My first piece of advice for anyone thinking of studying English literature at university is to remember that the literary canon doesn’t begin with Jane Austen (1775-1817). I read some Andrew Marvell (1621-78), some John Donne (1572-1631), William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c. 1596) and his King Lear (1605) at A-Level, but medieval literature was still largely unknown to me, aside from a not particularly fruitful read-through of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Franklin’s Tale (c. 1390) from the local library. I’m still far from knowledgeable about the whole millennium brought under the single term ‘Middle Ages’ (c.400-1500), but the formative event that kindled my interest was the outstanding exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum held during my first term at Cambridge, The Cambridge Illuminations (virtual exhibition still available online).
Another major exhibition of illuminated manuscripts (i.e., handwritten books with decorative images) has just opened at the British Library. It’s called Royal Manuscripts: The Genius of Illumination, and is sumptuous. The display provides a vivid, broad introduction to English elite culture between the ninth and sixteenth centuries through some of the most remarkable books that survive. It’s divided into sections that show royal influence impinging on the creation of these manuscripts: this is a period in which books are a valuable commodity, commissioned and owned by the wealthy. The opening exhibits from Edward IV’s royal library, for example, show royal crests scattered around the page-borders, alongside the fruit, animals and fantastic creatures drawn by the illuminator. The exhibition surveys Christian texts, expressions of royal identity (e.g. genealogical trees), books of instruction and reference, and items with strong links to continental culture.
These manuscripts, all at least 500 years old, are remarkably well-preserved, and it’s valuable to appreciate each illumination in context, on the page and within a book that’s been bound and presented for a particular purpose. The lighting is sometimes too dim and the visitor numbers too great to be able to pause and scrutinize each page, but it’s still very possible to absorb the meticulous detail that went into each illumination. There are many highlights (try browsing those on this page, or purchase the app), but for one example, take the image of God the Creator that’s been used to publicize the exhibition: you can see it from a bus passing the museum, or find it in the shop adorning commemorative tote bags, pin badges, fridge magnets and coffee mugs. It’s only when I left nose-breath marks on the exhibition case, however, that I noticed how the image’s details resonated and expanded with the meaning in the text: angels fill the lapis lazuli sky and the vermilion mandorla (almond-shaped panel), and God’s feet don’t quite touch the earth. Theological and artistic precision are combined.
I didn’t need the audio guide to remind me how much more there is to absorb in each of the 150 manuscripts on display than I could take in during one visit. The exhibition shows a modern library fulfilling its duty to educate the general public by bringing its most valuable material out from the store and into a gallery. The manuscripts are a key treasure in our cultural heritage that open up a vista of intellectual endeavour and royal aspiration from the past. It also shows the indissoluble relation between literature, theology, history, scholarly learning and artistic achievement in the period. The exhibition is open until 13 March 2012, and the permanent Treasures exhibition and the small display of Michael Katakis‘s photographs are also worth looking out if you visit.