05.02.08, Karkov, The Ruler Portraits

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Alex Burghart

The Medieval Review baj9928.0502.008


Karkov, Catherine E.. The Ruler Portraits of Anglo-Saxon England. Series: Anglo-Saxon Studies vol. 3. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 209. ISBN: 1-84383-059-0.

Reviewed by:
Alex Burghart
King's College

Chapters: Alfred; Æthelstan; Edgar and the royal women of the monastic reform; Ælfgifu/Emma and Cnut; Edward, the Godwines and the end of Anglo-Saxon England.

Nothing is so sharp a reminder of Anglo-Saxon England's invisibility than the fact that no one would recognize Alfred the Great if he were to walk into the bar. Of royalty, the faces of only five kings (Æthelstan, Edgar, Cnut, Harthacnut, Harold Godwinson, Edward the Confessor) and two royal women (Edith, Ælfgifu/Emma) are readily identifiable in contemporary portraits. It is true that many more have busts on coins, but unfortunately almost all of these seem to be taken from Roman types (the Offa of his pennies is a probable exception; his hair is entirely unique) and so prove less helpful than the other describers Prof Karkov exploits. This is much more than an art historical study of a small collection of unusual drawings, rather it seeks to use all available sources, visual and verbal, to reconstruct the ruler's official images. Her interdisciplinary church is humblingly broad, encompassing legal texts, charters, language, and jewelry, and the result is an extremely rich and rounded piece of research which refuses to take any of its source material lightly.

Anglo-Saxon ruler portraits, unlike their Continental counterparts, focus sharply on the power of the written word. This importance was initiated by Alfred who, in disseminating translated literature across the kingdom and insisting on the literacy of his followers, tried to make books integral to his power. His Pastoral Care, Karkov emphasizes, combined his voice with Gregory's, his role with a bishop's, and his subjects with him, for in requiring the work to be read, digested and displayed he germinated what Prof. Nelson has called--with reference to Charlemagne's reforms--that "great empire of the mind." Karkov goes on to show how Æthelstan drew on the book-potency exposed by his grandfather. In Cambridge, Corpus Christi, MS 183, fol. 1v, he delivers a book containing Bede's Lives of Cuthbert, episcopal lists from north and south of the Humber, and regnal lists from five kingdoms to St Cuthbert himself. Thus the greatest saint of the lately acquired North is given due homage by its new temporal lord who offers him a neatly bound collection of history which links the Anglo-Saxon 'golden age' (identified by Alfred) to the Biblical and the new golden age (the tenth century).

Edgar too is found presenting writing, this time a gold charter refounding New Minster, to Christ, as though Anglo-Saxon kings were moving up the scale of patronage as their power extended and solidified. Karkov wonders whether this christological dependency was already present in Alfred's reign as the Alfred Jewel potentially combines the name and image of the king with a reading device and a Roman rock crystal symbolizing the Savior's purity. Certainly by the time of Cnut's portrait both his crown and the veil of Emma are placed upon their heads by angels pointing to Christ (Karkov wonders whether angels are a play on Angles). In all the manuscript portraits Anglo-Saxon kings are shown in the midst of their relationship with the divine, involved in gift-exchange with God. Kings thus become God's agents on Earth and so similar to Christ--Edgar in Cotton Tiberius A.iii, fol 2r is the first king to make eye-contact with us, adopting a stance previously reserved for Jesus. Karkov links this to the increasingly harsh nature of Anglo-Saxon law and its determination to view crime as an offence against not only individuals but also society, the king, and God. In revealing the dependency of successive ruler portraits on each other and providing a context for their development, Karkov not only gives very careful analysis of some of the most bountiful Anglo-Saxon source material, she also reveals another aspect of the theocracy from which the late Anglo-Saxon state was suspended.

A minor question mark hangs over Karkov's plugging for kings being greatly responsible for the modeling of their own portrayals. Apart from Alfred who speaks directly to us through his writing, there can be no certainty as to how much of decision-making was performed by the king and how much was determined by an increasingly formalized royal court which provided the most obvious conduit for the continuity and evolution of ideas. This is not to say that Karkov is wrong, just that more caution may be necessary.

It is ironic that a work which has shown the book to be fundamental to the portrayal of Anglo-Saxon kings costs so much that one questions whether the book as a concept has now lost its usefulness. £55/$99 is a lot of money to pay for any book, even one as good as this. It may be time to start publishing everything on the internet. On the web Professor Karkov could have had a good many more plates, and color ones at that; more to the point, a good many more people would have had the opportunity to see both them and her excellent research.

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Alex Burghart

King's College