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The fight for ‘Anglo-Saxon’

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Since September 2019, medieval scholars have heatedly debated the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’. The dispute began in relation to claims of racism and sexism within the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, which is an academic organisation dedicated to the study of the history, archaeology, literature, language, religion, society and numismatics of the early medieval period (c450-1100 CE). Some scholars argued that changing the society’s name would be a step against racism and sexism, specifically in how academics research and interpret the early medieval past. Rapidly, the criticism moved from striking the term ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ from the name of the society (now the International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England), to arguing that we should stop using ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ for lowland Britain in the mid- to late-1st millennium CE and ‘Anglo-Saxon world’ for the region’s connections across early medieval Europe and beyond.

The campaign quickly degenerated to slurring anyone who disagreed with these changes as ‘racist’, and anyone making a qualifying statement, or correcting or disputing the bases and framing of the debate, as an apologist to the racist uses of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’. Online proclamations declared that scholars must signal their commitment to change by removing the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ from their writings and courses, as well as to ‘cancel’ those scholars who might wish to persist in using the term.

As an archaeologist of early medieval Britain and Scandinavia, my view is that the term still has a place in both research on material culture, the built environment and landscapes of the early medieval period, as well as its public engagement and education. Those proclaiming that ‘early medieval England’ and ‘early English’ are somehow clearer and less fraught are ill-informed about the contemporary uses and abuses of the early medieval past.

To be clear, there is no question that the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has appealed to racist and white supremacist political movements, particularly in North America. However, I think that the term’s continuance and coherence in scholarly discourse and public engagement and education is the best way to guard against its misappropriation and abuse by racists and supremacists.

The energy behind the recent controversy stems, in part, from the chequered past of the terms ‘Anglo-Saxon(s)’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon England’. Like ‘Vikings’ and ‘Celts’, these words have long attracted individuals and groups with racist ideologies, especially those focused on national origin myths. In these misrepresentations of the past, Britain was populated by Germanic migrants in the 5th century CE who replaced the native inhabitants. They were freedom-loving farmers and warriors, first pagan and then Christian, defending ancient liberties and fighting off the bloodthirsty Vikings, finally succumbing to the ‘Norman yoke’. Nationalists and racists have appealed to this tenacious romantic little England to try to justify English and British nationalisms and overseas colonial and imperial missions. In the United States, ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ is a favoured piece of jargon of white supremacists. For these British and American nationalists, imperialists and white supremacists, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ stands for a ‘Golden Age’: the kernel of what makes England (and thus Britain) superior.

The growing alt-Right populism, ethnonationalism and white supremacism of recent years have embraced the early Middle Ages as a political symbol. As a result, scholars of the early medieval world have found themselves watching the literature, art and archaeology they study invoked by xenophobic and chauvinistic political groups. At the same time, popular and commercial DNA testing, and hit television programmes, have been perpetuating pseudoscientific stereotypes about the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings.

Like all scientific and humanistic disciplines, archaeology is saddled with an imperialist and colonialist past

In response, some scholars have called out the dangerous trend to claim that all uses of ethnic terms, including ‘Anglo-Saxon’, promote racist myths about the past and exclude publics and practitioners of non-European and non-white backgrounds. Yet in November 2019, pressured by a group of concerned scholars, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists voted to change its name to the International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England. They saw the change as a response to mitigate or counter the perceived whiteness, sexism and elitism of Anglo-Saxon studies. Some university courses, book titles, scholarly journals and conferences have followed and removed the term from use.

Despite warnings, scholars of literature and language pursued this name-change without regard for archaeological research and public engagement. Like all scientific and humanistic disciplines, archaeology is saddled with an imperialist and colonialist past. Moreover, it is in long-term conflict with persistent ‘fake’ narratives with racist underpinnings, from ancient aliens to national-origin myths. Yet archaeology is also very popular worldwide and for all generations, linked to concepts of adventure, discovery and detection. For many people, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ sites, monuments and material culture are a readymade gateway, particularly in the UK, into the rich and complex stories of the early medieval past.

Therefore, while my scholarship has been devoted to evaluating and critiquing both the history of early medieval archaeology and reinterpretations of the burial archaeology of the period that challenge simplistic ethnic narratives, I came out in favour of retaining critical and cautious uses of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as a means of countering ethnonationalist and white supremacist appropriations.

When researchers and educators today........

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