Rebecca Lawton on 'Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War'

 

We asked AHRC funded PhD student Becky Lawton to tell us about her involvement with the major new exhibition at the British Library on the Anglo-Saxon. Read Becky's own account about her passion for medieval manuscripts and how she was involved in the exhibition.


oldest surviving intact book
The oldest surviving intact book from Western Europe, the St Cuthbert Gospel, British Library, Additional MS 89000.

Did you know that the oldest surviving intact book from Western Europe was made in north-eastern England in the early eighth century?

Or that the oldest surviving parchment letter was sent from London to Canterbury around the year 704?

Or that the oldest surviving will of an English woman survives in a copy made in the early eleventh century?

Visitors to the British Library’s landmark exhibition, Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War will be able to encounter original evidence from the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, and explore a once in a generation collection of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts, charters, and objects of material culture. 

In 2015, I was awarded an AHRC funded collaborative doctoral award jointly supervised by Professor Joanna Story at the University of Leicester and Dr Claire Breay at the British Library. My research explores how Rome was perceived through text in early Anglo-Saxon England, and focuses on papal letters, pilgrim itineraries and collections of Roman epigraphy. During my time at the British Library, I have been presented with many wonderful opportunities to share my passion for medieval manuscripts with a range of audiences; from colleagues, to fellow postgraduate students, and members of the public.

From day one of my PhD, I was encouraged to participate in the activities of the Medieval Manuscripts section. I have helped with sessions showing manuscripts to visitors and written a number of posts for their popular Medieval Manuscripts Blog, such as posts on medieval ‘Pokémon Go’ and medieval midwifery

The highlight of my time at the British Library, however, has been the opportunity to contribute towards the preparations for the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition. I was often able to draw upon my PhD research, particularly when advising on the choice of page openings to use for particular manuscripts and when writing entries for the exhibition catalogue.

Alphabet in the upper margin
Alphabet in the upper margin, British Library, Harley MS 208 f. 87v.

A core aspect of my PhD research explores letter writing in Anglo-Saxon England, and focuses on the Anglo-Saxon letter books in the British Library’s collections. These are later compilations of many letters copied into one manuscript.

While studying a letter book of Alcuin of York (d. 804), I noticed some fascinating annotations in the margin. At the top of the page, a scribe began to write the Latin alphabet yet when they came to the letter ‘b’, they accidentally wrote the letter the wrong way round. At the end of the alphabet, the scribe added an ampersand (&), four Old English letters and the first words of the Lord’s Prayer (pater noster) in Latin. These annotations, and the ones in the lower margin, were likely added by an eager student practising their letters.

These annotations reflect the personal mistakes of the scribe who wrote them and are relatable to everyone who has learnt to read and write. I knew this page opening would appeal to visitors of the exhibition.

Another important document in my PhD research is a letter sent from Bishop Wealdhere of London to Archbishop Berhtwald of Canterbury in 704 or 705. This letter is the earliest original letter to survive on parchment from the Latin West.

It is still possible to see impressions from where the letter was folded for delivery. On the reverse of the letter, in the very centre, it is possible to see a faint inscription, though it is difficult to read with the naked eye.

Alphabet in the upper margin
Address inscription on the reverse of the letter, British Library, Cotton MS Augustus II 18.
Alphabet in the upper margin
Address inscription after multispectral imaging, British Library, Cotton MS Augustus II 18.

Working with colleagues at the British Library I was able to get this inscription photographed using multispectral imaging. The results were fantastic and the inscription is now far easier to read. It is written in Latin, and roughly translates as ‘from Wealdhere to Berhtwald’. This would have been written on the outside of the letter after it was folded, and visible to the messenger tasked with delivering the letter.

Visitors to the exhibition will be able to see this unique letter with the hurried style of writing used by the scribe, the folding marks where the letter was folded, and an image of the address notes, once read by the messenger who took it from London to Canterbury.

Alphabet in the upper margin
Becky Lawton with an exhibit.

My AHRC funded collaborative doctoral award has placed me at the heart of the national library for the past three years. My time at the British Library has allowed me to develop my historical knowledge, professional skills and experience in a way that has constantly pushed my boundaries and exceeded my expectations. I’ve gained valuable insight into curatorial work, the development of a major exhibition, and how the core aims of a national library are manifest in their weekly, monthly and yearly rhythms.

In return, I’ve been able to incorporate outputs of my PhD research into the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, and the activities of the Medieval Manuscript Section. It has been a true collaborative partnership, whereby both parties have been enriched.

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, World, War runs from 19 October 2018 to 19 February 2019 and tickets are available to book here: www.bl.uk/events/anglo-saxon-kingdoms.

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