by Roderick Conway Morris

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Light in our Darkness

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 22 February 1992
Musées Royaux, Brussels
Christ Triumphant, late 8th century



Some countries' Dark Ages were darker than others. Britain's were pretty dark - which makes the artistic and cultural riches revealed by this exhibition at the British Museum all the more fascinating.

At the beginning of the 5th century the Romans finally admitted defeat as Europe's policeman, pulling the troops out of Britain in 410. The decline of civilization there was precipitous, the country reverting to a state more backward and anarchic than it had been before the coming of the Romans in 55 BC.

Meanwhile, the Germanic tribes were on the move, overrunning half Europe, the lowlands of Britain being especially inviting to these land-hungry barbarians. The arrival of these Anglo-Saxons was a disaster for the native Christian population, spelling for them flight to the western fringes or loss of liberty. The Venerable Bede later upbraided the British for failing to convert the incomers but, given the Old English word wealh (Welshman) was the usual word for 'slave', a Dark Age Briton would have stood about as much chance of pursuading his new master to abjure paganism as a transported African of converting a plantation owner to the joys of animism.

Christianity only became acceptable with St Augustine's arrival direct from Rome in 596. Even then success was not instant. Augustine envisaged two metropolitan centres in London and York, but when this proved impossible, Canterbury became, and remained, the headquarters of the Anglican church. Rome's conversion of the Anglo-Saxons did little to improve the lot of the ancient native church - a century and more later Anglo-Saxons were still sacking Welsh churches to endow their own English ecclesiatical institutions.

The astonishing aspect of the transformation of Anglo-Saxon England from a pagan to a Christian land, compellingly brought out by both exhibition, 'The Making of England: Anglo-Saxon Art and Culture AD 600-900, and catalogue is the enormous influence of a handful of individuals, and the rapidity with which first-rate English Christian scholars and artists made their appearance. (And also, as Michael Lapidge highlights in his lucid essay on 'The New Learning', 'how fragile even the most remarkable achievements in the field of education may be.')

Two heroes that emerge are Theodore, a Tarsus-born Greek monk and graduate of Constantinople university, appointed Archbishop of Canterbury at 65 by the Pope in 667, and his colleague Hadrian from Africa, both, it seems, refugees from Muslim conquests. They established England's first school, where students received an intensive training in biblical studies, backed up by the whole gamut of works by the Church Fathers, and learned commentaries on Hebrew custom, Mediterranean flora and fauna, weights and measures, Greek medicine and rhetoric. From this base aspiring English scholars were rocketed into the front rank of European learning. And the book, which in Augustine's time had the mystic status of a cult object - the written version of King Aethelberht's Laws being kept in the treasury like some totemistic juju - transformed into a practical tool for the dissemination of knowledge.

Within a few years, a society that had limited itself, in the words of Leslie White, to 'never more than half a dozen words scratched in runes on a brooch or carved on a stone' was leading the field in Biography (Benedict Biscop's Lives of the English saints), History (Bede's Ecclesiatical History), Philology and language teaching (Wynfrith's Ars Grammatica). In parallel developed calligraphy, illumination, carving, and metalwork in an innovative, sophisticated and distinctive Insular style.

The passion and determination to realize these works must be seen in the context of the often dismal circumstances in which they were created: as Cuthbert, abbot of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow writes gloomily in a letter of 764: 'the conditions of the past winter oppressed the island of our race horribly with cold and ice and long and widespread storms of wind and rain, so that the hand of the scribe was hindered from producing a great number of books.'

The books were destined for Germany, since by this time the English were actively engaged in evangelizing their pagan brethren in the old homelands east of the Rhine. Some missionaries paid with their lives: most famously St Boniface, martyred by a heathen mob hoping to find gold in his baggage, but discovering only books. The high regard enjoyed by English scholars is shown by Charlemange's summoning of Alcuin in 781, not only to teach in the court school, but to act as his adviser and undertake major liturgical and biblical revisions. (A more doubtful export were English prostitutes, who, according to Boniface, were to be found in nearly every town on the pilgrims' road to Rome.)

The widescale English presence in Europe, and the terrible Viking depredations of the 8th and 9th centuries in England itself, mean that many of the finest artworks to survive did so on the continent, some from England, others made by migrant workers in situ. Loaned works of this kind include the carved whale-bone Franks Casket from Auzon in France, decorated with scenes as diverse as the Adoration of the Magi, Romulus and Remus and the She-wolf, the Roman sack of Jerusalem and the Germanic legend of Weland, and inscribed in Old English, Latin and runes - a tour de force of 8th-century eclecticism. Two ivory book covers of Christ Triumphant and the Annunciation from Brussels are breathtaking to behold; as is an illuminated collection of canon laws from Cologne.

One would recommend going to the show to see these two or three peices alone, were it not for the rare beauty and interest of so many other exhibits, and their consistently informative and imaginative presentation.

First published: Spectator