Curator's Choice: David Crystal on the one-inch star of Evolving English at the British Library

David Crystal interviewed by Ben Miller | 11 November 2010
Curator's Choice... In his own words, David Crystal, Curator of the British Library's Evolving English exhibition explains why he is a fan of the Undley Bracteate, a gold medallion discovered by archaeologists in 1982.

Believed to have been made in southern Denmark and brought to England by some of the earliest Germanic-speaking settlers, the Bracteate features a helmeted head, a she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus and a runic inscription…


"In my view, this is the most amazing exhibit in the whole exhibition. It’s only one inch big – it’s a tiny little coin, and it’s the first example of written English that we have for the whole language, right back to the 5th century.

It was found in a field in Norfolk. You look at it and you realise it’s the first evidence we have of the language, and I think that really takes your breath away. It says "maegae medu" – the word "medu" is well known in old English, it means reward or gift. "Maga" certainly means kinsman or colleague or chief or something like that.

The thing that nobody knows is another word from the inscription – gaegogae. What on earth does that mean? The a and e are actually a symbol – it’s pronounced ga-go-ga.

The Library are guessing that it might mean she-wolf or it might just be some sort of magical incantation – it sounds a bit like that. There’s a lot of guesswork here, but those are the number one suggestions most people agree about.

The Romans had not been gone long, and they’d left behind them a huge educational awareness, so the stories it depicts would have been well-known among the Anglo-Saxon nobility. If I’m going to choose a story to put on a gift to you I’m going to choose a famous one, aren’t I?

I was almost moved to tears when I first saw it."

Watch David Crystal introduce the Bracteate:

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