Wordhord: Talking Art and the Anglo-Saxons

Wordhord: Talking Art and the Anglo-Saxons

Joe Kenelm discusses the cultural significance and dialogic nature of Anglo-Saxon artefacts.

In March, a gold pendent, fashioned between the late 6th and mid-7th century and discovered near the town of Diss in 2017, was declared treasure by the Norfolk Coroner’s Office. Once valued by the Portable Antiquities Scheme, the finder will be obliged to offer the Anglo-Saxon jewellery for sale to a museum. That the piece will slowly surrender some of the wonder of its discovery, and palpable connection to its landscape, in the cloistered reaches of a shuttered museum, is inexorable. Yet the capacity of such objects to continually excite awe, curiosity, and a hint of the marvellous — in mud, riverbed, seashore, Norfolk field, or museum collection — is not to be disregarded. Anglo-Saxon craftsmanship, reconciliatory by design and dialogic to this day, has tremendously enduring communicative power.

The performance of commingling is intrinsic to objects such as the Crundale Buckle: the three large rivets of the buckle are linked by an applied gold strip, along which a snake braids its filigree wire body into a fantastic series of triangular knots. The creature is an example of Style II Anglo-Saxon ornament, ‘based’, says David Wilson in his history of the Anglo-Saxons, ‘on the interlacing and interplay of the ribbon-like bodies of animals’. Like the bead band on the shield-on-tongue, the snake is insistently interwoven. The buckle’s purpose of fastening a sword-belt is articulated by its decorations: a complex interaction of form and function. This is, nevertheless, not the buckle’s only ‘interlacing and interplay’.

A prominent gold fish in high relief runs along the spine of the buckle. It is an intriguing assimilation of Christian symbolism, some fifty years after St Augustine landed on the Isle of Thanet, on his Gregorian mission to Christianise King Æthelberht’s Kingdom of Kent. It is a pronounced decorative contrast to the pagan imagery of another 8th century buckle from Finglesham, upon which a stout Viking wields two spears. If the opulence of the Crundale Buckle is a testament to its maker’s pagan heritage — a fascination with gold was an essential component of barbarian taste — its Christian iconography implicates the item in a new, post-Augustian Anglo-Saxon age.

As archaeologist and art historian Sir Thomas Kendrick noted, this was an age of ‘a series of conflicts’; The Franks Casket is one artefact that attests to the manifold cultural currents eddying through Britain in this period. Constructed in the early 8th Century, this astonishing whalebone box disorientingly converges relief scenes from Roman, Jewish, Christian and Germanic sources. The front panel is a composite scene of the Germanic Weland the Smith legend, and the Adoration of the Magi; the left-hand end is a depiction of Romulus and Remus; the back presents the capture of Jerusalem. The inscription on the back is a mixture of Old English, Latin, runes and insular script: the runic inscription reads ‘Hic fugiant Hierusalim afitatores’. In her excellent study on the art of Anglo-Saxon England, Catherine Karkov notes that:

‘afitatores’ is a corrupt form of the Latin ‘habitatores’, but written in runes, transforming the inhabitants of Jerusalem into a people that is both Roman (language) and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or ‘Germanic’ (alphabet) yet not quite either.

In Nonhuman voices in Anglo-Saxon literature and material culture, James Pazz argues that it is by mechanisms such as this that the casket ‘makes us rethink how we categorise ourselves […] telling its Anglo-Saxon observers who and what they are (literate/illiterate, secular/ecclesiastical, Germanic/Roman) while suggesting that these roles are subject to change’. Pazz’s analysis is compelling. Destabilising monolithic identities and totalitarian knowledge systems, The Franks Casket is much more than an avowal of ‘a series of conflicts’. It is an artistic reconciliation. Though more sustainedly engaged and aesthetically nuanced, it recalls the Crundale Buckle: synthesis, as much as cultural juxtaposition.

This harmonising impulse is inherent to the Casket’s very materiality. Derived from the animal’s jaw, the size of the whale would have dictated the boxes’ dimensions; similarly, the material prescribed the type of script that could be cut into it, as bone permitted more curved and rounded script. As such, the craftsman responsible for The Franks Casket would have had to mediate between his artistic designs and the box’s very materiality. The riddle on the front of the box gestures towards this fact:

The fish beat up the sea on to the mountainous cliff. The king of terror became sad when he swam on to the shingle. Whale’s bone.

Arranged in a rectangle, ‘Hronaes ban’ (whale’s bone) is located at both the beginning and the end of the riddle, at once yoking it with the beached whale, and the living fish. In this way, The Frank’s Casket reflects upon its own status as an object — simultaneously static and dynamic, dead and alive.

The Franks Casket, then, is a kind of speaking object. These are a feature of Anglo-Saxon culture; around the perimeter of The Aedwen Brooch, for example, is an inscription that reads: ‘Ædwen owns me, may the Lord own her. May the Lord curse him who takes me from her, unless she gives me of her own free will.’ As Karkov points out, the inscription, a typical proclamation of ownership followed by a curse, inculcates an agency that is irrespective of the wearer — as it is on the back of the brooch, in order to be read it must not be worn. The Æthelswith Ring, another piece of jewellery, bears on its reverse side an inscription of the eponymous Queen’s name; suggestively, the inscription marks the ring as a royal gift or symbol of office, rather than a statement of ownership. Both engravings gesture away from the bearer, and towards the operation of the object itself. By design, they are public statements, rather than intimate intelligence.

Though my emphasis so far has been on such objects establishing a kind of conversation — between disparate cultures, craftsman and object, and object and audience — 2nd century rhetorician Lucian’s meditation on the tastes of the barbarians interrogate this dialogic vision:

They did not appeal to men’s taste; not How may I win approval? but How may I dazzle? was the question they asked themselves. The barbarian has a keen appreciation of gold: to the treasures of art he is blind.

The sheer complexity and distinct beauty of much of their craftsmanship distance the Anglo-Saxons from Lucian’s trenchant remarks on the Barbarians. And yet, hoards such as the startling Sutton Hoo ship burial — profuse, solid, and lavish — do partially identify such treasures as conspicuous articulations of wealth and power; fashioned to ‘dazzle’, not to converse. Gold, however, was not only a witness to material authority. In Beowulf, Wiglaf enters the dragon’s den and sees:


A standard, entirely of gold,

Hanging high over the hoard,

A masterpiece of filigree; it glowed with light

So he could make out the ground at his feet

And inspect the valuables.



The Beowulf poet here draws attention to gold’s property of giving out light; the gold standard sheds light, and subsequently understanding, on what was dark and mysterious. Art historian Charles Dodwell developed this idea, discussing the attraction of gold’s ‘warm glow’ for Anglo-Saxons, given ‘the dark interiors of northern buildings, unlit as yet by a general and generous use of windows’. Gold and jewels, able to reflect, refract, and disseminate sources of light, would have played an intriguing role in illuminating the halls of Anglo-Saxon kings. Old English drew linguistic distinctions between the shininess of metal (‘brun’) and other materials (‘fealu’) in sunshine, and the muted gloss of objects in dull light (‘wann’). Words like these have largely disappeared from our modern lexicon; yet they testify to the Anglo-Saxon’s peculiar fascination with degrees of brightness, as evinced by St Aldhelm’s beautiful description:

The peacock, the beauty of whose feathers now grows golden with a saffron hue, now blushes red with a purple sheen, now shines with a bluish depth of colour or glows with the tawny glint of gold.

St Aldhelm is as preoccupied with the peacock’s feathers emitting light (‘grows’, ‘blushes’, ‘shines’, ‘glows’, ‘glint’) as with the bird’s varied hues. In the last analysis, the Anglo-Saxon fascination with gold and jewels is modulated from a Lucian-ian attempt to ‘dazzle’ to an impulse to give out and share light: to illuminate, in both senses of the word. In Beowulf, the light of gold leads to apprehension and understanding. Such objects are endeavours in collective vision, which signify, like The Franks Casket, a movement towards greater mutual understanding, and consolidated social unity.

Remarkably, this impulse persists. The Sutton Hoo ship burial, one of the most celebrated archaeological collections in the world, is a definite stop off for the majority of the British Museum’s six million annual visitors. Alongside the acclaimed helmet and gold buckle, the fittings of the Sutton Hoo sword belt are relatively modest. Decorated with flat-cut garnets set in gold cells, they are, however, of exquisite cloisonné work: reflecting light back through the garnets at different angles and causing the objects to dance in the dull light of the display cabinet — confusing the depths of stone and cell, and challenging the eye. Even behind a glass divide, pieces like these reach out and fix an onlooker in a dialogue that seems to bridge the gulf in years: insistently and harmoniously communicating, even to this day.

Featured Image: Detail from the Codex Amiatinus Image Credits: The British Museum