Anglo-Saxons, Again

Some recent commentary on the alleged racism of “Anglo-Saxon”:

Charlotte Allen in Quillette:

Higher Education’s Medievalist Moral Panic

On September 19, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS), a 36-year-old organization of academics specializing in the history, culture, and literature of England before the Norman Conquest, hastily voted to change its name. Indeed, the vote was so hasty that the organization had no idea what its new name ought to be (it is soliciting suggestions from members). Nonetheless, the majority of its 600-odd members were certain of one thing: they no longer wanted to be associated with the words “Anglo-Saxon.”

In the view of many of those members, that term had become tainted, appropriated by an assortment of white supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis that calls itself the “alt-right.” During the Charlottesville, Virginia melée of August 11–12, 2017, which included a supremacist’s murder of a woman by car attack, the white nationalists who marched had carried banners and standards incorporating iconography that, if not always precisely Anglo-Saxon in inspiration, was certainly medieval: Templar crosses, the double eagle of the Holy Roman Empire, and in one case, a Germanic rune beloved of neo-Nazis that was used during Anglo-Saxon times….

A statement from the ISAS’s advisory board accompanying its September 19 announcement of the planned name change read: “It has sometimes been used outside the field to describe those holding repugnant and racist views, and has contributed to a lack of diversity among those working on early medieval England and its intellectual and literary culture.” But there was something more at stake: During the run-up to the announcement the majority of the board and at least one of its officers had resigned, some of them very publicly, issuing statements excoriating the organization for failing to tackle issues such as “racism, sexism, inclusiveness, representation” and turning a blind eye to sexual abuse of female scholars in the field. The ISAS’s executive director, Robin Norris, also handed in her resignation, stating in an email: “We made you wait too long for change.” The term “Anglo-Saxon” had become an all-purpose grievance nexus for the academic Left—and also a nexus of professional embarrassment and self-doubt for scholars who like to think of themselves as tolerant liberals and feel vaguely ashamed that most of the people taking an interest in Anglo-Saxon studies happen to be white and that a lot of them are men….

[But] it is fair to say that England during the half-millennium before 1066 did have a culture that could be called distinctly Anglo-Saxon. The Angles and Saxons gave their names to territorial swathes of England that persist to this day: Essex, Sussex, East Anglia. Their Old English dialects replaced other spoken languages in all but the remotest corners. Medieval monks writing in Latin called that tongue Anglice. Specifically, the West Saxon dialect spoken in Wessex, the southwestern English territory of King Alfred the Great (ca. 847-899), became the preeminent literary language of pre-Conquest England. Nearly all extant Old English prose and poetry, including the famous narrative poem Beowulf, were written down in that West Saxon dialect. There was even a distinctive “Anglo-Saxon” script for those writings, distinguished by the long, pointed tails of many of its letters; it looked completely different from the scribes’ Latin scripts. Poetry in Old English used a complex alliterative metrical scheme common to northern languages but unlike anything to be found in Latin or the languages of continental Europe. It was understandable that from 1983 until fairly recently the words “Anglo-Saxonists” were generally unproblematic….

Perhaps the ISAS, in rushing through a vote to change its name just a week later, was simply atoning for its distinct, if admittedly slight, association with murderers who might have seen a mangled version of a Rudyard Kipling poem about “Saxons” on the Internet. But it seems as likely that relentless ideological pressure from a rump group of leftist scholars with agendas and bullying issues of their own led the Society to capitulate to a passing social-justice fad that sees racism and misogyny everywhere. One thing is certain, though: It’s no longer okay in academia these days to call yourself an “Anglo-Saxonist”—even if you do happen to studying long-dead people who called themselves Angles and Saxons.

The editorial board of The Times:

The Times view on banning ‘Anglo-Saxon’: Normative Conquest

Historians who want to banish the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ should think again

The great battles of history may be second in ferocity only to the battles within history departments. The latest row to grip the academic discipline in Britain and America is whether it should drop the term “Anglo-Saxon.” Some scholars allege it has racist connotations and want to banish it. It comes hard on the heels of a similar debate on whether statues linked to colonialism and the slave trade should be removed from universities. Those familiar with the Old English poem Beowulf will be equipped with an appropriate phrase: “O flower of warriors, beware of that trap.”

“Anglo-Saxon” traditionally refers to tribes including Angles and Saxons who came to Britain from across the North Sea after the end of Roman rule and their descendants until the Norman Conquest. But in September the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists voted to remove “Anglo-Saxon” from its name, saying that it had led to a “lack of diversity” among those working on the subject.

The row intensified on Monday when the historian [sic] Mary Rambaran-Olm wrote that the term was pseudohistorical, claiming it only became popular in the 1700s and 1800s as historians sought to connect white people with their supposed origins. This was followed by a backlash from some British historians but endorsed by a Harvard academic, who tweeted that the term “gives aid” to white supremacists.

While efforts to prevent racism may be laudable, editing history is not the answer. The historian Tom Holland said that dropping the word would be “mad as a bag of ferrets.” He tweeted that “Anglo-Saxon” was historically accurate because it was used by the Anglo-Saxons themselves. Besides, even if the word emerged later for racist purposes, this should also be of interest to historians. The job of academia is not to obscure the truth by banning historical phrases. It is to ferret it out.

Michael Wood on History Extra:

There are storms buffeting the world of Anglo-Saxon studies. Like the narrator of the Old English poem The Seafarer, many scholars are feeling battered by “dire sea-surges” and “bitter breast cares”. And the waves are coming from across the Atlantic. In the United States the academic Anglo-Saxon studies establishment, white-dominated and long perceived as excluding of BAME scholars, is now facing a backlash. The first target is the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS), a body predominantly concerned with Old English literature and culture, which over the last 35 years has done a great deal to further knowledge of the pre-Conquest period but which now stands accused of institutional racism. Recently, one of its vice presidents, a woman of colour, resigned describing the field as “rife with antiquated views – prestige, elitism, sexism, racism and bigotry – which have seen many good people leave the field”. On 19 September, after a torrent of recriminations on social media, ISAS announced that it will poll members on a change of name.

But the argument is about much more than a name. And it is by no means an issue confined to the US, though there it has gathered a particular intensity. American critics of ‘Anglo-Saxon studies’ feel the subject is by definition racist, that it has never escaped its roots in 18th and 19th-century colonialism when ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ in both the USA and Britain was used to endorse white supremacy. The slave-owning Thomas Jefferson, after all, founded the republic on imagined Anglo-Saxon roots, based on laws supposedly lost in 1066. This latter-day Anglo-Saxon commonwealth would come to be summed up in the acronym WASP – White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant – a code for racial purity that white supremacists and neo-Nazis have embraced. And this situation, critics allege, is still implicitly underwritten by a white academic establishment that has failed to move with the times and embrace diversity, both in appointments and ideas.

All due respect to Michael Wood, but somehow I can’t see neo-Nazis embracing the term “WASP,” which in America connotes east-coast establishment types like the elder Bush. 

Has the time come to retire the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’? Is it a bar to understanding and communication, imprisoning us in the racist views of the past? We can’t answer these questions without acknowledging the fact that, contrary to what some people have been stating on social media, the Early English did use the term ‘Anglo-Saxons’ of themselves. On the continent in the eighth century, Paul the Deacon speaks of the “Anglisaxones”; Alfred and his successors used “King of the Anglo-Saxons” as a title for their new order. We may drop ‘Anglo-Saxonists’, then – we may prefer ‘Early English’ – but we cannot dispense entirely with ‘Anglo-Saxons’.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *