A New Exhibition Shows Us How To See The Very Bright ‘Dark Ages’

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A new exhibition opens today at the British Library in London – “Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War.” Billed as a “once in a generation exhibition,” it promises to show off not only the exceptional collection in the British Library itself but also treasures now housed elsewhere – in England or further afield in Europe.

The premise of the show is the world of the Anglo-Saxons, a period of roughly 600 years, stretching from the early 5th century CE when Roman troops officially left the British Isles and groups of Germans began to move in, to about 1066 CE when Duke William of Normandy defeated King Harald II Godwinson and took the crown for himself.

This is the deepest “Dark Ages,” according to many popular accounts. A blank space between the “Fall of Rome” and the rebirth of the “Renaissance.” This, supposedly, is when learning all but ceased, culture receded, and life was brutal and short.

But nonsense. The exhibition, if anything, shows off just how sophisticated – just how bright - the Middle Ages really were.

Jewelled terminal of aestel (The Alfred Jewel), 871 – 899. Dimension: length: 5.2 cm width: Max. 3.1 cmArtist Unknown. (Photo by Ashmolean Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Simply think about some of the highlights of this exhibition – manuscripts of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, finds from the Sutton Hoo burial, and the Codex Amiatinus.

Bede was a monk from the the north of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, who lived across the late 7th and early 8th centuries. His Ecclesiastical History was a mammoth work that told, in its own way, the history of his island from the earliest inhabitants to his own day. But this was only 1 of dozens of books he wrote, comprising other histories, letters, philosophical treatises, and works of biblical interpretation. His work was so influential that by the next century he was considered to be a “Father,” an authority so revered that he was counted an equal to thinkers like Augustine of Hippo and Jerome.

The early 7th-century Sutton Hoo ship burial (a whole ship, underground) is rightly famous for the vast treasures it revealed, most now (permanently) at the British Museum. With silver from as far East as Constantinople, other objects from across the Channel, and many gorgeous pieces displaying a style peculiar to the inhabitants of the British Isles at the time, it still serves as a forceful reminder of just how interconnected the Anglo-Saxons were to the rest of Europe, even into the Mediterranean.

Anglo-Saxon bird shield ornament from the Sutton-Hoo ship burial, from the British Museum’s collection. (Photo by CM Dixon/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Finally, the Codex Amiatinus – an early 8th-century Bible that was made in the north of England but wound up in Rome. Its history has been described by @ParvaVox (a scholar and specialist on early medieval manuscripts). 

In short, the book traveled “from Northumbria to Papal Rome, to a Tuscan monastery, then to the public library built… by a Medici Pope,” where it’s remained ever since. Along the way, it was used in the special celebrations of the mass during the 11th century and then to correct errors in the Latin version of the Bible (the Vulgate) during the 16th. Its presence in our own time forcefully reminds us that its history, like the Anglo-Saxons themselves, was rich and varied, with a lasting impact. 

The idea of the “Dark Ages” might well be a kind of vampire myth, one that seems to be able to live forever despite the repeated attempts of scholars to kill it off . And although this new exhibition at the British Library likely won’t be the stake through that myth’s heart, the brightness – the light – of the treasures on display will at least force that myth back into the shadows once more. Where it belongs.

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