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How an exhibition is reviving Anglo-Saxon England: From fearless warriors to timeless jewels

With globalisation establishing English as the planet’s lingua franca, the largest ever exhibition of pre-1066 Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, the first to be written in English, could not be more timely, says Dominic Selwood

Tuesday 04 December 2018 13:18 GMT
The earliest copy of the ‘Rule of St Benedict’, which all monks lived by
The earliest copy of the ‘Rule of St Benedict’, which all monks lived by (Dominic Selwood)

Gaze around Britain’s great cathedrals and castles, at the carved stone and painted glass – the biblia idiotarum or “books of the unlettered” – and they eloquently evoke every age back to William the Conqueror. Try to peer back further, though, and everything changes. The visual, intellectual, spiritual, and day-to-day world of the age that came before seems maddeningly hard to grasp.

Back in the 1930s, the authors of 1066 And All That captured something of the frustration: “Egg-Kings were found on the thrones of all these kingdoms, such as Eggberd, Eggbreth, Eggfroth, etc. None of them, however, succeeded in becoming memorable – except in so far as it is difficult to forget such names as Eggborth, Eggbred, Eggbeard, Eggfish, etc. Nor is it even remembered by what kind of Eggdeath they perished.”

However, the low middle ages are not truly lost. Pre-conquest England is there – it is just well hidden. Occasional church towers or windows and museum cabinets of jewellery hint at a vibrant period, but it is in books and manuscripts that the Anglo-Saxons come vividly alive, delineated in everything from pale rusty ink to lush gold and lapis. In these texts we meet a vigorous and confident cast of warriors and saints, queens and kings, thegns and villagers, dragons and gods.

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