which both he and his successors were to achieve renown through association with a number of ecclesiastical figures including “St. Eathelwold of Winchester”, “St. Oswald of Worcester” and “St. Dunstan of Canterbury” for supporting religious reform and enforcing the rules of strict observance that had been drafted by “St. Benedict of Nursia” during the sixth century, a provision under which the church was subsequently perceived to wield an unprecedented degree of influence in England throughout the medieval era.
Although Alfred’s kingdom was itself witnessed to have suffered to the attentions of the Danish king “Cnut the Great” in 1016, a circumstance beneath which Vikings were once again granted sovereignty over the English before themselves falling prey to Norman interests at the Battle of Hastings, Anglo Saxon practices were thought to have retained a degree of influence upon the British mainland through until the end of the eleventh century, a term beneath which episcopal concerns were perceived to have been largely respected by Norman freeholders.
It was, in fact, ironically observed to have been the case in this instance, that the comparative rarity of archival resource pertaining to the first millennium was the result of a protracted effort made by Parliament to dissolve what remained of the English monastic system during the mid-sixteenth century, a purge which, in being conducted relatively recently, successfully reduced what must once been a fairly extensive body of clerical work to a scattered residue of diverse ecclesiastical texts that had, as a result of their comparative isolation, evaded consignment to cultural oblivion.
Upon crossing the exhibition’s threshold I was immediately confronted by a selection of pottery vessels which, in having been cast for the purposes of cremation, were noted to have been sealed with decorative caps, an example of which, in describing the figure of a man seated upon a podium, was clearly displayed in efforts to grant some insight into the artistic inclination of early Anglo Saxon industry.
Christened “Spong man” due to its discovery upon “Spong” hill in Norfolk, the seated model appeared oddly pensive as it crouched transfixed in a gesture of vacant approximation with its hands cupped behind its head, a posture that, in bearing the hallmark of contemporary art, was incredibly recorded to have been sculpted more then one and a half thousand years ago during the earliest era of Britain’s occupation by mankind.
As I continued through the exhibition hall my attention was drawn to the instantly familiar visage of one of the many bearded kings that serves to typify much medieval art alongside a phenomenally ancient extract of text credited to the celebrated Anglo Saxon historian “Gildas”, a document which, in circumstantially drawing an allusion between a ruler named “Maelgwyn of Gwynedd” and the dragon of the apocalypse, betokened cross-reference in my mind to a number of similar tracts criticising the Roman Catholic church for actively engaging in the slaughter of those that ascribed to such a moniker during the crusades, an observation perversely reinforced by the display, in a neighbouring cabinet, of a page extracted from a copy of the “St. Augustine Gospels”, a document which, in presenting a depiction of the apostle “Luke” garbed in a white robe, inferred that the Anglo Saxon church had, long before the era of puritanism which distinguished the English Civil War, promoted the idea that man should strive to cleanse his soul of corruption in efforts to deter foul fortune.
Progressing gradually through the selection of items presented for display I duly came across a number of intricately wrought gold objects set in the traditional Celtic manner with garnets, a series of items that, in being deduced to be of both Anglo Saxon and Mercian contrivance had, in many instances, been discovered quite accidentally whilst undertaking farm labour and construction work.
Loosely termed “hordes” for the sake of contextual convenience, the collection of objects proffered forth for inspection was recorded to have originated from a range of different sources including locations in East Anglia, Norfolk, Staffordshire and Kent, a geographical diversity which would infer that cavaliers had, during the first millennium, transited England’s Eastern aspect decoratively clothed with jewellery, a custom which, in bearing similarities to that practiced aboard the ostentatious caravans later crafted for the purposes of medieval pilgrimage, would serve to explain the apparently random spread of many of the objects presented for display.
Stepping quietly into the Exhibition’s main gallery, I was immediately confronted by a fine collection of early English Bibles, an assortment of tomes which, in being painstakingly embellished with gold leaf and coloured ink, exemplified the care that was employed by monastic scribes to illustrate the events of the Christian cycle.
Recorded to have originated from a range of locations in North East England including “Durham”, “Lindisfarne”, “Dublin” and “Cambridge”, a term beneath which clerical scholasticism was deemed to be synonymous with the rise of the kingdom of Northumbria, the selection of bibles presented forth for display notably boasted a copy of the “Codex Amiatanus” within its catalog, a text that, in having allegedly been drafted in “Wearmouth Jarrow” during the eighth century, was subsequently presented before “the shrine of St. Peter the Apostle” in Rome by an abbot named “Coelfrith” in the eighth century, a pretext beneath which it was recorded to have remained in Italy for more than a millennium.
Returned to England for the first time since its initial consignment to appear alongside the many other artefacts displayed at the British Library, the “Codex Amiatanus”, is in being a truly massive volume, perhaps one of the finest examples of Anglo-Saxon draftsmanship still in existence, a work of devotion that still retains much of the vibrancy which it possessed when first transcribed.
The next section of the exhibition was devoted to the expansion of the Mercian civilisation, a premium beneath which the diocese of “Lichfield” was thought to have risen to prominence as the centre of English culture divesting Canterbury Cathedral of the authority which it had hitherto entertained in matters of a constitutional persuasion.
Including items of legislature drafted during the reign of “King Offa”, alongside a fine example of early English episcopal sculpture, an item which, in once having served as the wall of a shrine, was observed to have been crafted in the semblance of the Arch Angel Gabriel, the evidence presented for display, indicated that, although technically synonymous with earlier Anglo Saxon civilisation, the Mercians were more openly militaristic than their predecessors, an assertion potentially attributable to the increasing influence of Viking culture upon the British mainland.
As the kingdom of Mercia established precedent in England, the Carolingian court of the Holy Roman Emperor “Charlemagne” began to flourish in France, a premium beneath which “Romance” was thought to have achieved prevalence as a commonly spoken dialect, a tongue that, in being adopted by European culture during the reign of Alfred the Great, served to establish the foundations of what was to become modern English.
Making brisk headway towards the exhibition’s next instalment, my attention was immediately drawn to a minuscule ornamental pendant which was recorded to have been crafted during the reign of King Alfred, an object that, in being cast from gold to resemble a teardrop, was observed to possess a small windowed aperture through which the enamel portrait of a man jubilantly swinging two similar objects attached to his waist with cords could clearly be seen.
Appropriately named “the Alfred Jewel”, the proficiency of the craftsmanship invested in the artefact remains quite exceptional to this day, a term beneath which Anglo Saxon smiths appeared to have delighted in minutiae, sculpting objects of such minuscule proportions that it occasionally proves difficult to discern their finer aspect without the assistance of a magnifying lens.
Leaving the Alfred Jewel to glitter optimistic promise from its cabinet, I swiftly made headway towards the exhibition’s next instalment, a chamber, which, in being dominated by a massive eighth century Celtic cross carved from sandstone, contained a number of weapons and esoteric manuscripts within its horde, a selection of artefacts that, in including a fine cast iron blade inscribed with runic sigils, a silver scabbard brace, a map of Anglo Saxon England replete with documentation describing its monstrous bestiary, and a written account of the tale of “Beowulf” among its catalogue, gave some indication as to the effect that Viking culture had upon the British during the latter years of the first millennium.
Described within the exhibition to be the “Ruthwell cross”, the giant stone crucifix glowered magnificently down upon the reliquary at it ‘s girth like an incorruptible at a feast, a circumstance beneath which it was respectively engraved upon opposed sides with images of men engaging in exchange and those of beasts entwined among wreaths of vine, an apparel that, in serving to distinguish the monument’s purpose as the centrepiece of an Anglo-Saxon village, stood in stark contrast to the generally militaristic theme embodied by the objects which lay at its circumference.
Briskly making forth towards the exhibition’s next selection of displays, a series of items devoted to the influence of Latin text in England throughout the latter years of the first millennium, I was intrigued to discover that, like the Romans, Anglo-Saxon culture maintained an essentially Copernican attitude towards the solar system, a term beneath which the traditional pantheon of planets described by both Roman and Greek science were effectively believed to orbit the sun.
Despite the progress that such a collusion of academic disciplines could be deemed to represent, the exhibition thenceforth proceeded to make reference back to the “Rule of St. Benedict” and the assortment of episcopal themes which distinguished Britain’s earlier history, a review that, in countenancing the re-publication of many ecclesiastical tomes, inferred that the distribution of Latin documentation had contrarily served to confirm rather than discourage the efficacy of Christian practice in England, a term beneath which “King Cnut” of Denmark was incidentally noted to have been commemorated with a series of Gospels drafted in his honour.
Gradually making my way towards the exhibition’s final instalment, my attention was inextricably drawn to a series of documents pertaining to the “Domesday book”, a text that, in once having represented the most comprehensive record of land ownership in England, served, in its fashion, to mark the end of Anglo Saxon dominion in Britain and the beginning of the Norman era.
Containing records of every free-holding in England including extensive lists of the property owned by each household placed beneath its jurisdiction, the “Domesday Book” provides perhaps the most complete account of the practicalities which once served to constitute early medieval life still in existence, a term beneath which the Normans were frequently observed to have capitalised upon the legacy of military victory that typified their rule to the effect of awarding themselves unlimited warranty.
Whether or not the “Domesday Book” accurately reflects upon the state of play to which early medieval rights of tenure actually ascribed remains a matter of conjecture, many of the tract’s claims are, in appearing tenuous, witnessed to have been challenged by the accession of successive ruling bodies to power throughout the medieval era, a term beneath which the tome’s value as a piece of historical evidence, may, in many instances, be considered purely textual.
Having carefully inspected the items of documentation presented forth for display, I slowly turned to leave, tentatively making my way up the flight of steps which served to divide the exhibition’s entrance from its exit, a withdrawal which, in granting me opportunity to catch the vacuous gaze of “Spong Man” still brooding over matters of an introspective nature to my aft, duly led me past the Library’s reception and out onto the street.
Organised through collaboration with a number of universities and public archives in England, Ireland and Europe the “Anglo-Saxon Art, World, War” exhibition provides a fascinating insight into a largely unrecorded period of history, an era that, but for the endeavours of Christian monks to accurately interpret the dictum of the Holy Gospels, would perhaps have succumbed almost entirely to neglect.
For those interested in the heritage of the church and more specifically in the minutiae of obscure historical research, then the British Library’s current foray into England’s virgin era comes highly recommended, an ideal venue for school parties, academics and lovers of ancient wisdom in equal measure.
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