Designing English, the present exhibition curated by Daniel Wakelin at the Bodleian’s Weston Library, is an undoubted triumph. If you have not seen it, do not miss your last chance: go before it ends on 22nd April 2018. Its display of manuscripts skilfully encourages the viewer to look beyond the text and see the page. It also encourages the visitor to think beyond the page and appreciate the extent of medieval graphicity — in graffiti or an inscription moulded onto a bell. What, however, has made the gallery are frequent haunt of mine in the past months is a realisation of how the exhibition is wonderfully subtle and, in the best sense of the word, ambivalent.
The show opens in apparently celebratory mood with a case (re)uniting the Alfred Jewel, usually held in the Ashmolean, with one of the earliest manuscripts (MS. Hatton 20) of the Anglo-Saxon translation of Gregory’s Pastoral Care, attributed to Alfred himself. It is a combination that alone, as they say, is worth the entrance fee (there is, in fact, no entrance fee, which makes this exhibition a particular bargain). It also, though, hints at some of the problems of its topic. In the confrontation of intricate metalwork and relatively simple layout on the page, there is no contest: the manuscript cannot have the same mastery as the jewel. This contrast is, in part, an issue with the difficulty of displaying books in cases. The power of a book is its plurality: it is itself an object but each opening within it is an object for the eye’s gaze. This multiplicity can only but be denied by the static presentation that an exhibition usually requires. It must be said that ‘Designing English’, in common with the recent and equally excellent ‘Colour’ at the Fitzwilliam, does well to help the visitor appreciate the mechanics of manuscript-production and, thus, remember the book’s dynamics.
That a book comes off worse in a comparison with the Alfred Jewel is not, though, entirely about the necessities of presentation. Turn your back on that case and you are faced with a rather different approach to the page – before you now is the intricate mise-en-page of the Macregol Gospels (MS. Auct. D. 2. 19).
This is one moment when a manuscript shows it can take on a jewel-like quality. The Gospels are on display here not for their illumination or for its Latin text but for the interlinear glosses added in Old English. We are not here to consider the medieval book as a whole but to note the presence of the English language (in its various varieties) within it. It is a presence which is often marginal. Of course, as Alfred’s Pastoral Care bears witness, the Anglo-Saxon tongue had a remarkable heyday from the late ninth to the mid-eleventh century, sitting alongside Latin as an appropriate language of written communication. After the Norman Conquest, English was not to enjoy the same status again until… quite when is a question that hangs over this exhibition.
One obvious answer would be that English regained its glory with Chaucer, and some of the display here demonstrates the regard in which he was held. So, for instance, in one manuscript (MS. Rawl. poet. 223), the opening displayed has a running header announcing the author’s surname. What is striking with these pages is that the English language is presented in a cursive bookhand with substantial continental influence. This should remind us that England was by no means the first country to prize writings in the local vernacular: we can think of thirteenth-century Castile or the fourteenth-century construction of the tre corone of Florence. A precedent which was better known in England was the culture of French writing around the Valois court of Paris, and later also in Burgundy. In its patriotic fashioning of local language as literature, fifteenth-century England was playing catch-up. Even when emphasising its specific identity, England was indebted to what had been going on elsewhere in Europe.
If this surprises a visitor, they cannot complain that they were not warned. Daniel Wakelin’s introductory panel draws attention to the limited presence of English in this world where Latin dominated. The fully literate — the literati — did not just write in it, they spoke it and they thought in it. They were certainly not the majority: they were, in fact, a tiny minority in England, though their presence was unevenly spread. One of the images which acts as back-drop to the cases brought this forcefully home to me: I had a moment of recognition, seeing before me the hall of Christ Church, where I had been an undergraduate and my mind’s ear could hear myself reciting the Latin grace before dinner that I had been called upon to read. The hall was built in the later 1520s by Thomas Wolsey for his foundation of Cardinal College. The statutes for that college survive; they are derivative of earlier examples in many respects, including in their stipulation that over dinner the students should speak in Latin (or, if they stumbled, Wolsey allowed them to turn to Greek instead). Later in the sixteenth century, that same hall, now a central space of the royal foundation of Christ Church, was host to royal visitors who would be entertained by plays written by students in Latin. There is, in other words, an irony that ‘Designing English’ is taking place under the aegis of the University of Oxford, an institution where for centuries being learned was being Latinate — being conversant, that is, in something more than what would have been called dismissively the mother tongue.
This exhibition, then, is a triumph not only in its beauty and, indeed, in the artistry of its design. In the ancient Roman procession that gives us the term, triumph, beside the victorious general would stand a slave repeatedly saying in the victor’s ear ‘Remember, you too are mortal’. Likewise, this exhibition celebrates but it also whisper to us when we think of the book and of the extent of English: ‘Remember the limits’.