Molly Flatt continues our 'In Residence' series with a tribute to a Beowulf manuscript from c. 1000AD...
This season, the British Library is all about the manuscripts. The gorgeous artworks in ‘Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination’ – its big winter exhibition charting 800 years’ worth of illuminated medieval and Renaissance manuscripts collected by English kings and queens –bring a feast of glimmering gilt, holy lapis lazuli and rich royal crimson into a grey January.
From Winchester’s New Minster charter, which dates back to 966 and shows King Edgar worshipped alongside Christ by adoring angels, to Henry VIII’s personal psalter, complete with illustrations of the hirsute king posing as David, these manuscripts admirably achieve their aim – which is to dazzle us with the magnificence of the monarchy whilst furthering its religious, political and social ends. The exhibition is the result of three years’ research undertaken by the Library in collaboration with the Courtauld Institute of Art on 2,000 ancient handwritten books, which give deep insight into the motivations, aspirations and imaginations of our ancestors. Its stated aim is to “to make them as well known as landmark medieval buildings linked to the monarchy, such as the Tower of London, Westminster Abbey and Windsor Castle”.
Seriously stirring stuff.
But when you’ve finished marveling at these parchment peacocks, don’t hit the Euston Road straight away. Our In Residence series is all about uncovering some of the best artistic gems nestling in the permanent collections of London’s museums and galleries – gems that are totally free to visit and prone to be overlooked in the age of the expensive blockbuster show.
So before you head back out into the rain, take a detour to the Sir John Ritblat Gallery on the Library’s upper ground floor and seek out an altogether less flashy manuscript. This book more closely resembles something you might have made for a school project: pages stained with tea, edges crisped on the hob, ye olde calligraphy carefully pressed on in sepia Letraset. But to me it is more moving and magnificent than the finest bestiary.
Despite its humble appearance, Beowulf is a royal gospel too, in its own way: themes of monarchy and power, spirituality and awe, resound through its poetry. Obviously, a visit to the manuscript will be hugely enriched if you’ve read what it contains. The easiest, and possibly best, way to do this is to buy the audiobook of Seamus Heaney reading his own Whitbread-winning translation from 1999. Not just for Heaney’s earthy, elemental language and brilliant rhythmic ear, which renders the poem as unsentimental and eerie as it is beautiful. But because Beowulf was designed to be listened to: it would have been passed down through several generations via oral tradition before scribes finally wrote it down. The Library’s eleventh century manuscript is the sole surviving textual record, and it still carries the echoes of centuries of scops singing for their supper in Anglo-Saxons halls.
But whether you plough through the original Old English dialect or opt for Michael Morpurgo’s lovely 2006 illustrated version for kids, Beowulf is a must-read simply because it’s a brilliant yarn. Set in sixth century pagan Scandinavia, the tale of warrior prince Beowulf’s fight to save the Danish court from the gold-hoarding monster Grendel and Grendel’s hideous mother taps into our most primitive fears and archetypes around desire, sex, nature and death. The tension created when Beowulf tracks the she-devil to her squalid lair beneath the lake puts Lee Child to shame; his battle with Grendel in Heriot is an outrageous, acrobatic gore-fest that could have been dreamt up one boozy evening between Tarantino, Cronenberg and Ridley Scott. No wonder it’s been transformed into a plethora of modern novels, comic books, albums, films and even toys and games.
Even if you’re not a fan of alliterative epic poetry, the manuscript has a physical seduction all of its own. Thanks to an outbreak of fire in 1731 in the Westminster house where it was being stored and subsequent rough handling, its edges are raw and ragged, and what remains of the pages is incredibly fragile. But the result is poignantly apt. Beowulf had been as ravaged by the elements as much as its hero, but it clings to survival like the fiercest Viking.
No-one knows who originally commissioned the Nowell Codex - as the manuscript that contains Beowulf, along with several other medieval texts, is called. Its earliest owner was a sixteenth century scholar of Old English called Laurence Nowell. After his death the codex passed into the hands of the famous collector Sir Robert Cotton and remained in the Cotton family until his grandson Sir John bequeathed it to the nation. Academics are equally divided about its age – some believing it harks back to the reign of Canute the Great (c.985-1035) while others claim it was begun earlier in the ten century. Matters are complicated by the fact that it was written by two scribes; different handwriting indicates that it was begun by one and finished by another trained in a later style of calligraphy.
These uncertainties only add to its appeal. Just as the poem tampers its visceral sense of the grueling reality of sixteenth century life with demons and superhuman deeds, the manuscript quietly glowing in its backlit glass display retains a cloak of mystery. We can never truly know or understand the world it represents; but we can get a glimpse. Whenever we like. For free.
Now that’s the kind of magic an overexposed world needs.
'Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination' is on at the British Library until 13 March 2012
"I had a cup of tea with Howard Brenton who I think is possibly the best living playwright that’s written for the Globe. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Keep the story going. This place eats story’."