‘The British Isles’ euler diagram from wikipedia

I’ve just received critical comments back on my co-edited book project: Early Medieval Stone Monuments by the publisher’s anonymous reviewer. The review is very positive and Boydell and Brewer are publishing this book later this year.

One point intrigued me. The referee questioned our use of a geographical term in our draft book manuscript, bearing in mind our book deals with early medieval stone monuments with chapters from authors dealing with monuments in Scandinavia, Britain and Ireland. Her objection was to our use of the term ‘British Isles’. We should use ‘Britain and Ireland’ instead, she said. Well, I guess ‘British Isles’ is a modern term, not an early medieval one, but this is very interesting. How much do we need to purge our academic texts of terms that ‘might offend’ someone, somewhere? How much does it matter that we are understood and are inclusive?

I’ve done a check and in the 106,000 words of the book manuscript, excluding bibliographies, we utilised ‘British Isles’ 10 times. The referee’s proposed alternative ‘Britain and Ireland’ is used 4 times. We have also used the period-specific art-history term ‘Insular’ around 18 times.

imagesThis is a really good example of the political and cultural minefield one enters when writing the early medieval history, art-history and archaeology of ‘these islands’. The referee is absolutely correct to call us on it, I should say. Here’s my solution: what do you think?

I would maintain that ‘Britain and Ireland’ and ‘British Isles’ both have loaded political connotations within modern nationalist political discourse. Each, in different ways, obscure modern identities, cultural traditions and geographical characteristics which I have no desire to meddle in. However, on principle, I am opposed to being overly doctrinal in this regard since it is important that we use terms people understand and use themselves. Still, details are important. In the early medieval context, ‘Britain and Ireland’ seems more neutral, but it comes with its own problems. Hence, I don’t want to remove ‘British Isles’ completely and here’s why:

1) I cannot bring myself to utilise the ludicrous racial/linguistic term ‘Anglo-Celtic Archipelago’, if for no other reason than no-one will know where that is and it sounds crap.

2) we cannot use ‘these islands’ if we are also covering Scandinavia, and it also presumes an exclusively Irish and British readership.

3) ‘Insular’ is an art-historical term which is used 18 times in the book. It is useful and legitimate, but I don’t regard it as geographical primarily and so we cannot use it for all geographical descriptions.

4) we do have papers dealing in part with the smaller islands of the British Isles (including the Orkney Islands) which are part of neither mainland Britain nor Ireland.

5) we aspire for our themes to be as relevant to the other smaller islands in ‘these islands’ (most notably the Inner and Outer Hebrides of Scotland and the Isle of Man; these areas are referenced in our work and are, in my view, more readily identified within the orbit of ‘British Isles’ more than ‘Britain and Ireland’).

6) I want to avoid modern provinces and countries, including ‘Republic of Ireland’, ‘United Kingdom’, although papers naturally talk about ‘Ireland’, ‘Scotland’, ‘Wales’ and ‘England’.

So…. I have reworked 5 of the occurrences of British Isles into other phrases including ‘Ireland and Britain’ and ‘Britain and Ireland’ and (once only) ‘archipelago of Ireland and Britain’ to make it explicit to the reader that we are not favouring one stock-phrases. However, I feel ‘British Isles’ retains international credence and so I have retained it in the following 5 instances:

1) At the very end of the Intro where, to be geographically inclusive, I am talking about the scope of the study.

2) 3 times in the chapters by our two Scandinavian contributors’ chapters, where, from a Scandinavian perspective, the British Isles are referred to most inclusively

3) Once in my paper when I am referring to examples of possible hogbacks from Shetland, Orkney, Ireland and Britain.

This might seem a lot of agonising over a seemingly passive term; but as I blogged about recently, almost every term utilised in early medieval history and archaeology has deep, complex and problematic histories of usage.

Any views welcome!