I've been in London today to see a couple of exhibitions and spend to much in Waterstones. The first exhibition, and reason to go at all, was 'Anglo Saxon Kingdoms Art, Word, War' at the British Library. For anybody who hasn't been to an exhibition there, they put on a good one, the Anglo Saxons are there for another month and I doubt anything else I see this year will have the same impact.
It was busier than I'm used to at the BL, which made the first two rooms a bit of a challenge to get around, but after that the crowd spread out a bit and it was easier to see things - regardless of how busy it is allow a good 2 hours to look around (if there are a lot of people it will take that long, if you get a quieter day you'll want to spend that long looking at things).
I spent a bit of time studying Anglo Saxon art at university - it was my least favourite module because everything seemed so uncertain and far away, since then I've found rather more enthusiasm, and some really good stuff has been dug up (I'm thinking specifically of the Staffordshire hoard, although it's not the only significant find).
Because this is the British Library though the emphasis is on the written word, and before today I hadn't appreciated how much had survived. Anglo Saxon buildings especially are thin on the ground - Leicester (for example) has Roman remains, and traces of Norman architecture but finding anything in between is hard, the evidence of these people is most commonly found in place names. Seeing so many books and documents was a revelation.
Partly that's because everything is hand written which gives these things a particular sense of life, mostly it's the sheer breadth and depth of what's on display. Religious books, law books, herbals, histories, letters, wills, surveys, riddles, epic poems, and more. I've seen quite a few of these things individually, but the scale of this exhibition is something else - it puts the objects back in the context of a society rather than seeing them as incredible, rare, individual treasures.
Looking at everything together it's so much easier to understand how people travelled, exchanged ideas, how kingdoms rose and fell, how important the great monasteries where - all of it. And now I'm going to retire to bed with the exhibition catalogue which was too big for the very small table I had on the train, and which I'm very much looking forward to having a good look at.