Book Review: Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War

All too often the Anglo Saxon period is referred to as the 'Dark Ages' and depicted as a time of ignorance and superstition with little scientific or cultural advancement. But the authors of Anglo Saxon Kingdoms: Art Word War, the exhibition catalogue for a show at the British Library argue that this characterisation is far from the truth. Instead, through enlightening essays and beautiful reproductions, the book paints a picture of an Anglo Saxon world that is vibrant, literate, artistic, creative, intellectual, adventurous and outward-looking.

Anglo Saxon Kingdoms exhibition catalogue

They also argue that, far from this being a time of no advancement, the Anglo Saxon era is a significant stepping stone in the history of England, For In that time and in the pages of this glorious book lie the roots of Britain's faith and language as the first flowering of our love for books and learning. There is the earliest surviving original letter sent in England despatched in 704 in which the Bishop of London requests permission from the Archbishop of Canterbury to attend a council. Alongside that sit the impressive Codex Amiatus, the earliest surviving complete bible in Latin and the earliest surviving text of the poem Beowulf. There is even a early example of word play in Hrabanus Maurus book of verse.

Writing tablets, styli, grammars and text books of letters underline the importance of learning in Anglo Saxon times. Indeed, such was the concern over the decline in Latin learning after decades of Viking raids, that King Alfred personally translated Pope Gregory the Great’s Regula Pastoralis, a work on pastoral care into Old English so at least his people could get the latest European ideas in translation.  

The world beyond the shores of England proved a source of curiosity for the Anglo Saxons with The Marvels of the East describing some 36 strange creatures that can be found in the semi-mythical land of the ‘east’ including giants with no heads, but with their eyes and mouths in their chests instead.

The heart of the book is a 300 page catalogue showing a succession of artworks and manuscripts of breathtaking beauty, great technical virtuosity and intellectual subtlety. Celtic knots of gold and maroon twist and turn across manuscripts. Letters and swirling patterns morph into animal faces. Stare for long enough at the Sutton Hoo gold belt buckle and you see an intricate web of snakes, birds and long-limbed creatures all depicted in contrasting textures. Pore over the mesmerising Lindisfarne Gospels and fresh details reveal themselves such as the creatures formed from the heads of mallards and bodies of snails. Focus on the Canterbury Royal Bible and you will discover serpents and animal heads as well as geometric patterns in soft golds and warm reds.

Anglo Saxon Kingdoms exhibition catalogue

This a comprehensive and sure-footed survey of the Anglo Saxons from the 6th century right through to the aftermath of the Norman Conquest and covering themes ranging from how the kingdoms were established and how Christianity gained a position among them; to language and literature; natural science, music and art. 

Anglo Saxon Kingdoms exhibition catalogue

Anglo Saxon Kingdoms is a mighty exhibition catalogue - a book of beauty and scholarship that serves as a wonderful memento of the British Library exhibition but also a standalone volume on the early Middle Ages. The book is a celebration of the Anglo Saxon world and makes a convincing case for us to reconsider the significance of this era. I'd go so far as to say that this is a book that should be on the bookshelves of every school and history lover in the land.

The book is understandably popular with Museum Bookstore customers. As the exhibition draws to a close, the book is going into a third print, which is sure to sell through fast. 

 Thank you for the British Library for providing us with a review copy.