After spending most of December away from London — galavanting to such exotic locales as Sydney, New York, and… Luxembourg — I figured I ought to start the New Year off with a good grounding in my Anglo-Saxon roots.
The British Library obligingly put on an extraordinary exhibition of Anglo-Saxon literature. In this case “literature” simply means the written word: legal texts, royal charters, bibles, and Beowulf. They start in the 5th Century (shortly after the fall of Rome) and went up to the 12th or 13th Centuries — I paid less attention to the later stuff because I was so captivated by the really early pieces. I had never seen so many books (many exquisitely beautiful) from so long ago.
Some of my favorites were a series of bibles that had been created by clerics in England and taken to Italy 1,300 years ago. There they stayed, believed by everyone to be Italian, until someone realized that the original English author’s name had been scratched out by some jealous Italian. This was the first time the books had been back on English soil since then.
The biggest of these was a bible literally the size of a large trunk. Must have been a pain to lug across the continent!
The other thing I loved about this exhibition was how it brought out the nerdy, social side of the British museum-goers. The British are famous for their social reserve, and normally you’d never see them casually chatting with each other the way Americans do. But more than once in esoteric settings like this one, I’ve noticed just how enthusiastic they get for their own history and erudition.
There was a little coterie of slightly-past-middle-age men and women moving through the galleries who just couldn’t keep their enthusiasm to themselves. They had clearly come separately but found in each other kindred spirits. They would exclaim over the colors! the patterns! They would point out to each other little details they hadn’t noticed before, or which someone else might miss — all the slightest bit professorial and pedantic, but I completely loved it. And I was absolutely tickled when I was pulled into the chatter while looking at a page covered with a beautiful golden lion. I was part of the club!
The library augmented the literary collection with some very fine specimens of jewelry. There was a fine gold belt buckle from the Sutton Hoo hoard, and some lovely garnet and gold broaches that were much more finely wrought than I had ever realized those early Angles were capable of.