Michelle Brown is a prolific author, yet every additional book comes with new insights explained in her inimitable user-friendly way, and this volume is no exception. It covers the period from c. 450–1050 AD, that is from the departure of the Romans to the incoming of the Normans and their conquest. The book is beautifully produced and the illustrations particularly clear and detailed, and it brings together aspects of manuscripts, stone-work, armour, metalwork, jewellery and architecture as well as archæological finds and hoards.
After an Introduction, the book is divided into five sections, starting with the period 300–700. This includes artefacts from the Sutton Hoo burial mound, a belt buckle from Kent, the St Augustine Gospels, and the Franks Casket. The influence of figures such as Benedict Biscop, Bede, King Æthelbert of Kent and his wife Bertha are also considered.
The importance of the identity of the Anglo-Saxons in their art and artefacts at this time is brought out in the next chapter in a consideration, amongst others, of manuscripts from the early eighth century such as the Lindisfarne Gospels and the Codex Amiatinus. The influence of Bede and stylistic aspects led Michelle Brown to date the Lindisfarne Gospels later than the previously accepted date of 698. Her conclusion is that they were completed by Bishop Eadfrith from 710–20, the unfinished nature of a few pages in the book likely to have been due to his death in 722.
The Staffordshire Hoard was found in 2009 near Lichfield, and, at over 3,500 items, is the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold. In the next chapter in the book on Southumbrian art, this hoard is linked to the crypt at Repton and the ‘Tiberius’ group of manuscripts. This group includes the Vespasian Psalter, the Book of Cerne, the Tiberius Bede and the magnificent Stockholm Codex Aureus.
What happened in art after the defeat of the Vikings is covered in the following chapter where Bede’s Life of St Cuthbert is shown here being presented by King Æthelstan to the saint himself. Their rather swarthy appearance is due to the discolouration of white pigment. Art in Wales, Alba (Scotland mainly), Cornwall, Ireland and other places is considered with illustrations of many local stone crosses, and also a delightful set of stone caryatids from Fermanagh in Ireland and the glorious Cross of Cong.
The fusion of Insular, Carolingian, Ottonian, Byzantine and Scandinavian influences are brought together in the last chapter which deals with art from the mid-tenth century onwards.The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, the Ramsey and Harley Psalters, the Sutton Isle of Ely brooch and a grave slab from St Paul’s Cathedral all show those influences.
For anyone who loves manuscripts this is a wonderful book, produced by the Bodleian Library Publishing, as it places script, illumination, and page design and decoration in the context of what else was happening in other forms of art at various stages in this fascinating period of British history. It is very highly recommended.