“As a racism row rumbles on, is it time to retire the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’?” Michael Wood explores the controversy

The history world has been afire with a debate about Anglo-Saxon studies. Involving accusations of elitism, racism and sexism, the arguments have also called into question whether the term 'Anglo-Saxon' is itself still fit for purpose. Writing for the December 2019 issue of BBC History Magazine, historian Michael Wood offers his own take on a highly sensitive topic

George Frederic Watts' 1846 painting 'Alfred Inciting the Saxons to Prevent the Landing of the Danes'

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.

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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.

Some US medievalists believe we have already reached the point where reclaiming ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is not possible

Some US medievalists believe we have already reached the point where reclaiming ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is not possible. Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm, whose resignation from ISAS triggered the current crisis, put it to me: “It’s not about ‘taking back’ the term. We have lost it, and for students of colour in medieval studies, the term carries racist connotations that don’t represent who they are.”

This is not a point that’s restricted to academia. Racism has exploded in public culture in the Trump era, and especially since 2017’s white supremacist rally in Charlottesville. For another critic, Dorothy Kim (assistant professor of English at Brandeis University), “the medieval western European past has been weaponised by white supremacist, white nationalist, KKK and Nazi extremist groups, who are often college students”. For Kim, US colleagues must face up to teaching medieval studies at a time when the politics of the US academic community is mired in a power struggle, when old tropes and structures of white supremacy have been given new force under Trump.

The Charlottesville 'Unite the Right' rally of August 2017 supercharged racial tensions in the United States
The Charlottesville ‘Unite the Right’ rally of August 2017 supercharged racial tensions in the United States. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The racist understanding of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as defining white Anglo-Americans has a long history, and is now pervasive among certain groups, as Dr Adam Miyashiro, assistant professor of literature at Stockton University, New Jersey, pointed out in an open letter that really began the current conversation. He even cites an ‘Aryan Nation’ prison gang in the US, which built up a religion called ‘Theodism’ around the heroic poem Beowulf.

That is at the crazier end of white supremacy, but in the view of the American scholar and author Mary Dockray-Miller, the issue goes right to the core of settler-colonial, white supremacist ideology: “Outside the university, the phrase ‘Anglo-Saxon’ did not refer to early medieval English. Instead, it was racial and racist, freighted with assumptions of privilege and superiority. The cultural rhetoric of Manifest Destiny specifically defined ‘Anglo-Saxons’ as superior to enslaved and free Africans, Native Americans, Mexicans, and numerous other groups defined as non-white, including Irish and Italian immigrants. The titles of college courses in Anglo-Saxon also carried these racial connotations and cultural associations.”

In the US the whole debate has become highly impassioned, with bitter exchanges on social media. That’s quite a shock to those who, for decades, have seen ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxons’ as ‘neutral’ and ‘purposeful’ terms.

British exasperation

So is this another case of two nations divided by a single language? Is this a controversy rooted in the very circumstances of the founding of the American republic and the cultural ideas that still underpin it? Some British scholars are exasperated by what they see as a US problem, centred on literature, as opposed to history, archaeology and material culture. One told me: “There seems to be little willingness to acknowledge the fact that these terms are used differently in the UK than in the USA. In the UK they are used in common parlance to describe the period and people who lived within the polities that became the kingdom of England between the end of Roman Britain and the Norman conquest, ie, simply as labels to describe a discrete historical time period.”

That’s true, of course – and, as such, the term is embedded in the National Curriculum for Key Stage 1 and Key Stage 2, which all school pupils in England follow. And it is probably fair to say that the story of Anglo-Saxon England as taught today is about diversity, not homogeneity. In UK universities this certainly has been the view since the late sixties when I was a student. We were influenced by the Marxist school of history, of Rodney Hilton, Christopher Hill and EP Thompson. For us, the racist views of, say, EA Freeman were a Victorian ideology that needed analysis but rested on pure fantasy; and to my knowledge, doing outreach today in schools, they play no role in the current broad public understanding of the period. As one university lecturer told me: “Most of us who teach early medieval history and archaeology in the UK deal with this, overtly and explicitly in our teaching, because it is a core element of understanding the development of the subject, and we want our students to be critically aware of the ways that language and history are used and misused in contemporary discourse.”

We in the UK must take developments in the US seriously. In Britain, too, diversity is a major issue in the humanities

However, I think we in the UK must take developments in the US seriously. Racism is to be condemned everywhere and in every form – and in Britain, too, diversity is a major issue in the humanities. Last year, a Royal Historical Society report on gender and ethnicity showed that a shockingly small percentage of people from BAME backgrounds are teaching in schools, colleges and universities; 96 per cent of university historians are white. The critics are right: things have got to change.

A bar to understanding?

So, returning to the questions with which we began: 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’.

What we should remember, though, is that this was not an ethnic signifier, and their world was diverse. In the 10th century, King Æthelstan’s courts were attended by people from at least four different British language traditions, alongside people who spoke four major Old English dialect groups and two Scandinavian languages. There they were joined by scholars and visitors from Francia, Germany and Ireland. No wonder that the 10th-century monk Wulfstan Cantor observed that England was a land “of many different languages and customs”. Their world was multilingual, and they were well aware that their culture consisted of many strands: Latin, Hebrew, Greek and, as the English scholar Alcuin put it, “the light that came from Africa”. (The Libyan Hadrian, a “man of African race”, along with the Syrian Theodore, is the most important figure in the history of education in England.)

Contrary to what’s written on social media, the Early English did describe themselves as ‘Anglo-Saxons’

The early English story is of great importance to us all: it is one of the roots of our modern world, in language, literature, law and governance. This is what makes it so interesting, and so worth studying. In the field there’s now a huge variety of study options – in ethnicity, gender, feminism and masculinity. So this is just the moment to reboot it: reinvent and explore new directions. That’s my hope for the next phase of the study of early England. In the United States, especially, it must change – and fast. There, many feel the battle over ‘Anglo-Saxon’ culture is already lost. But in the Trump era the fight for the humanities must make no concession to racism, nor to the infection of universities by the growing tide of white supremacism, and fake history on the internet and social media.

So change should not be feared. With goodwill it will be very positive. Reframing the discipline and opening it up to different perspectives (a process that has been ongoing since the seventies, especially influenced by the feminist movement) will be of immense benefit to all. And it is vital that this happens. Otherwise, the subject will atrophy and cease to be of value, both to those who study it and to the public at large – this is, after all, the crucial link on which scholarship depends. As Clare Downham, a reader in Irish studies at the University of Liverpool, puts it: “This is a very important conversation to have. It is essential for the future of medieval studies that it is made more inclusive so that it attracts the highest calibre scholars, to generate new understandings and perspectives, and to inspire future generations both inside and outside academia.”

Here’s a story to end with. Not long ago, I was talking at a school in the old mill town of Rochdale, whose pupils were mainly children or grandchildren of immigrants from the subcontinent. They were starting their history projects, and most naturally turned to the industrial revolution. But one bright 12-year-old of Pakistani heritage put up his hand: “Sir, Rochdale is mentioned in Domesday Book, and I’m doing my project on Anglo-Saxon Rochdale, about the villeins and slaves.” Now he’s the kind of budding historian I hope one day to see speaking at an international conference on the Early Middle Ages in Britain.

Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester. He has presented numerous BBC series, and his books include The Story of England (Viking, 2010)

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This article was first published in the December 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine