The Book of Sand by Jorge Luis Borges (1975)

The 1977 Penguin paperback edition of The Book of Sand is in two parts. Part one consists of a baker’s dozen of late short stories which take up 90 pages. Part two contains 35 poems taken from two of Borges’s final volumes of poetry, The Gold of the Tigers and The Unending Rose, presented in the original Spanish with English translations by the Scottish poet Alastair Reid on the facing page, and also taking up about 90 pages.

There’s an author’s note and an afterword. In the author’s note Borges reaffirms his allegiance to H.G. Wells, often overlooked by literary studies but clearly one of the most fertile, imaginative and influential writers of the first half of the twentieth century.

I have tried to be faithful to the example of H. G. Wells in combining a plain and at times almost colloquial style with a fantastic plot.

In the event, some of the premises of the stories may be fantastical, but they are all conveyed in such a low-key, downbeat, almost offhand manner that you barely notice. The stories don’t signpost their own remarkableness, they downplay it. The stories feel different from those in Dr Brodie’s Report, more consistently fantastical or imaginative than the determinedly realistic narratives in that collection – but both books have more in common and are very different from the intensely bookish ficciones of his Labyrinths phase. Any reader hoping for more ficciones will be sorely disappointed but will, if they allow their expectations to be reshaped by the texts, be rewarded by subtler, more fleeting pleasures.

The stories

1. The Other (location: Cambridge, Massachusetts)

A very relaxed, low key story in which Borges quietly remembers going to sit on a bench in Cambridge Massachusetts overlooking the Charles River and realising the young fellow who’s sitting at the other end of the bench is his own self, 50 years earlier. The young self thinks he is sitting on a bench in Geneva overlooking the river Rhone. Old Borges chats a bit about what’s happened to mum and dad, then when young Borges reveals the book in his hand is by Dostoyevsky, they fall to chatting about literature, as you do, quoting Victor Hugo and Whitman.

Beneath our conversation about people and random reading and our different tastes, I realized that we were unable to understand each other. We were too similar and too unalike. We were unable to take each other in, which makes conversation difficult. Each of us was a caricature copy of the other. The situation was too abnormal to last much longer…

Neither is terrified, but both afflicted with unease, and so hasten to make their excuses, say goodbye, promise to meet up the next day, and walk briskly away with no intention of keeping the rendezvous.

You know the big difference between this and a story by H.G. Wells. This one has no excitement. It is a teasing situation, but with no development or payoff. In fact it just dribbles to a close.

2. Ulrikke (York, England)

The narrator is named Javier Otálora. He is a professor at the University of the Andes. He is visiting York (in England) when he hears a pretty young woman talking in the hotel bar, gets chatting to her, they go for a walk across the freshly fallen snow which becomes steadily more archetypal or allegorical. There are no cars or roads, just them alone in the deep woods. They hear a wolf howl, she kisses him, they invoke the shades of Sigurd and Brynhilde, they arrive at another inn, climb as in a dream up the stairs to a bed where they make love. I think it is a waking dream. I think the author has been beguiled into some kind of re-enactment of the Sigurd and Brnyhilde legend.

3. The Congress (Argentina, 1902)

Don Alejandro Glencoe was a Uruguayan ranch owner and landowner. At one time he had ambitions to stand for the Uruguayan Congress but the political bosses barred  his way. And so, inspired by something he’d read, he decided to set up a Universal Congress, representing all people, representing all humanity. He starts the process by inviting an assortment of 20 or so people to meet regularly at the Gas-Lamp Coffee House in Buenos Aires, trying to ensure a cross-selection, including women and gauchos and blacks. The narrator is Alejandro Ferri and we follow as he is, first, told about the Congress, then taken along, then becomes an active participant, travelling to England on research into ways to expand it and into which books to order to create a definitive library for the Congress.

Soon after his return, in what one could possibly take to be a typically quixotic, random, Hispanic gesture, Don Alejandro scraps his own creation and abolishes the Congress, insisting the members take the library of (rather random) books they have painstakingly assembled and burning them in the street. The members go on to have a wild, intoxicating night together, then part, never to see each other, but convinced by Don Alejandro’s exhortation that the Congress is not dead; on the contrary, it has now become universal and all men and women are members of it, even if they don’t know it. All this happened between 1899, when the narrator arrived in Buenos Aires, and 1902, when he undertook his ill-fated journey to a snowbound London.

The best of Borges’s ficciones left you with your mind completely blown by the intensity and profundity of the ideas and visions he conjured up. These stories are much more ‘meh’. This is the longest of all Borges’s works of fiction and, after this volume was published, he claimed it was his favourite. Meh.

4. There Are More Things (Buenos Aires)

A deliberately hammy hommage to the lurid horror stories of H.P. Lovecraft, this one concerns a young student just finishing his studies. He had an uncle who had a house built in a suburb of Buenos Aires. The narrator gets news that his uncle has, sadly, died and then follows from a distance the subsequent developments, namely that the house is sold to a mysterious man who asks the original architect to build new extensions, which the architect indignantly refuses to do. After a few more investigations, the narrator one night, min a heavy storm, finds himself at the gate of the mysterious house, finds himself pushing open the gate, walking up the path, pushing open the front door and investigating the apparently empty and abandoned house and discovering it full of artefacts which make no sense, which don’t seem to have been designed for the human body or purposes… and while he is slowly coming down the stepladder from the attic, he hears the sound of ‘slow and oppressive and twofold’ coming up the ramp into the house…

5. The Sect of the Thirty (4th century Mediterranean)

A fairly brief account which purports to be a manuscript from the fourth century AD describing a Christian heresy, dwelling on the origin of the number 30 before going on to consider the drama of the Crucifixion and to identify ‘intentional’ and ‘unintentional’ actors in it, concluding that there were only 2 intentional ones, namely Jesus and Judas. So the ‘Sect of the Thirty’ takes its name from the thirty pieces of silver which Jesus gave Judas.

This echoes the ficcione ‘Three Versions of Judas’ in which a renegade theologian develops the idea that the real Son of God was Judas, for whereas Jesus was resurrected and went to heaven after a few hours suffering, Judas made the ultimate sacrifice and condemned himself to everlasting hell.

6. The Night of the Gifts (1874 Argentina)

Many years ago in the old Confitería del Águila on Florida Street up around Piedad, a group of men are gathered and having an earnest discussion about Plato’s theory of knowledge (which is that we already know everything but have forgotten it, so that ‘learning’ is merely remembering) when an older man interjects with a long and complicated story.

It is the story of the most memorable night of his life, the night of the thirtieth of April 1874,when he was little more than a boy, he was staying on the ranch of some cousins, and met Rufino, a seasoned cowhand. One night Rufino takes him into town to a brothel down a dirty back alley. The narrator is a bit overwhelmed. When confident Rufino sees him looking at a younger, shy woman, Rufino asks her to tell her tale. In a dreamy voice, the young woman, nicknamed The Captive, begins to tell the story about the time the Indians raided her ranch and took her away, but she’s barely got as far as the Indians riding towards her when the door bursts open and real-life bandits enter, led by the notorious outlaw Juan Moreira! He starts causing a lot of noise and when the little house doggy approaches, whips him so hard the dog dies there and then.

Terrified, in all the brawling, the boy narrator slips down a hallway, finds a secret stairwell and goes upstairs, into a room and hides there. It is, unsurprisingly, the room of The Captive, who quietly comes in, closes the door, slips off her clothes and makes him lie with her. It’s not described but the implication is that he loses his virginity.

But then there’s a lot more banging and a gunshot and the Captive tells our narrator to leave by the back stairs. He does so, nips across the garden and shimmies over the wall. He comes face to face with a policeman who grins and lets him go, but as he loiters, the famous outlaw Moreira slips over the same wall, presumably escaping the cops who’ve gone in the front, and the policeman steps forward and bayonets Moreira. And again. While the horrified boy looks on

Then we snap back to the ‘present’ and the now-old man reflecting on his story, that he experienced two of the Great Experiences of Life in the same night, losing his virginity and seeing a man killed in front of him.

7. The Mirror and the Mask (medieval Ireland)

After the battle of Clontarf on 23 April 1014, in which he had defeated a Norse-Irish coalition, the High King of Ireland orders his chief bard, Ollan, to commemorate it in heroic verse. The story quickly becomes a kind of fairy tale, for it is structured round three magical events. The king gives his bard a year to go to England, travel widely, and compose a great poem. A year later he returns, and amid great ceremony, recites the poem, which is a masterpiece, which repeats and supersedes all the conventions of his forebears. The king rewards him with a silver mirror.

Then the poet goes off to England for another year, sees and hears many things, returns and this time reads from a manuscript, a poem which is much stranger, in form and substance, combining the Christian Trinity with the pagan gods, in which subject and verbs and nouns do not agree but present strange new combinations. Dazzled, the king says that only the learned can understand so strange a composition and that he will store the manuscript in an ivory casket and he gives the poet a golden mask.

After another year the poet arrives at the king’s court but he is a man transfigured, ‘His eyes seemed to stare into the distance or to be blind.’ This time the man asks to see the king alone and laments that the has produced the finest poem yet but wishes the Lord had prevented it. He asks for the hall to be emptied and then recites the poem which consists of just one line, but which is so transcendent, so numinous that both king and bard are shaken to their core, both wondering whether knowing such Beauty is a sin.

‘The sin of having known Beauty, which is a gift forbidden to men. Now it behoves us to expiate it. I gave you a mirror and a golden mask; here is my third present, which will be the last.’ In the bard’s right hand he placed a dagger. Of the poet, we know that he killed himself upon leaving the palace; of the king, that he is a beggar wandering the length and breadth of Ireland – which was once his kingdom – and that he has never repeated the poem.

It is a deep and powerful fable.

8. Undr (11th century Sweden)

This short text is pleasurably complicated, working at multiple removes in narrator and time and place. First of all it claims, in the time-honoured way, to be a transcription of a fragment of manuscript found in a dusty old volume in a library, namely an account by of Adam of Bremen, who, ‘as everyone knows’, was born and died in the eleventh century, and it starts off by being an account of what he has discovered about a people named the Urns, who live in Scandinavia.

But barely a page has gone by before Adam brings in a specific character, a traveller from Iceland named Ulf Sigurdsson. Adam claims to have met him at Uppsala, by the famous pagan temple there, where Ulf tells him his story. So now we have three layers of text:

  1. the introductory paragraph explaining this is all a manuscript in an old book
  2. the text itself describing Adam’s journeys into Sweden
  3. the narrative of Ulf

Ulf explains that he was a skald or poet from Iceland and had travelled to Sweden because he had heard that the Urns create poems with just one word. He meets a blacksmith who prepares him to be taken before the king of the Urns, Gunnlaug, in readiness for which Ulf composes a drapa, an elaborate genre of Icelandic poetry. However, when he performs it for the king, although the latter gives him a silver ring, his place is soon taken by a local poet who strikes his lyre and recites a poem which consists of just one word and everyone is much moved.

On leaving the king’s cabin, Ulf is accosted by a fellow poet, Bjarni Thorkelsson, who confirms that the old tropes Ulf used have been superseded and tells him his life is in danger. Together they conspire to get Ulf onto a boat which heads south.

At this point follows a brief summary of the rest of Ulf’s life, which was action-packed and included being an oarsman, a slave dealer, a slave, a woodcutter, a highwayman, a singer, a taster of deep waters and metals, spending a year in the quicksilver mines, fighting in the Varangian guard at Constantinople, having a big love affair with a woman by Sea of Azov, fighting a duel with a Greek, fighting the Blue Men of Serkland, the Saracens.

At the end of this long life, Ulf is a tired old man who makes his way back to the land of the Urns and, after some difficulty, finds the house of the fellow skald who saved him, Bjarni Thorkelsson. Bjarni is bed-ridden and insists on hearing Ulf’s entire life story. As a reward he takes up his harp and speaks the one Word, undr, which means ‘wonder’. The wonder of the world, and finally he understands.

With that the text ends. It does not go back up a level to Adam’s narrative, or up two levels to the original framing modern explanation. It deliberately ends on this symbolic note.

In the afterword Borges points out that one of his most famous ficciones is about an infinite library which contains every combination of every letter in every language ever conceived by man. This is the opposite, a story about just one word, which manages to capture the entire life of a culture.

9. A Weary Man’s Utopia (centuries in the future)

Some kind of vision or maybe dream. The narrator identifies himself as Eudoro Acevedo, born in 1897 in the city of Buenos Aires, 70 years old, a professor of English and American literatures and a writer of imaginative tales i.e. an avatar of Borges himself.

He is walking over a plain in the rain and sees the lights of a house and walks over to it and the door is opened by a tall man who invites him in and signals straight away that he has entered a different century, apparently in the future when other languages have fallen into desuetude and educated people speak Latin. The host is very relaxed and says they receive visitors from the past ‘from century to century’.

In this future the people are taught to forget history and culture and to rise above the present, to live in all time. He is four centuries old and has only read half a dozen books. Printing has been abolished. For his part the narrator explains that in his world, there were newspapers which made a big fuss about the latest news, a continuous turnover of trivia, plus advertising for a thousand and one products no-one needs. To fully exist you needed to be photographed.

Whereas in this future nobody has possessions, there is no money. People study philosophy or play chess. They are free to kill themselves. Everyone must sire one child but this means the human race is slowly dying out. Politics has ceased to exist because nobody paid any attention. He spends his time painting, he shows the narrator some of his paintings and gives him one as a gift.

Then a woman and three or four men enter the house peacefully and they work with the owner to dismantle all the belongings and then carry them through the streets to a crematorium where they burn all his belongings. The scene cuts back to the ‘present’ where the narrator is writing this text,

In my study on Mexico Street, in Buenos Aires, I have the canvas that someone will paint, thousands of years from now, with substances today scattered over the whole planet.

There is no drama and barely any plot. Instead it is a thing of changing moods and angles.

10. The Bribe (Texas 1969)

As the narrator admits at the outset this is more of an anecdote than a story. It concerns three American academics who are all specialists in Anglo-Saxon literature. It takes quite a while to explain because it is about a subtle psychological point which requires an explanation of the ‘politics’ in the English Department at the University of Texas.

A key figure in the department is the upright scion of a New England family Dr Ezra Winthrop. He has been helped in his editing of Anglo-Saxon texts by the able scholar Herbert Locke. A conference is coming up, in Wisconsin. Winthrop is advising the head of the department, Lee Rosenthal, who to send.

Recently the department has been joined by a naturalised American of Icelandic descent named Eric Einarsson. The text describes a series of publications he’s made, starting with a new edition of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon (which I have reviewed in this blog) then, only a few weeks before the conference, he publishes a long article in the Yale Philological Quarterly. The aim of the article is to attack the way Anglo-Saxon is taught in the department, which mainly focuses on Beowulf (which I have reviewed in this blog) which the article considers too long, confused but above all too refined and baroque a production to teach beginners.

Partly as a result of the article, Winthrop advises Rosenthal to choose Einarsson to represent the department at the forthcoming conference, rather than the loyal capable Locke. The story such as it is, boils down to the final and only real scene in the text, wherein Einarsson drops into Winthrop’s office to thank him for helping choose him to attend the conference – and then candidly lets Winthrop know how he engineered the decision. When he first met him, Einarsson was surprised that Winthrop, despite being a principled Northern, defended the South’s right to secede from the Union in the American civil war. Einarsson realised in a flash that Winthrop’s rigid Puritan morality made him bend over backwards to see the opposing point of view.

That is why he wrote a long article criticising the way the department teaches Anglo-Saxon. It was reverse psychology. He knew that Winthrop would bend over backwards to be fair so someone who had just attacked him, and choose Einarsson over loyal Locke. And that is just what happened. Low-key, eh? Subtle.

11. Avelino Arredondo (Montivideo 1897)

A peculiar story set in Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, in 1897 during the civil war which ravaged the country. It tells of a man from the country, Avelino Arredondo, a little over 20, thin, shortish, poor. He is a part of a group of young men who meet at the Café del Globo. One day he tells them he is going away. He kisses goodbye to his girlfriend, Clementina, adieu to his friends, but instead of setting off to a distant town as he told everyone, he holes up in his little apartment, never going out or reading the papers, attended by an ancient servant who brings him his meals. All is aimed towards the morning of the twenty-fifth of August, which is months away and, because this date is mentioned several times, the reader naturally wonders what might happen. Because the slow passage of time and in fact the change in the subjective experience of time is mentioned several times, we wonder if this is a science fiction story and some fabulous transformation will take place.

Alas, no. Arrendondo wakes on the morning of 25 August, dresses, breakfast, then makes his way to the cathedral square just as a group of dignitaries are leaving morning Mass. He asks a bystander to point out the president of this wartorn country, Juan Idiarte Borda, then pulls out a revolver and shoots him dead. He belongs to the other side in the civil war (the Whites against the Reds). At his trial he is careful to emphasise that he has lived isolated from the world for months, having said goodbye to his girlfriends, all his acquaintances and not read a newspaper for months – all the more to bring out that this was an entirely existential decision by he and he alone.

12. The Disk (Anglo-Saxon England)

A wonderfully short and strange story. The narrator is a poor woodcutter. A stranger turns up at his hut. He gives him food and shelter. Next morning they go for a walk. When the stranger drops his staff he orders the woodcutter to pick it up. ‘Why?’ asks the woodcutter. ‘Because I am king,’ says the stranger, ‘I am of the line of Odin’. The woodcutter replies he is a Christian. The slightly mad old king says he can prove he is king by showing him the thing in his hand. He opens his fist. There is nothing there, but when the woodcutter tentatively puts out his finger he feels something cold and sees a glitter in the sunshine.

Here is the one spooky eerie detail which makes the whole thing cohere. The king tells him it is Odin’s disk and it has only one side. In all the world there is nothing else with only one side.

13. The Book of Sand

The narrator suffers from myopia, lives in a flat by himself. A tall stranger knocks on the door, he lets him in. He says he is from the Orkney Islands. He says he sells Bibles, The narrator replies that he already owns several English translations of the Bible (as you might expect). Then the salesman opens his case and gets out another book. He bought it off an illiterate Untouchable in India. It is called the Book of Sand because, like the desert, it has no end.

No matter where he opens it there seem to be more pages at the front and back. The pages bear fantastically large page numbers and it is impossible to find one again. They haggle about a price and the salesman parts with it for a monthly pension payment and the black letter Wycliff Bible, packs his case and leaves.

Only then are we treated to the slow possession the infinite book begins to exert over its owner. He stops going out, he devotes his life to trying to tabulate the content of the infinite book, he becomes paranoid, he hides is behind other volumes on his shelves, but he begins to realise it is driving him mad, he realises the bookseller came to him willing to get rid of it at almost any price.

One day he takes it along to the National Library (which Borges himself was Director of), slips past the staff, down into the dusty basement, and without paying too much attention to the rack or shelf or position slips it in among thousand of other anonymous volumes and quickly departs, as if from the scene of a crime.

Late style

Writers who live long enough often develop a recognisably late style. In these late stories Borges is closer to the ficciones of Labyrinths than he was in Dr Brodie’s Report – for a start they’re not all set in contemporary Argentina as most of those stories were; many return to the European settings or to the remote times and places of the ficciones, although he appears to show a fondness for rugged medieval pagan Europe more than the flashy worlds of Islam and China which attracted him in the ficciones. I know what he means. There’s something more genuinely weird and eerie and rebarbative about hearing one wolf howl in the great snowy Northern forests, than there is in seeing a thousand geniis pop out of a bottle or all the dragons of Chinese legend.

But it’s not so much the subject matter, it’s the treatment. The tales are more elliptical and elusive. Borges’s late style has learned to eschew flashy effects for something more subtle and lateral. I liked Ulrikke, The Mirror, Undr, A Weary Man because the inconsequentiality of the dream subject matter matches the flat obliquity of the style.

Is it the wisdom of age or the tiredness of age or the indifference of age? Or is it the result of Borges’s blindness? He never learned braille and dictated all his later works, having them read back to him and correcting them orally, a completely different method of composition from seeing the words you write, and re-seeing them, and seeing them again as you review over and over what you have written to give it not only a rhetorical flow but a visual styling, on the page. None of that here. All of that dense reworking, the temptation to be ‘baroque’, had departed along with his sight.

Was it all or any or a combination of these factors, or just a realisation that, after the metaphysical pyrotechnics of ficciones, it was on many levels more satisfying to play a subtler game, to create not the vaunting elephants and leaping tigers of a Salvador Dali painting, but the subtle understatement of a miniaturist. In the afterword Borges describes A Weary Man’s Utopia as the most ‘honest’ of the stories. In it the exhausted and ancient man of the future devotes his life to painting what appear to be modest, not very dramatic, and semi-abstract works.

I examined the canvases, stopping before the smallest one, which represented, or suggested, a sunset and which encompassed something infinite. ‘If you like it, you can have it as a keepsake of a future friend,’ he said matter-of-factly. I thanked him, but there were a few canvases that left me uneasy. I won’t say that they were blank, but they were nearly so.

Maybe that is an apt description of these stories, products of an old man, far advanced in his chosen craft, indifferent to praise or blame, making them for his own amusement, no longer impressed by the flashy effects of youth and middle age. Lucid and reflective.

I won’t say that they were blank, but they were nearly so.

Nearly… but not quite.


Related link

Borges reviews

Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms: Art, Word, War @ the British Library

According to the lady on the door, this has turned out to be one of the most popular exhibitions ever held at the British Library. I got there when it opened at 10 and within fifteen minutes it was so packed it began to be difficult to see some of the exhibits.

Why? Because it is the largest ever exhibition on the history, literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England, with many manuscripts and objects brought from overseas, some for the first time in centuries, and many others on loan from museums all around England.

Which makes it an unprecedented opportunity to see treasures and texts, manuscripts and swords, carved crosses and coins, which paint the completest ever picture of the mysterious and evocative centuries between the departure of the Romans in 410 and the conquest of the Normans in 1066 – 650 years which saw the formation of the English language, geography (the founding of towns and cities and roads), politics and religion.

A brief recap of Anglo-Saxon history

According to the Venerable Bede, within a generation of the last Roman soldiers leaving Britain, raiders from north Europe came pillaging. They came from tribes Bede names as the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, based in north Germany and Denmark.

From bases in south England these tribes spread out and established kingdoms the length and breadth of the country. By the sixth century the land had stabilised into seven kingdoms, traditionally known as the Heptarchy, consisting of East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Northumbria, Sussex, and Wessex.

Alongside the main entities was a fluctuating set of smaller kingdoms which included, at one time or another, the kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira within Northumbria, Lindsey in present-day Lincolnshire, the Hwicce in the southwest Midlands, the Magonsæte or Magonset, a sub-kingdom of Mercia in what is now Herefordshire, the Wihtwara, a Jutish kingdom on the Isle of Wight, the Middle Angles, a group of tribes based around modern Leicestershire, and the Hæstingas (around the town of Hastings in Sussex.

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (source: Wikipedia)

The main Anglo-Saxon kingdoms (source: Wikipedia)

By 660 Northumbria was the most powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom, and its contacts with both Ireland and Rome produced a golden age of culture.

Mercia began to displace Northumbria as most powerful kingdom in the early 8th century, a process which reached its climax in the long reign of King Offa, from 757 until his death in July 796. Offa controlled London, built the famous dyke along the border with Wales, and conquered Kent, East Anglia, Essex and Sussex.

In 793 Vikings attacked Lindisfarne monastery way up towards the Scottish border, and for the next two hundred years Danish invaders were a constant threat, eventually controlling the east of the country from the Thames to the border with the Scots. This area became known as the Danelaw, with its capital city at Viking-founded York.

England about 900 AD, showing the border between the Danelaw and Wessex

England about 900 AD, showing the border between the Danelaw and Wessex

Alfred the Great (849-899) is remembered because he fought the Danes out of Wessex, recaptured London, and unified all the tribes of England against the foreigner, signing a peace treaty with the Danish leader, Guthrum, in about 880.

But he didn’t manage to expel them. It was only under his grandson, King Æthelstan that, in the 930s, the Danes were completely expelled.

And even this unity was lost when the Danes under Sweyn Forkbeard reinvaded in 1013, leading the throne of England to be seized by his son, Cnut the Great, a Dane who ruled England from 1016 to 1035.

One last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor, ruled again, from 1042 to 1066, but it was a dispute over the succession following his death, which led to the invasion of the county by William and the Conqueror and his Normans, and the death of the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold Godwinson, at Hastings.

The period from 450 to 1066 was, in other words, one of almost constant warfare, in which kingdoms depended for their existence and stability on the military might and strategic canniness of strong rulers. The sophisticated economic systems of the Romans, their agricultural organisation, their towns laid out logically with strong defensive walls – all this was lost within a few generations of the Roman departure in 410.

For most of the next 600 years small communities of peasants eked out a subsistence living, and their surplus was skimmed off by violent kings to fund their high lifestyle and elaborate jewellery and weapons.

The Anglo-Saxon church

But alongside the history of kings and conquest, there is a parallel history, deeply intertwined with it – the history of the Christian Church in England.

There were Christians among the Roman community but their version disappeared when they left. Some missionaries came from Ireland which had a Christian tradition before England. But the main story begins with the mission to Britain of St. Augustine of Canterbury (not to be confused with St Augustine of Hippo, the great 4th century theologian).

Augustine arrived in 597, converted the king of Kent, Æthelberht a, established an episcopal seat at the Kentish capital, Canterbury (which is why we still have archbishops of Canterbury to this day), and established a monastery and seat of learning which could train and educate the monks who would then, themselves, be sent out to convert the various rival warlords to the true faith, throughout the 600s.

We know a lot about the process of conversion because it is described in detail by the monk known as the Venerable Bede, in his masterpiece, A History of the English Church and People, which I have reviewed elsewhere.

Bede was a product of Northumbrian culture, a Benedictine monk who spent his entire life at the monastery of St. Peter and its companion monastery of St. Paul near Jarrow. He wrote some 40 books but his masterpiece, the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum or The History of the English Church and People.

The point is that, although the Anglo-Saxon kings and their people were all pagans they were also illiterate and so all we know about them is filtered through the writings of the literate Christian monks, who all wrote in Latin.

And the little we have of actual Anglo-Saxon, the language these people spoke and recited their histories and legends in, was also recorded by Christian monks.

We have some pagan jewellery, most notably the content of the fantastic burial hoard found at Sutton Hoo, attributed to King Raedwald who lived in the 7th century.

But even carved crosses, much of the remaining jewellery, and all of the remaining texts, are Christian in content, the crosses’ inscriptions in Latin, the jewellery including the cross motif, and even the handful of Anglo-Saxon texts we have – even the great Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf – contain Christian imagery, or subject matter, and were written down by Christian monks.

Beowulf © British Library Board

Beowulf © British Library Board

Alfred the Great’s renaissance

By the 850s most of the kingdoms were thoroughly Christianised. Alfred the Great (d.899) acquired his reputation not only for his military victories against the Danes, but because he saw the need to raise the cultural level of the people he now ruled in the area known as Wessex. He realised he needed educated literate civil servants to administer his kingdom, and – being a good Christian king – he realised the gospels needed to be spread.

Alfred commissioned monks to begin writing a yearly chronicle of events, thus founding the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles which ended up existing in various versions, kept by monks in monasteries around the kingdom. These are an invaluable source of historical information, and for the grammatical structure of the various regional dialects of Anglo-Saxon. Some of which continued for a generation after the Conquest.

Alfred also commissioned the translation of important texts into Anglo-Saxon. These included a translation and copies of Pope Gregory the Great’s book Pastoral Care. He distributed these along with ‘æstels’ or wooden pointer sticks, which were used for following words when reading a book.

Attached to the end of each pointer was a valuable example of Anglo-Saxon jewellery which featured a portrait of the king and, around the sides, the words ‘Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan’, meaning ‘Alfred ordered me made’. The one and only surviving copy of this is usually in the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, but has been brought here for this exhibition. It is wonderful, the quaintness of the likeness of the king contrasting vividly with the sophistication of the dragon (snake?)’s head beneath it, from whose mouth pokes the nozzle which is where the wooden pointing stick came out.

Alfred Jewel © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Alfred Jewel © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

Anglo-Saxon treasures on display

This exhibition is so blockbusting because just about every single book, every Bible, psalter, breviary, every manuscript letter, poem, deed and legal document which tells and illustrates these tumultuous 650 years has been brought together and assembled in one place.

The Alfred jewel is just one of the inestimable treasures on display at this massive, comprehensive and dazzling exhibition. Other highlights include:

  • the stunningly ornate gold buckle from Sutton Hoo
  • treasures from the Staffordshire Hoard
  • the River Erne horn, a wooden trumpet from the 8th century discovered in the river in the 1950s on loan from National Museums Ireland
  • displayed alongside the Vespasian Psalter, which includes the oldest translation of part of the Bible into English and depicts two musicians playing similar instruments
  • archaeological objects including:
    • the Binham Hoard, the largest collection of gold from 6th century Britain, on loan from the Norfolk
    • the Lichfield Angel, which has never been displayed outside of Lichfield since it was excavated in 2003
    • key objects from the Staffordshire Hoard, discovered in 2009, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found
  • the Sutton Hoo gold buckle
  • the Fuller Brooch on loan from the British Museum

Layout

The exhibition is beautifully laid out, in mysterious low lighting (obviously, to protect these priceless manuscripts), the walls hung with long, narrow photographs of unspoilt countryside, vividly conveying a sense of what must have been the largely untamed landscape of the times. It is organised into rooms which take us carefully through the period, with rooms and areas devoted to:

  • Kingdoms and Conversion
  • The Rise of the West Saxons
  • Mercia and its Neighbours
  • Language, Learning and literature
  • Kingdom and Church
  • Music making
  • Conquests and Landscape
  • The Empire of Cnut
  • The Cnut Gospels
  • Domesday Book

There are three or four videos scattered throughout, interviewing scholars who explain key moments or ideas in Anglo-Saxon culture, namely curator, Dr Claire Breay, and well-known TV historian Michael Wood.

The video on the Domesday book is simple and interesting. And there’s a longer one showing the process of preparing vellum parchment and then how the ink and pain for the illuminations were prepared.

Vespasian Psalter © British Library Board

Vespasian Psalter © British Library Board

Mostly manuscripts

But the exhibition, as you would expect from its location, focuses mostly on books, on a huge selection of early medieval manuscripts, alongside, letters and other written matter, including:

  • the beautifully illuminated Lindisfarne Gospels
  • the one and only surviving copy of Beowulf
  • a copy of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History
  • the St Augustine Gospels on loan from Corpus Christi College Cambridge
  • the Book of Durrow on loan from Trinity College Dublin
  • the Echternach Gospels on loan from the Bibliothèque nationale de France
  • the Utrecht, Harley and Eadwine Psalters from Utrecht University Library, the British Library and Trinity College Cambridge respectively
  • the four principal manuscripts of Old English poetry on display together for the first time, with the British Library’s unique manuscript of Beowulf displayed alongside:
    • the Vercelli Book returning to England for the first time from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli
    • the Exeter Book on loan from Exeter Cathedral Library
    • the Junius Manuscript on loan from the Bodleian Library
  • Domesday Book, the most famous book in English history and the earliest surviving public record, on loan from The National Archives
  • the earliest surviving English charter, issued in 679 and granting land to the Abbot of Reculver;
  • the oldest original letter written in England, from the Bishop of London to the Archbishop of Canterbury, dating from early 8th century
  • the earliest surviving letter in English, the Fonthill letter, from the early 10th century on loan from Canterbury Cathedral
  • the earliest surviving will of an English woman, Wynflæd
  • St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest intact European book with its original binding, made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century
  • and the enormous Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving complete Bible in Latin made at the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow in the north-east of England in the early 8th century and taken to Italy in 716 as a gift for the Pope. It will be returning to England for the first time in more than 1,300 years, on loan from the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence
Codex Amiatinus on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library © Sam Lane Photography

Codex Amiatinus on loan from Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana to Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms at the British Library © Sam Lane Photography

Cnut and Emma

I’d expected it to end sometime after the loosely titled Kingdom and Church section, so I was surprised that the exhibition devotes not one but several sections to reign of King Cnut, the Dane who united England with his home territory to form a short-lived North Sea Empire. He was king of England from 1016 to 1035 and the exhibition shows how manuscripts and books, gospels and psalters of great quality continued to be produced.

There is a section devoted just to Cnut’s strong-minded queen Emma, bringing together references in documents and even illustrations which appear to be of the queen.

The Norman Conquest

And then a final section devoted to a massive copy of the Domesday Book, commissioned by William the Conqueror to list in fine detail every scrap of land in his new domain. The exhibition includes not only a hefty copy of the book, but a rare example of one of the preliminary rolls on which data was initially gathered by William’s army of census takers,before being collated and copied into the Big Book.

Domesday © The National Archives

Domesday Book © The National Archives

Thoughts

Several points emerged for me:

  • The distinction between the Northumbrian Golden Age of the 660s onwards, which is all about Iona, Lindisfarne, St Cuthbert, Benedict Biscop and Bede — and the rise of Mercia under Offa about a century later – there are illuminated books from both periods which, to the really scholarly eye, show the difference in date, origin and cultural links.
  • The idea that the rise of Wessex (which led, eventually, to the unification of England) was a product of the Viking invasions: pushed back into the South-West and West Midlands, the remaining Saxon kingdoms were forced to co-operate and coalesce, and Alfred is the symptom of this newfound focus
  • The sense that, once you get to Alfred, the difficulty of trying to remember the kings and rulers of all the scattered other kingdoms disappears; Alfred is succeeded by his son, Edward the Elder (899-924), who is himself succeeded by his son, Æthelstan, who, from 927 to 939 has the right to claim himself to be the first king of all the English. From this point onwards it becomes easier to follow the kings, and there is a kind of cultural and legal as well as military unification.

Slaves

I was surprised to come across a record of Athelstan freeing a slave. The earliest will made by an Englishwoman, Wynflæd, from the tenth century, records her wish to free her slaves. And the section about Domesday Book, while running through some of the staggering stats included in the book, mentions that it records that there were some 28,325 slaves in England in 1086 (compared with some 288,000 peasants). I.e. around 10% of the work-force was slaves.

A little-known fact about the Norman Conquest is that it was William the Bastard who formally abolished the (thriving) slave trade in Anglo-Saxon England.

Slight criticism

I had one big caveat. I counted 125 books and manuscripts in the exhibition – books carefully propped open so we could see illuminations and text, manuscripts carefully flattened. These were all, of course, accompanied by information panels explaining what they were, what to look for in the illumination or style of writing, and so on.

BUT – none of them contained a translation of the actual words on show.

Most of the books are in Latin, Latin versions of various books of the Bible, breviaries and psalters, texts of Christian advice, letters from bishops to kings or vice versa, deeds to properties, adjudications in land disputes, and so on, with just a handful of texts in Anglo-Saxon, such as Beowulf, the Exeter Riddles, the Dream of the Rood, wills, charters and so on.

But early medieval writing was highly stylised. Although I studied Latin for GCSE and Anglo-Saxon at university, I always find it next to impossible to read Latin or Anglo-Saxon manuscripts because of the cramped and stylised nature of the handwriting.

So it would have been a very good idea, next to the panel telling you the history of the book, to have had a panel simply laying out the actual words on display, in modern orthography.

And then, logically enough – it would have been a good idea to have translated the words into modern English.

We are presented with a page of Beowulf, or of the Domesday Book. It looks great – but I can’t read a word of it. Not only can I not read it, but even if I could, I wouldn’t understand it.

I think this was a big flaw with the exhibition. The overwhelming majority of objects on display are texts. And although the exhibition gives plenty of help with the manuscripts’ provenance and style and general content – visitors are given no help at all with actually reading or understanding them.

Lindisfarne Gospels f.27r © British Library Board

Lindisfarne Gospels f.27r © British Library Board

Introduction by the exhibition curator


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