Reflections on the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ debate

It’s with some hesitation that I write this blog. It’s not really my field, and the topic is angrily contested; many historians have chosen to keep their heads down and concentrate on their teaching and research at a busy time of year. But the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ debate raises important questions for those who study the medieval past, and for historians more broadly.

At its simplest, the debate concerns the value of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as a label for the culture, society and politics of southern and eastern Britain before the Norman Conquest. It has been argued by scholars such as Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm (for instance, here) that the label is irredeemably racist and must therefore be abandoned, not just because of its modern appropriation by far-right groups, but because of its history since the Reformation. Proponents of this view add that its continued use actively discourages BAME scholars from entering and remaining in the field; some hold moreover that its abandonment should be merely the beginning of reforms required to dismantle a structurally racist system of knowledge production in the modern university.

Those making these arguments have met with awful racist abuse online, and I applaud the courage of Dr Rambaran-Olm and others in facing it.

Others in the debate have pointed out that the label ‘Anglo-Saxon’ was abundantly attested in sources from the time (especially those written on the continent) and so cannot easily be dismissed or ignored, have called for more thorough assessment of the term’s early modern and nineteenth-century use by specialists of these periods, and have raised concerns about abandoning commonly-used labels to extremists. (There’s a useful summary by Michael Wood here.)

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.

To be clear, this does not mean that the UK is less racist than America, just that different countries with different histories are differently racist. Where the far right in America uses a language of ‘Anglo-Saxon’, the far right in the UK, and especially in England (the largest of the four nations of the UK), primarily employs a language of exclusionary Englishness (e.g. the English Defence League). It’s maybe partly for that reason that BAME people living in England are much less likely to consider themselves English than white people living in England, often preferring instead the label British. To talk about the ‘early English’ or the ‘Old English’ instead of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’, as has been mooted, might help combat racism in the US, but might inadvertently feed it in England.

There is a wider issue here, which is about the best way for historians to combat fascism in all its forms: an acute question in 2019. For me, the key is to write good, accurate and engaging history that does not oversimplify past complexities, that respects the integrity of the historical sources in the search to understand the past as best as possible for its own sake – and that challenges both the distant past’s direct relevance to contemporary politics, and anyone’s claim exclusively to own it.

When extremist groups appeal to the early Middle Ages in their efforts to reshape the contemporary world, historians should point out where they are wilfully and grotesquely misreading the evidence: after all, the appropriate and sensitive use of evidence is what historical training and historical ethics are all about.

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.

Edited 11.11.19 to remove ‘if one looks hard enough’ after ‘this usage can certainly be found’, to avoid any unintended implication that racists need to be sought out.

12 thoughts on “Reflections on the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ debate”

  1. I agree with the article, but something is missing. Like most historians who want to hold on to the term Anglo-Saxon, you are too polite in your argumentation. Just as Tom Holland is attributing ‘good intensions’ (but with the wrong results) to these activist-academics, you also try to combat the problem of racism by presenting racists with the real historical facts. However, the objective of most of these activists is not just getting rid of the term Anglo-Saxon that is supposedly helping the racist-cause, with the expectation that changing it to ‘Early Medieval English’ would make an end to it. Their real desire is to find ‘racism’ en ‘fascism’ anywhere they can, even in places where it clearly isn’t justified to use these labels. They do not want a solution for their problem (racism), but are constantly looking for problems that meet their ‘solution’ (like you ‘re dropping wood on a fire to stop it from burning). The real agenda of left-wing activists of the SJW-kind is naming and shaming anybody that disagrees with their ideas and putting them ‘out of bussiness’ by using those labels. I saw a popular historian on twitter retweeting a video that showed a young frustrated woman, throwing a glass of water on Jordan Peterson and Gavin McInnes who were just drinking their coffee somewhere in a public place. Physically attacking people with the ‘wrong ideas’ (not left wing) seems to be o.k. for these scholars. This is all part of identity politics because the ones who control the language are the ones who control the political debate and law-making. In my opinion it is the far-left that is abusing history for political purposes, far more then right-wing extremists, for the latter do not have access to people in high places or the main stream media. Academics of all sorts do have a constant outlet for their ideas and they influence new generations with their teaching. So they should be most carefull of not turning history into politics.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I should clarify that I’m not arguing simply for keeping the term Anglo-Saxon as a label; I’m aware there are problems, it’s just that there are problems with all alternatives either (as there are with trying to do without generalisnig labels altogether). This was a ‘no-easy-answers’ blog. I’m not sure about the ‘real agenda’ of the activists you mention. But I agree there are methodological questions here. I think some people believe writing history is just another form of doing present politics; I understand their point of view, but beg to differ.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Charles. I would add that, in my view, the fact that certain terminology is present in medieval sources does not mean that we should perpetuate it; our ambition as medieval historians is to understand but not to perpetuate prisms of thought, cultural categories, and terminologies. Medieval sources are full of references to Saracens, Moors, and Ishmaelites, but we generally — and rightly — step away from terms that are now seen as Islamophobic.

    1. Of course names can change as a result of beter historical insight, but what a peculiar word you have chosen to make your point; ‘Islamophobic’ (Talking about politicising history) As a citizen of Sicily or the South of Italy in the eight and ninth century, a fear of musliminvaders was quiet realistic and had nothing to do with a ‘phobia’. If foreign people come to destroy your cities, take your lands and demand taxes or sell you as slaves, there is usually little consideration about how one should properly call these people; Saracens, Moors, Berbers or whatever. The reason that today’s scholars have stepped away from certain terms is not because of realising their ‘phobia’, but because some (generalizing) terms proved to be incorrect for use in modern publications.

      I thought you were going to say “The proper term is muslims”, instead of for example Muhammadans, wich is religiously incorrect and therefore unscientific (Muslims do not worship Muhammad like christians do Christ). Islamophobia on the other hand is a current (misleading) political term which has no historical significance. This illustrates for me what is wrong about the whole Anglo-Saxon debate. The mixing of politcal sentiments with words/terms that have real historic meaning and point to a specific time and place. The muslims in the Middel Ages used to call the crusaders ‘the Franks’ while many were Germanic or from other places in Europe. We are not retrospectively gonna call those muslims racists, are we?

      1. Unfortunately this misses the point. The point is that terms that may once have had other meanings (either benign or malign) have now certainly come to be associated with current agendas that discriminate in the basis of race and/or religion. This is why serious scholars no longer use the term “Moor” or “Saracen”, and why it is therefore not sufficient to argue that terms remain valid if they are used in the original sources.

        1. I’m sorry, but you are missing the point, and missing it entirely. Historians must practice science and not politics. Historical terms should not change because of a certain political climate (this is what we usually call propaganda) and therefore also the fear of ‘a racist agenda’ is a very bad motive. The only valid reason for a historian to change the language is a better understanding of the object of study and the wish for a better representation of things and peoples in the past.

          1. Hi both. It seems to me you’re talking at cross-purposes. HMS’s point is that as historians, we shouldn’t adopt the perspective of the e.g. medieval Castilians or for that matter the Sicilian emirate etc: it’s not our job just to repeat what past people said in modern English [/Italian/Dutch]. CF’s point is that we shouldn’t actively misrepresent the sources for political reasons. These points of view aren’t exclusive!

  3. Small correction:
    the American far-right doesn’t use the term “Anglo-Saxon” much either — except in discussing law (it’s a common American-ism for the Common Law tradition) and very rarely as synonymous for English
    Far more frequent is it’s use as an exonym (as in Andrew Hacker — hardly AngloSaxon or Protestant — popularization of the acronym WASP). Where it _has_ been used is in contrast to Irish, Scots, Germans, and other northern Europeans.
    The American white supremacist movement uses White and American as labels (contra the current brouhaha). But knowing that would presume a level of knowledge by those advocating for a ban than they have shown on any topic)

Leave a Reply

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

18 + 11 =