Hengist and Horsa

Richard Utz on Medievally Speaking:

Adventures in Anglalond: Angles, Saxons, and Academics

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress determined, among many other and more important matters, that a committee of three, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, should recommend a seal for the new United States of America. By August, each of the men suggested different designs, with scenes and symbols deriving from the usual suspects: Classical mythology, the Bible, and the Middle Ages. Adams settled on the figure of Hercules as he contemplated abstractions of Virtue and Sloth; Franklin imagined Moses extending his hand and destroying Pharao and his armies; Jefferson agreed with seeing Moses and Pharaoh on one side of the seal or medal they were considering. On the reverse, however, he added a surprise element: “Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.” None of the three proposals ended up being picked, and several other versions were also rejected, including one with a shield flanked by the maiden America and a medieval knight in armor.

Clearly, certain ideas and tropes of the medieval past loomed large in the imaginary of the country’s late eighteenth-century founders. Jefferson’s anchoring of American claims of self-determination with a pair of mythographic Germanic settler-colonizers, whom he seems to credit with creating a form of self-rule in early medieval Kent, is rather ironic. After all, his own grandparents on his father’s side had immigrated from Northern Wales, a region that became part of the “Celtic fringe” (roughly today’s Cornwall, Ireland, Isla of Man, Scotland, Wales, and Brittany) into which the indigenous Romano-Celtic inhabitants of the ‘British’ isles retreated as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes expanded their territories.

Of course, historical accuracy and exact genealogy were not priorities when a late eighteenth-century politician yearned to demonstrate the manifest destiny of his nation. Jefferson’s priority was to unite the new nation behind what he felt was a linguistically and culturally plausible ‘English’ national heritage of entrepreneurial colonizers. And as nationalism gradually increased during the nineteenth and early twentieth-century, the practitioners of medieval studies in the U.S., European countries, and many of their colonies worked within similar nationalist paradigms. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that medieval studies would never have succeeded at finding broad acceptance at the modern university if it had not been in lockstep with these very paradigms: The heavy research focus on national epics (Song of RolandNibelungenliedEl Cid), the use of linguistics to prove ‘ownership’ of medieval texts (Beowulf as a Danish, German(ic), or English/British narrative), or nationalized methods of textual editing (Karl Lachmann vs. Joseph Bédiér) provide evidence for the long-standing interdependence of nationalism and medieval studies. Numerous critical evaluations, from Reginald Horsman’s Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism (1981) through Mary Dockray-Miller’s “Public Medievalists, Racism, and Suffrage in the American Women’s College” (2019) demonstrate the same interdependence in the area of “Anglo-Saxonism”. 

I did not know about Jefferson’s proposed seal, nor about the place of Hengist and Horsa in the American “imaginary” – although I would point out that Jefferson does not talk only of “descent”, but also of “political principles and form of government.” This may not have been entirely accurate either, but it was’t necessarily racial, as Tom MacMaster comments:

Respectfully, I think this post is both wrong and misleading. It misses the important dimension that Jefferson (et al.) weren’t particularly interested in the racial/ethnic identity of Hengist & Horsa but were steeped in ideas related to the English Civil War and the notion of the Norman Yoke. Occluding that discussion (which most of these endless discussions of the evilness of Anglo-Saxon have done) misses a really important aspect of the use of the term (when used as an endonym; quite a lot of the ‘oppressive’ aspect also is its use as an exonym, e.g. by French political theorists or sociologists like Andrew Hacker, the popularizer of the “WASP” acronym). Pretending otherwise only aids in pushing a mendacious narrative favored by a group of pseudo-leftist ideologues and stochastic terrorists who are bent on destruction of the academic study of the middle ages.

I would also like to say that Medieval Studies, as a discipline, may have been associated with nineteenth-century nation-building, but I take it for granted that the entire field is not forever tainted. I am glad for the existence of the publications of the Early English Text Society and the Rolls Series which, whatever their origins, are extremely useful in illuminating the past.