History Bites: Resources on the Problematic Term “Anglo-Saxon”. Part 2:
“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” — James Baldwin
This is a continuation of the three-part series on the term “Anglo-Saxon.” To view part one which provides a synopsis of the problematic term “Anglo-Saxon” go here. To view part three for a biblio and useful links go here. Part two is a compilation of common questions about the term and rebuttals that you can use and build on. Think of this as a work in progress that we are all contributing to.
Part 2 of 3
Isn’t this a US problem? No. As has been demonstrated, most especially over the past year, this is definitely NOT *just* a US problem. We’ve seen that this is a problem in the UK, Canada, and in other countries that were colonized by England. This is a deflection tactic so as not to have to deal with the racism within the UK academy. All one has to do is google “racism and UK academy” to find articles that show subtle and overt racism embedded in the British academy. Linguist, Mark Sundaram, makes a great point in his talk on the inaccuracy of the term by questioning why there has been such vehement backlash to calls for responsible labelling (particularly in the UK)? See his excellent talk here.
Who cares about this? I’m here to learn about the language and history and don’t care about this racism/politics/identity stuff. See Mitchell & Robinson’s Guide to Old English and Peter Baker’s starter pack and Magic Sheet of Old English Inflections if you are interested in the language. Kathy Biddick’s The Shock of Medievalism provides a useful overview of the history of the field and how it evolved. Everything is political — whether we admit it or not. History is political and that’s something we have to accept even if we aren’t particularly interested in it. Now that you have some suggested resources on philology, kindly step aside so that those of us who care about antiracism and historical accuracy can continue our work. Go read and be quiet.
Aren’t you rewriting history? This is very much about accuracy. Up until this year, scholars believed that the term was used three times in recorded early English manuscripts. In 2022, Dr. Erik Wade and myself discovered a fourth instance in a likely tenth-century Old English text: the translation of an eighth-century papal bull granting privileges to Malmesbury Abbey. I don’t think this ruins our case, I think it’s just a matter of being as thorough and accurate as possible in our own research. Now keep in mind that these 4 instances are in Old English but they aren’t in the first person as an identity marker.
We work with the evidence we have and changing the term to something more reflective of the time, the people and the history would be more ethical and accurate. Wade and I have written extensively about this. Wade’s thread here explains in detail how the term has been recognized as problematic for more than 100 years. Wade points out that scholars as far back as 1861 were already discussing the problems with “Anglo-Saxon”. He points out that “historian Francis Palgrave stated baldly that there was no ‘Anglo-Saxon nation’ and there was no ‘Anglo-Saxon language.’ If one asked an Englishman from before the Norman Conquest what his language was called, Palgrave argued, he would have answered ‘English.’” Wade’s thread reveals how long this term has long been recognized by scholars as problematic and how the more recent narrative has been twisted by racists to suggest that those of us who want to stop using “Anglo-Saxon” are trying to “rewrite history.”
What about the fact that the term “English” is racist and adopted by racists? Should we find another term? There is evidence of “English for England” being adopted by racists like EDL, you’re right. What is strange is that this response about “English” only became an issue of contention when the term “Anglo-Saxon” began to be scrutinized more openly and aggressively. This is to say that the problem with “English” was never an issue for a great many scholars and no one ever stopped them from bringing up this concern before. Why has this only become an issue now? This is rhetorically moving the goal-posts and whataboutism.
England (among other European countries) spent half a millennium taking over lands, wiping out peoples and erasing cultures in the most horrifically savage and destructive ways. Racists’ (ethnocentric, xenophobic or whatever flavor of racist they may be) surprise that England is so diverse is a weird phenomenon. I suggest that perhaps they should travel back in time and warn their racist colonizing ancestors because the imperialists didn’t think that diversity thing through. Essentially, colonization comes back to bite colonizers in the ass.
England is a society built on the backs of the countries it stole from. It has to reckon with that now. Despite racist attempts to erase or disqualify multi-cultural/ethnic Englishness and make it seem as though to be English means to be white, BIPOC (US acronym for Black, Indigenous, People of Color) /BAME (UK acronym for Black, Asian, Minority Ethic) from England are “English.” Equally, references to “English” as a term have wider use than “Anglo-Saxon.” Certainly, it can mean “empire” AND can be confused with being white (which is inaccurate). The term “English” is used to identify “English departments” at almost every university (apart from Cambridge, which like other elitist institutions masks racist, sexist, and biased practices under the guise of “tradition”). Here’s a useful article by a current student at Cambridge.
Racists cannot possibly assume that most uses of “English” refer to race or are dog whistles because that’s entirely false. Most uses of “Anglo-Saxon” do reference race. Although the argument is made in good faith at times, it is most often a whataboutism. This begs the question what are you doing if you believe racist misuse of “English” is more widespread than “Anglo-Saxon”?Essentially, this issue almost exclusively comes up when we discuss the misuse and racism behind the term “Anglo-Saxon.”
Many people, myself included, have pointed out that “English” or “American” is not a white-only designation. A question of this sort is often designed to derail conversations about alternative names to “Anglo-Saxon” in present and future scholarship. It sidesteps the misuse of “Anglo-Saxon” in an attempt to avoid having the field and its experts wrestle with its racism. I’m not suggesting that “English” isn’t problematic. This is especially true of university departments that include things like Scottish lit (or other Anglophone-related lit) in “English” departments. As Margie Housley stated recently, “thinking of these issues in generative ways can force us to grapple with canonicity in a way we should always be doing anyway. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ doesn’t really allow for the grappling because it is imprecise AND super racist.”
What about “Englisc”? It is true that early medieval people actually used “Englisc” more commonly (according to existing records), but I see the point that racists are trying to usurp that word and connect to their supposed “roots.” I argue that the history of the term isn’t the same. Another point is that “Englisc” spelled in this way is the usage that a lot of white supremacists/nationalists use as an identity marker. No department or scholar would write the word like that to describe an area of research. “Anglo-Saxon” was purposefully used from the 17th century onwards for racist purposes. No one is saying that you must use “English,” but if you believe you have the ability to “take back” a term like “Anglo-Saxon” that has been synonymous with “white” for more than 400 years than you are purposefully missing the point. Who knows, you just may be racist or delusional.
One has to wonder why one would put energy into fighting to preserve an inaccurate and co-opted term such as “Anglo-Saxon” rather than acknowledging BIPOC colleagues who understand the racism attached to the term robs them of dignity and is exclusionary. Why wouldn’t those individuals ask for a more responsible alternative?
It’s important to add that this call for equity and more responsible/accurate terminology is not just directed at white people. Calling out racism is not censorship. Choosing not to understand or refusing to accept the history of the term “Anglo-Saxon” is poor scholarship and ignorant. The “English” under the banner of St. George or the Union Jack went and colonized as much of the planet as they could. They went in the name of their monarch(s) to steal land, claim goods as “English”, dehumanize others, and mark themselves as infinitely superior. The hard pill to swallow is accepting that any culture they have is built on and borrowed from other cultures. This too doesn’t negate the fact that BIPOC/BAME and other citizens from around the globe today in England are English.
Being shown evidence of the lack of use of “Anglo-Saxon” in pre-conquest England, and knowing that it had fallen out of use until being revived in the 17th century for racist purposes, and knowing that it is used now almost exclusively to mean “white”, and also knowing that students and scholars of color (and otherwise) are not welcome or have been shut out of the field because it is synonymous with “white” and *takes deep breath* STILL not wanting to give up the term in present/future use is very telling. That’s for you to wrestle with, not me.
If people are uncomfortable with “early English,” then think of alternatives. “Insular” has been suggested, as have more broad terms like “early medieval” (which has already been in use for a long time). The point is that we can have these discussions in good faith. There is not (or may never be) collective agreement on what alternative term(s) may be more appropriate, but if pushback is suppressing discussion of the inherent racism in the term “Anglo-Saxon,” and as an extension, inherent racism within the field, then one has to wonder what is at the heart of this resistance.
While we must acknowledge that neo-Nazis or racists in England are attempting to usurp “Englisc” as solely their heritage, the majority of references to “English” are not synonymous with “white.” Picking up on the Old English spelling of the word and using it on buttons or pamphlets doesn’t change the fact that there are Black, Brown, Asian and other POC from all over the world who have “English” heritage. Words evolve, take on new meaning, and it may be the case that “English” may need to be removed from English departments, lol. That’s not the issue here and if you’d like to carry that torch, by all means do so. Nationalism though, is a helluva drug, and one that is tied to this campaign to keep the term “Anglo-Saxon” in use, no matter how inaccurate or misused it is.
So, if you feel committed to not using “English” as an alternative because white supremacists are misusing the term as a dog whistle for “white,” then you should be equally committed to searching for an alternative to “Anglo-Saxon,” since its reintroduction into early modern English vernacular more than 400 years ago was primarily to promote racism. Focusing on the problems with “English” does not negate the problems with “Anglo-Saxon.”
What if there were a lot of now-lost medieval texts that DID use the term “Anglo-Saxon”? We work with the evidence we have. We don’t have many texts from the 5th and 6th centuries and archaeological evidence was left vulnerable to having narratives imposed on it. Many archaeologists today are grappling with these issues, reassessing, re-examining, re-framing/re-evaluating, and trying to be more precise. Here is an excellent discussion by archaeologist Andrew Welton discussing the term “Anglo-Saxon” and discussing how archaeologists are grappling with the term.
Archaeologists have in fact been discussing the problems related to terms such as “Anglo-Saxon” for decades. While a lot of their reasoning is due to scholarly precision and not necessarily because of the racism attached to the term, these discussions have been taking place and it is taking our fields in the Humanities some time (to put it lightly) to catch up. This is definitely part of our failure as an “insulated” field (by that I mean we often refuse to read and engage with material or even colleagues outside early English studies) within medieval studies. There are myriad reasons why the Humanities are important in understanding today’s world, but missed many opportunities to deepen our understanding of humans and history by neglecting to liaise with STEM fields or those in fields like CRT (Critical Race Theory) and POCO (Postcolonial) studies. I cannot stress enough that you should take a look at Susan Oosthuizen’s work here. You can read a review by Francis Young here.
Is this identity politics, you left-leaning ivory tower academic? The day I’m an ivory tower academic will be never, but that’s beside the point. You see, this IS about identities because the discussion does point to whether the people living in England prior to the Norman conquest of 1066 habitually referred to themselves as “Anglo-Saxon.” They did not. We cannot assume they did because Henry VIII might have destroyed most of the records. Like I said, we work with the evidence we have. What outsiders called the early English is another thing altogether. Linked here is how the term “Anglo-Saxon” was subsequently popularized. Foregrounding “Anglo-Saxons” as historical identities or a “race” without interrogating what that means is political fiction. It is important here to underscore again how everything is political, even by those who believe otherwise.
Is this caving to white supremacists? Shouldn’t we take this term back? The purpose of its use after it returned to English vernacular in the 17th century was to idealize the early medieval people in England. Its use since the early modern period WAS for racist purposes in order to build on a distorted and idealized heritage myth to promote empiricism. We must also ask who exactly are we taking the term back from? Did it ever have a neutral use? No, it did not, and also who is “we” when we take the term back? Most often this is not marginalized scholars claiming a desire to “take back the term.” What this means is that predominantly white scholars are saying that “we” (whoever ‘we’ means to them) should “take back this term” and you marginalized scholars should put up with it, no matter its historical misuse. It’s important to note that it is marginalized scholars in a lose/lose situation, where we are the ones educating most vocally about the term’s misuse, bearing the brunt of the backlash and having certain scholars claim we can somehow take back a misleading and problematic term. Mark Sundaram’s excellent lecture below on the history of the term which outlines its use and its misuse, also responds to the calls to ‘take the term back.’ He explains how these claims misunderstand how linguistic reclamation or re-appropriation work. Most often “it is an external slur used to disparage a particular group being adopted by the group that is being disparaged. In [the case of ‘Anglo-Saxon’] this doesn’t hold . . . the term is currently being used by the group to build themselves up . . . and what it does suggest is that anyone outside that group is considered lesser.” (see the 37-min mark of this video for direct quote). Sundaram’s talk begins at 19-mins, but Aven McMaster also gives an intriguing talk on Classical descriptions of race that are pertinent to discussions within the medieval period, so check out her talk at the beginning of this video below too.