As an archaeologist of the mid- to late first millennium AD, I have to be familiar with lots of jargon.
Archaeologists of this period – the Early Middle Ages – have inherited and still use a wide range of problematic and often anachronistic chronological, geographical, cultural, religious, linguistic and (let’s be honest) racial terms (including ‘the Middle Ages’!).
Let’s be clear. Using these terms is inherently problematic…BUT…. To use these labels need not express adherence to their original, and often derogatory, inflammatory or political uses. A critical understanding of these terms, how they are applied and how we explain them is essential for academic and public archaeology and their lazy use and misuse can lead to all manner of problems and challenges in understanding and appreciating the complex history of these islands between the end of the Roman province of Britannia and the conquest of William the Bastard.
The terms ‘Anglo-Saxon’, ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ are among these problematic terms, but they are in good company. We also have ‘sub-Roman’, ‘post-Roman’, ‘Late Antique’, ‘Migration Period’, ‘Late Celtic’, ‘Pictish’, ‘Early Christian’, ‘Early Historic’, ‘Hiberno-Norse’, ‘Saxon’, ‘Anglian’, ‘Viking’, ‘Anglo-Scandinavian’, ‘Saxo-Norman’ and ‘INSULAR’! I won’t even begin on the Scandinavian Late Iron Age and Viking periods.
Let’s face it, our terminology for the Early Middle Ages is a bloody mess!
What is NOT a solution is to simply abandon these terms. There are at least three good reasons to keep them.
First, we need a darned good alternative that is in some way superior to replace the term we find problematic and despite valiant efforts talking about ‘mid- to late first millennium AD’ (or ‘CE’) is just rubbish.
Second, we have to face the fact that no-one will then probably know what we are talking about and therefore we might lose not only our popular engagement but also our specialist readers too. How popular would the new History Channel series ‘Vikings’ have been had they called it ‘a re-telling of legends inspired by retinues of seaborne raiders of the late eighth and ninth centuries hailing from western and southern Fennoscandia’.
Third, these terms come with baggage, but that baggage is often the very reason why their use is important, to flag up and critique, rather than suppress, earlier paradigms and their intellectual moorings and limitations. If we abandon these terms and talk in opaque phrases, we risk extremists picking them up and utilising them to their own ends.
Still, there are some easy solutions. For instance, I prefer to talk about ‘early medieval archaeology’ and ‘early medieval Britain’ wherever possible because these terms, while unsatisfactory, are chronological and geographical terms with fewer out-moded culture-historic connotations. However, I am equally happy to use the terms ‘Anglo-Saxons’, ‘Britons’, ‘Picts’ and ‘Vikings’, both in popular discourse because these are the terms people readily recognise and understand, but also in academic discourse because these are the terms established in the existing literature and hold detailed, nuanced significances which have evolved from their antiquarian usage.
The Case of ‘Anglo-Saxon’
Let’s take an example. In my own work. I refer to ‘early Anglo-Saxon’ as a chronological label referring to the middle of the 5th to the middle of the 7th centuries. This term simultaneously has clear geographical characteristics (referring to finds and sites from areas of lowland Britain) and cultural dimensions (material cultures, building traditions and burial practices which are traditionally referred to as ‘Germanic’ because of their parallels with southern Scandinavia, the Low Countries, western Germany and northern France). Does it mean that I adhere to a mid-nineteenth century view of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ as a mixture of migrating tribes? No, not at all.
I also refer to ‘early Anglo-Saxon England’ despite the fact that scholars are well aware that no-one went around calling themselves ‘Anglo-Saxon’ between the fifth and seventh centuries AD (although I cannot be sure a few delusional nutters might have done’ and that ‘England’ may have emerged as a concept among the political elite and the church during the 7th century which material correlates to it, but it wasn’t to acquire the semblance of political unity until the 10th century.
‘Germanic’ is another story, and its overlapping racial, cultural and linguistic connotations need again to be weighed against its helpful mutability and international (i.e. anti-nationalist) significance desperately needed for early medieval archaeology.
What I refuse to do is talk about ‘the Anglo-Saxons’ in print; because this is lazy and affords a collective mind-set and cultural and linguistic normativity to a fluid and complex spatial/temporal phenomenon. The term is as imbecilic as ‘the Victorians’ or ‘the Tudors’. And let me also be clear: only neo-Nazis talk about ‘Teutons’ and ‘Aryans’, and being a neo-Pagan is no excuse.
My point is simple. We don’t need to abandon terminology; we just need to be cautious and careful in its use and see this critical to popular discussions as well as academic debates. We also need to be patient when we recognise their misuse and remember that these are simply short-hands to explain really complex phenomena. We all slip up sometimes, and we are trying to communicate to audiences who might not know, or care, about the subtle differences in the terms we use. It is important to balance being understood with being ‘correct’ to contemporary scholarship.