- Museum number
Object: The Franks Casket
Object: The Auzon Casket
Lidded rectangular box made of whale-bone, carved on the sides and top in relief with scenes from Roman, Jewish, Christian and Germanic tradition. The base is constructed from four sides slotted and pegged into corner uprights, the bottom plates fitted into grooves at the base of the sides. It possibly stood on four low feet. Only one decorative panel now survives in the lid, the remaining elements being almost certainly replacements.
There are scars left by lost metal fittings on the exterior - handle, lock, hasps and hinges - and crude internal repairs. The five surviving decorated panels are variously accompanied by carved texts in Old English and Latin, using both conventional and encoded runes as well as Insular script, in a variety of orientations. Each side is bordered by a long descriptive text and three contain additional labels; the lid panel has only the latter, though a longer text may originally have accompanied it.
The front is divided in two: the left half shows a composite scene from the Weland the Smith legend, the right half, the Adoration of the Magi, with the label 'mægi' carved above the kings. The main inscription takes the form of a riddling alliterative verse about the casket's origin.
The left-hand end depicts Romulus and Remus nurtured by the wolf with an inscription describing the scene.
The back panel shows the capture of Jerusalem in AD 70 by the Roman general, later emperor, Titus: labels on the two lower corners read 'dom' = 'judgment', and 'gisl' = 'hostage' respectively. The main inscription is in a mixture of Old English, Latin, runes and insular script.
The right-hand end poses special problems of interpretation. The apparently episodic scene is evidently from Germanic legend but has not been satisfactorily identified. Three labels read: 'risci' = 'rush', 'wudu' = 'wood' and 'bita' = 'biter'. The main runic text is in alliterative verse partly encoded by substituting cryptic forms for most of its vowels and perhaps certain other letters.
The lid appears to depict an episode relating to the Germanic hero Egil and has the single label 'aegili' = 'Egil'.
- Production date
Height: 10.90 centimetres
Length: 22.90 centimetres
Weight: 1354.20 grammes (Casket body)
Weight: 533.20 grammes (Lid, incl. perspex mount)
Weight: 1887.40 grammes (Overall, incl. perspex lid mount)
Width: 19 centimetres
- Curator's comments
Published and mentioned:
Karkov, C. E., 2017. The Franks Casket Speaks Back: The Bones of the Past, the Becoming of England. In: Frojmovic, E. and Karkov, C. E. (eds.), Postcolonising the Medieval Image. Abingdon: Oxford, pp. 37-61.
Paz, J., 2017. Nonhuman Voices in Anglo-Saxon Literature and Material Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press, Chapter 3
Webster & Backhouse 1991
Detailed descriptions and discussions of the scenes may be found in works listed in the select bibliography.
Almost everything about this perplexing and ostentatiously erudite object is enigmatic, including its history. It was first recorded in the possession of a family at Auzon in the Auvergne, during which time it was dismantled. The right-hand end became separated from the rest around this time, and passed eventually into the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence, where it remains. A replica of this is mounted on the original casket. The other panels were bought from a Paris dealer and presented to the British Museum by the collector and curator Augustus Franks, whose name it bears. Its history prior to its surfacing in Auzon is unknown, though one second-hand account suggests that it came from the nearby church and cult-centre of St Julian at Brioude, from which it could have been looted at the Revolution. How and when the casket came to France can only ever be a matter for speculation, though Wood has managed to identify one early medieval candidate who in theory could have taken it from the north of England to Brioude - the Frankish scholar Frithegod who was active in both areas in the middle tenth century (Wood 1990, 4-5).
Still more speculative is the question of where and why it was made. The language of the inscription shows that the carver used a Northumbrian or north Mercian dialect current in the early eighth century. The style of decoration, with its many details recalling Northumbrian manuscript art of the first half of the eighth century, accords with this (Webster 1982b, 28-30). A Northumbrian origin is thus probable, though (since even monastic craftsmen may be mobile) not strictly necessary. Aptly characterised as “self-consciously clever” by Wood (1990, 5), there can however be little doubt that the casket was made in a learned community with aristocratic tastes and connections; at such a date, that can only mean a monastic milieu. Wood's own tentative suggestion that this could have been Wilfrid's Ripon is ingenious and attractive, but discounts too readily the possibility of an origin at other major Northumbrian centres of learning such as Lindisfarne or even the more consciously romanising Monkwearmouth/Jarrow. The Casket's heady mix of Roman Christian, Jewish and Germanic traditions certainly reflects an interest in cosmography recorded in seventh- to eighth-century Northumbrian aristocratic and monastic circles (e.g. Wood 1990, 8, fn. 48); where, as we also know from Alcuin's famous reproof to the monks of Lindisfarne, tales of Germanic heroes were also recounted (Alcuin, letter 124). The casket's programme, in so far as we understand it, is however not merely a parade of learning and of epigraphic virtuosity. Word and image enter here a new and important Anglo-Saxon life together, in an iconographic programme which seems to be based on parallels rather in the manner of Biblical types (a form of exegesis certainly known at Monkwearmouth/Jarrow). The Adoration of the Magi, for example is juxtaposed with the Weland legend, in which the birth of a hero also makes good sin and suffering, while the adjacent sides symbolising the founding of Rome and destruction of Jerusalem draw an obvious contrast. However, while the Germanic scenes on the lid and right-hand side remain opaque to analysis, it is impossible to say whether the device of parallelism underlies the Casket's entire iconographic programme. Nevertheless, the access to the Early Christian models evident in the use of parallels is matched in the Casket's form and design. This is manifestly based - possibly at some remove - on an Early Christian reliquary similar to the Brescia casket, which itself shares with the Franks Casket both a programme which makes notable use of parallels and a remarkably similar layout of central scenes bordered by (there iconic) commentaries. No doubt prestigious potential models of this kind reached Northumbria either through direct contacts with Rome of the kind regularly made by such as Benedict Biscop, Ceolfrid and Wilfrid, or, as Wood has argued, via contacts with Frankish Gaul. The heady impact on Anglo-Saxon culture and Christianity and with it the world of antiquity is nowhere more strikingly seen than in this extraordinary object.
Select bibliography: Napier, A.S. 1900, The Franks Casket, in ‘An English Miscellany presented to Dr Furnivall’, Oxford, 362-81; Marquardt, H. 1961, ‘Bibliographie der Runen nach Fundorten’, I, ‘Runenschriften der Britischen Inseln’, Göttingen, 10-16 and ref; Page, R.I. 1973, ‘An Introduction to Old English Runes’, London, 66-8, 174-82, 188-9 and refs; Webster, L.E. 1982b, Stylistic aspects of the Franks Casket, in R.T. Farrell (ed.), ‘The Vikings’, 20-31; Wood, I.N. 1990, Ripon, Francia and the Franks Casket in the Early Middle Ages, ‘Northern History’ 26, 1-19.
- On display (G41/dc2)
- Exhibition history
2011 23 June-9 Oct, London, BM, 'Treasures of Heaven'
1996 1 Jun-26 Aug, Newcastle upon Tyne, The Laing Art Gallery, Treasures from the Lost Kingdom of Northumbria
1974 8 May-7 Jul, London, V&A, Ivory Carving in Early Modern England 700-1200, cat.1
- There are scars left by lost metal fittings on the exterior - handle, lock, hasps and hinges - and crude internal repairs reflect a chequered history (see curatorial comment). The right-hand side is a replica; the original is in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence (Carrand Coll. no. 25).
- Associated events
Associated Event: Siege of Jerusalem
Associated Event: Jewish Revolt
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Bought in Auzon.
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number