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’.

UPDATE: Responsible Labeling

This Autumn there has been a lot of talk about whether the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ should, on the whole, be put aside. Surely: yes. The history of the modern English word is firmly rooted in early modern ways of thinking about the world divided into races, and such thinking has continued into ways some people frame racist worldviews. Because words evolve and diversify in meaning across different contexts, the label also came to have less immediately problematic connotations, as it became a standard way to classify preconquest English history. Some of the issues were raised in a seminal article in 1985 by Susan Reynolds. Reynolds noted the tension between the ‘ethnological’ and chronological uses of the word, but she also argued that both can do more to obscure our understanding of the past than to enlighten it. Nearly 35 years later, this still needs some serious consideration.

Charles West:

One of the issues is a significant UK/US dissonance. In America and other English-speaking countries, the term ‘Anglo’ or even ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is often used as an ethnic label – indeed, that is apparently its normal usage outside the academy. In the UK, this usage can certainly be found; but it is a marginal one, and for the most part the label today is used with reference to the historical period, whose traces remain evident in place-names and even standing buildings. In standard UK usage, Hadrian the African, for instance, who came from North Africa and became abbot in Canterbury (d. 709), is just as much part of Anglo-Saxon history as the Venerable Bede….

But historians should also, and I would argue above all, point out that the past is not an instruction manual or a model for the present. Whatever your reading of it, early medieval history was a very long time ago: it is or ought to be largely irrelevant for contemporary political issues, whether in England or America or anywhere else. The main problem with 21st-century fascists pretending to be medieval Anglo-Saxons or Vikings is not that they have misread Bede or Gildas: it is that they are fascists.

ARCHAEOdeath: The Archaeology and Heritage of Death & Memory:

The kerfuffle within early medieval studies about the use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ rattles on. On 4 November, an article by eminent TV historian Professor Michael Wood was published in BBC History Extra. The piece makes many valuable points and corrects some flagrant misconceptions floating around the internet. He rightly argues we should be more inclusive as a discipline, but disappointingly Wood comes to no clear conclusions beyond the fact we should all listen. His articulation on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme was equally mealy-mouthed: one learned only that he doesn’t find the label ‘post-Roman’ to be a satisfactory replacement. The result: Wood offers no constructive route forward and the result is an attention-seeking statement. Furthermore, Wood pretends to be oblivious to the nasty tactics at work in this debate by a small cabal of mainly US-based scholars: these persist to the present. Regarding change, he claims: “With goodwill it will be very positive”. Where has he been hiding whilst the near-constant abuse has washed around the academy in the last 2 months?

Meanwhile, Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm published a piece in the History Workshop and subsequently received considerable publicity as the story was shared by many media outlets, including right-wing tabloids. The article sketches some aspects of past uses of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ from the early medieval period to the present as well as selected dimensions of its appropriation in racial terms. For me, this sentence sums up the substandard research framing her arguments, for which I blame the scholars acknowledged as much as Dr Rambaran-Olm: “Rather than accurately portray the early English people as separate tribes (most notably, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) that migrated to the British Isle, the Anglo-Saxon myth links white people with an imagined heritage based on indigeneity to Britain.” Based on this confused perspective, the piece proposes ‘corrective measures’ for the future: whatever that means is left utterly obscure. Again, despite all the bluster and the support of scholars far more vicious than herself, there is nothing further said here we haven’t heard before.

While the voices of outrage have persisted online, most informed early medieval specialists have kept silent. Yet it is positive that some key voices have dared to enter the fray on social media in defence of the use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’. They have inevitably faced unwarranted and heinous accusations of supporting/enabling white supremacy for deploying a practical and reasonable stance on this academic issue. Well-known and best-selling historian Tom Holland asserted the robust and well-argued view that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ should be retained for historians to deploy, writing both on Twitter and in a letter to The Times. Meanwhile, Dr Charles West (University of Sheffield) has articulated a similar clear statement on the Turbulent Priests blog regarding the necessity to combat appropriations and retain coherent scholarship. Charles recognises the concerns with the term, but sees only worse alternatives. Likewise Clerk of Oxford has articulated a very coherent stance on the merit of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’, and so have Dr Thijis PorckDr Caitlin Green and Dr Levi Roach.

Professor John Hines of the University of Cardiff:

The responsible use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’: A summary

Many scholars across the range of specializations concerned with the study of the period from the 4th to the 11th centuries CE/AD in Europe have observed the convulsion in the former International Society of Anglo Saxonists (ISAS) with both dismay and profound concern for its wider implications. The following statement focusses on the associated stigmatization of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’, and summarizes the case for its continued use as a precise and valid mode of expression in study and discussion aimed at increasing knowledge and understanding, and fostering engagement with the human past.

The conditions in which the term is encountered, and how it is perceived, are very different in the USA from elsewhere. In the UK the period has been carefully presented and discussed in popular and successful documentaries and exhibitions over many years, and is now incorporated in the National Curriculum for History in England in a forward-looking way. The term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is historically authentic in the sense that from the 8th century it was used externally to refer to a dominant population in southern Britain, and came into regular use within England itself from the late 9th century onwards. Its earliest uses, therefore, embody exactly the significant issues we can expect any general ethnic or national label to represent: it was applied, adopted and adapted for specific cultural and political purposes, and what it was employed to denote was subject to continuous reconstruction. The scholarship that focusses on what, in standard western European terminology, are the Early Middle Ages provides abundant evidence of care, sensitivity and determination in examining the complexities of identity and associated matters of controversy.

The term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has been in use in scholarly literature to denote the population and culture of England from the end of Roman rule (the early 5th century) to the Norman Conquest of 1066 for more than four centuries. It became more frequent around the mid-19th century, superseding earlier common use of ‘Saxon’ alone, not least because it was shown by archaeologists that the influence on Britain from Germanic language areas of the Continent and Scandinavia was geographically diverse and appeared to represent several distinct sources and populations. The term then became firmly established as a well-defined label for the radically new range of material and visual cultures which appeared over a large area in Britain from the 5th century onwards, and as a collective term for the populations and societies with which such evidence is associable.

The linguistic label ‘Old English’ has long been established for the vernacular language of this community and its literature. For reference to the contexts in which the language was used and its texts were produced and transmitted, the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ allows for precise and concise, unmarked reference. It does not prevent the choice of more precise terms such as ‘West Saxon’ or ‘Anglo-Scandinavian’ where appropriate, nor does it hinder critical reflection on situations in which it might encourage preconceptions and over-generalization. Alternative constructions involving ‘Early Medieval’ with ‘England’ or ‘English’ are seriously ambiguous in many contexts as well as often verbose and clumsy. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ represents a readily identifiable although fluid cultural complex with open borders, and not a unitary linguistic, territorial or political field.

The appropriation, misuse and misrepresentation of a historical concept for political ends from any part of the political spectrum, right, left or centre, is to be deplored and resisted. It is an honourable and valid position to defend and insist upon a historically and interpretatively correct use of the term, and to reclaim misinterpreted features of the Early Middle Ages where necessary rather than abandoning them. It is undoubtedly essential to understand that linguistic pragmatics change with circumstances, and that the responsible use of the term must now include awareness of the perceptions and reactions demonstrated in the ISAS controversy. All have a duty to avoid behaving provocatively, and to exercise good will and tolerance towards others. However, the transformation of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ into a shibboleth whose use or shunning will distinguish the bad from the good will only create further destructive divisions – not least, in this instance, between scholars and students from different areas and in different disciplinary fields of enquiry.