medieval craftsmanship
© Ashmolean MuseumExamples of expert craftmanship are on show
It is popularly held as a period when Britain and the rest of the world fell into a deep decline.

But according to the British Library, the Dark Ages were anything but.

The curator of a new exhibition has suggested the term unfairly maligns a time of great creativity and enlightened thinking.

Dr Claire Breay said that objects in the "once-in-a-generation" exhibition, which opens on Friday, show that Britain was sophisticated and pioneering.

She told The Telegraph: "I think people always think of this time as the Dark Ages.

"We are trying to show the public and encourage them to engage with the literary and artistic evidence of the [Anglo-Saxon peoples'] complex and sophisticated lives."

Codex Amiatinus
© Firenze, Biblioteca Medicea LaurenzianaThe Codex Amiatinus is on British soil for the first time in centuries
At the time, she said, Britain lead the world in areas such as poetry, shown by texts like Beowulf, medicine, and organisation of land and taxes, which is shown by the Domesday Book.

Dr Breay added: "That's what made Britain so attractive for other countries to invade - it was prosperous and well-organised.

"The exhibition shows many examples of just how sophisticated our literary tradition was.

"Not only that but the Domesday Book shows the degree of the administrative sophistication we had."

Many of the objects show expert craftsmanship which has stood the test of time, most notably the brightly-decorated manuscripts which still glow and gleam in their original coloured ink.

Displayed together for the first time are outstanding illuminated and decorated manuscripts, spanning six centuries from the eclipse of Roman Britain in the 5th century to the Norman Conquest of 1066. The intricate jewels worn by the rich can also be seen, with a notable example being the bright Alfred Jewel, surrounded by delicate gold carvings.

Beowulf manuscript
© British LibraryVisitors can see the original Beowulf manuscript
Britain's literary tradition is also on display; four principal manuscripts of Old English poetry are shown together for the first time, with the British Library's unique manuscript of Beowulf displayed alongside the Vercelli Book returning to England for the first time from the Biblioteca Capitolare in Vercelli; the Exeter Book, and the Junius Manuscript.

Visitors can also see music scores written for horns to be played centuries ago, displayed alongside an original instrument.

There are many firsts to see in the exhibition; from the first political biography of a woman, to the first English letter.

Dr Breay added: "This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to see an outstanding array of Anglo-Saxon manuscripts and objects produced over six centuries, which demonstrate the sophistication and interconnected European world of Anglo-Saxon art, literature and history."