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.