This is a response to the recent and ongoing ISAS name discussion. It follows an earlier post focusing on social media behaviours surrounding the discussion, and a second post reviewing the handful of self-indicting responses I received. Subsequently, an ad hominem blog-post was published, characterising my first post as ‘predictable blaming’ and ‘hypocrisy’. I won’t respond further to this piece other than to defer you to my already published second post where I had countered all of the points they raised.
Here, I shift the focus to the important subject itself: the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’. To start off, before I subsequently evaluate the broader uses of the term, which include appropriations and uses by political extremists, to consider my personal sense of where things stand in regards the academic use of the term. This brief exercise in self reflection seeks to identify whether there is an insidious problem of the kind suggested by some commentators. For context, see my 2015 blog-post.
I find myself sympathetic with those wishing to change the Society name, but in disagreement with some who have taken to social media to pronounce that we should ban the word ‘Anglo-Saxon’ from our courses, syllabuses and publications, having successfully lobbied for the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists change its name. Despite having no satisfactory replacement, academics are being told by some that we must purge the term from the discipline at large, but also its public and heritage engagements, its conferences as well as its digital spaces. I’ve already seen the term disappear from blogs, Twitter feeds and usernames. Not only that, but those advocating the term, including the aforementioned ad hom attack, are being so ‘tone deaf’ (to use a term deployed against me) in terms of race, ethnicity, class, geography and culture that they imagine ‘Early English’ is an acceptable replacement! Again, it beggars belief!
I enter this debate having become aware that my academic research on the history of Anglo-Saxon archaeology has been explicitly cited in the debates in relation to the ISAS name-change as justification for the term being irretrievably racist regardless of how it is used. Hence, my work is indirectly become implicated in the aim to jettison the term entirely.
My past practice
It’s very important to make clear that I’ve long been uncomfortable and publicly critical of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as traditionally used in archaeological and historical literature since the 19th century, especially the term ‘the Anglo-Saxons’ to refer to the communities and kingdoms from the 5th to the early 11th centuries AD. Given its long and complex history of use in nationalist, imperial and colonial contexts where its overt racial associations are shifting but apparent, there hasn’t been a time in my 20 years of academic teaching and public engagement when I have not vocalised and written about this. This includes working at two Welsh higher education institutions and working and living today in the Anglo-Welsh borderlands where these terms are particularly sensitive. Most scholars in the field see my cautious and critical stance as now an increasingly orthodox position; it is not an odd aberration of me, my peer-group or my primary discipline – archaeology. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is primarily deployed as a geographical/chronological label.
A critical evaluation of the term and its archaeological application was central to my doctoral research completed in 1999 and awarded in 2000 on cremation practices of the 5th, 6th and early 7th centuries AD in southern and eastern Britain. Hence, alongside a host of other key voices across multiple generations of scholarship, I’ve been a critic of racial and culture-historical (and let’s not forget religious) frameworks that pervade some quarters of academia and many popular misunderstandings of the Early Middle Ages and the origins of the English, including papers on the origins of ‘Anglo-Saxon archaeology, and the interpretation of ‘early Anglo-Saxon’ mortuary practice.
Still, I never imagined an blanket-ban on the term itself would be the way forward. Hence, I’ve persisted in the contextual use of the term to define geographical and chronological parameters and archaeologically derived material cultures and mortuary practices. I do this in ways that are widely understood in specialist literature and where the venue of the publication renders it suitable. It also relates to audiences: people need to identify what we are talking about from the titles and introductions of our works if we hope anyone might read them. Abandoning the term ‘Anglo-Saxons’ isn’t impossible in this regard, but on its own, it is hardly a beneficial strategy for reaching audiences within and beyond academia. As I said before, it leaves self-defined antiracists and far-right lunatics shouting at each other over an empty space, while scholars and the public have long gone away.
I’ve adopted other terms in other papers to suit different audiences, including ‘Migration Period’ (once only in a volume on northern European papers) but I’ve regularly advocated the broader and less-specific term ‘early medieval’. Let’s quickly review the titles of my publications where I’ve used it, to give you a sense of how this works in academic research and reflect on whether I could have/should have used another term.
My thesis title reflected the critical approach to the topic of the social identities and mnemonic practices involved in the performance of cremation practices in the 5th-7th centuries AD. “The Burnt Germans of the Age of Iron” is a famous quote from the mid-19th century scholar John Mitchell Kemble. The subtitle is intended to frame a quantitative and qualitative study evaluating historical, literary and ethnographic analogies, as part of a chronological/regional study of early medieval mortuary practice. In this context, I here described the period as one widely recognised in the literature, including by the Society for Medieval Archaeology: ‘Early Anglo-Saxon’. This was explicitly framed in addressing theoretical and methodological approaches to cremation across past societies.
Books and Edited Collections
The titles of my monograph and edited collections do not contain the word ‘Anglo-Saxon’ bar for a co-edited collection in the established interdisciplinary journal Anglo-Saxon Studies in Archaeology and History over the series title for which I had no control or say. Notably, however, the volume’s special theme was titled ‘Early Medieval Mortuary Practices’ – this was my choice given the contents extended beyond ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ to include discussions of archaeological and historical evidence from Wales, Scotland and Ireland.
Of my 56 book chapters published to date, I’ve used ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in the title in only a fraction: 12. I’ve used it adjectivally to refer to ‘mortuary practices’, ‘mortuary geographies’, ‘graves’ and ‘cremation burials/graves/practices’ 5 chapter titles, in each case it is a short-hand for a spatial-temporal archaeological phenomenon. The term ‘early Anglo-Saxon England’ I use 5 times too, and is again a shorthand for a geographical area and a period combined. I cannot claim I have consciously chosen one over the other, but it is simply part of a mixture of factors in attempting to concisely summarise and articulate the topic of the book chapter to potential readers. Two further uses of ‘Anglo-Saxon archaeology’ refers to the tradition and interpretations of 19th-century early archaeologists, and is justified completely since they incorporate a critique of the term itself in relation to mid-19th century archaeological work!
- Williams, H. 2016. Ethnographies for early Anglo-Saxon cremation.
- Semple, S. and Williams, H. 2015. Landmarks for the dead: exploring Anglo-Saxon mortuary geographies.
- Williams, H. 2014. A well-urned rest: cremation and inhumation in early Anglo-Saxon England.
- Nugent, R. & Williams, H. 2012. Sighted surfaces: ocular agency in early Anglo-Saxon cremation burials.
- Williams, H. 2011. Mortuary practices in early Anglo-Saxon England.
- Williams, H. 2007. “Burnt Germans”, Alemannic graves and the origins of Anglo-Saxon archaeology.
- Williams, H. 2007. Forgetting the Britons in Victorian Anglo-Saxon archaeology.
- Williams, H. 2005. Cremation in early Anglo-Saxon England – past, present and future research,
- Eckardt, H. & Williams, H. 2003. Objects without a past? The use of Roman objects in early Anglo-Saxon graves.
- Williams, H. 2002. Cemeteries as central places: landscape and identity in early Anglo-Saxon England
- Williams, H. 2002. “The Remains of Pagan Saxondom”? studying Anglo-Saxon cremation practices.
- Williams, H. 2001. An ideology of transformation: cremation rites and animal sacrifice in early Anglo-Saxon England.
Of my 39 journal articles published at the time of writing, a similar fraction to that of book chapters, 9, include the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’. The adjective ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has been used to describe graves, cremation rites and burial sites 3 times. ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ is deployed 4 times. Meanwhile ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ is used twice to refer to 19th-century discourses on English origins.
- Meyers Emery, K. and Williams, H. 2018. A place to rest your (burnt) bones? Mortuary houses in early Anglo-Saxon England, Archaeological Journal 175(1): 55–86.
- Williams, H. 2016. Tressed for death in early Anglo-Saxon England, Internet Archaeology 42. http://dx.doi.org/10.11141/ia.42.6.7
- Williams, H. 2015. Death, hair and memory: cremation’s heterogeneity in early Anglo-Saxon England, Analecta Archaeologica Ressoviensia, 10, 29–76.
- Williams, H. 2008. Anglo-Saxonism and Victorian archaeology: William Wylie’s Fairford Graves.
- Williams, H. 2007. Transforming body and soul: toilet implements in early Anglo-Saxon graves.
- Williams, H. 2006. Heathen graves and Victorian Anglo-Saxonism: assessing the archaeology of John Mitchell Kemble.
- Williams, H. 2004. Death warmed up: the agency of bodies and bones in early Anglo-Saxon cremation rites.
- Williams, H. 1998. Monuments and the past in early Anglo-Saxon England,.
- Williams, H. 1997. Ancient Landscapes and the dead: the reuse of prehistoric and Roman monuments as early Anglo-Saxon burial sites.
Hence, the choice of term was careful and strategic to flag up topics to readers. I cannot claim all these uses were unavoidable, but equally I see no palpable reason in terms of their meaning and context that demands they should be purged.
Certainly, there are ways of avoiding its use including selecting ‘early medieval’ instead, as I’ve deployed this widely elsewhere (including my monograph). This is a preferable term most certainly. I am completely aware and concede that any use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ might render it open to misinterpretation in ethno-nationalist/racial terms, including its use as an adjective to describe burials and material culture. In addition, ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ is misleading as it is anachronistic for the 5th-7th centuries when no one called themselves ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘England’ didn’t really exist. Still, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ are generally accepted in academic and popular parlance, not primarily by extremists. Crucially, ‘England’ without ‘Anglo-Saxon’, or worst still ‘Anglo-Saxon without ‘England’ (when used for Britain more widely especially), are open to even grosser potential misinterpretations and greater anachronisms: talking of ‘England’ and the ‘English’ in the Early Middle Ages is no solution whatsoever.
Frontiers and borderlands
I now work in the Anglo-Welsh borderlands, and specifically with Welsh sites and material relating to Offa’s Dyke, Wat’s Dyke and the Pillar of Eliseg. This has revealed to me how problematic the catch-all terms ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘English’ are for discussing the evolving kingdoms and communities of the 7th-9th centuries AD and opposed to an equally monolithic ‘Welsh’/’Welsh kingdoms’. Yet ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Mercian’ are far less problematic than using ‘English’ in this context, and create a helpful disjunction between past and present ethnicities in a complex borderland context. ‘English’ is especially unhelpful in addressing fluid and complex frontier zones. Indeed, as part of this blog, and ongoing in my research, I have been critiquing Anglocentric perspectives on the Welsh kingdoms and Mercia. Using ‘English’ rather than ‘Anglo-Saxon’ would only accentuate the issue. The wider point: ‘Anglo-Saxon’ must be used cautiously and carefully in different ways in different contexts, and what works in one part of England, let alone beyond, might not be effective elsewhere.
Self reflection is important, and while I haven’t surveyed the contents of the papers above, the brief review of the title serves a purpose in relation to the ongoing discussion. With my own work at least, I honestly struggle to see there is a significant problem and a case to answer in regards to how the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has been deployed. It’s one of a host of terms that are problematic, most assuredly, if used without and beyond its specialist moorings. The point I’m making is that while I’m not convinced I needed to use the term in every case, and in many publications I’ve avoided it where possible, I’m fairly certain that I’ve already ‘done the work’ of problematising the term and being careful regarding its use. Using it in this fashion, I’ve offered fresh interpretations of mortuary practice and material culture of the 5th-7th-centuries AD deploying and adapting a familiar and established use of the term.
Now this doesn’t put the question to bed, since the question isn’t just about how I’ve used the term as a scholar, but how others have used it in specialist venues, how it is used for popular and public-facing venues, and significantly how others might perceive the term. So, in a future blog, I’ll reflect on the wide uses of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in archaeological research and contexts. However, what should be clear is that anyone claiming that archaeologists haven’t engaged with, or identified the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ as ‘problematic’ and been strategic and cautious in its use, are poorly educated, flimsy researchers and/or shameless polemicists. Most definitively, it can be said that ‘Early Medieval England’, ‘Early England’ and ‘Early English’ are laughably unsuitable replacements for the 5th-7th centuries, and I would dispute their application for the 8th-11th centuries too. It is to these and other potential terms to which we shall turn in a future post. So in academic contexts, I remain convinced the term should remain part of our vocabulary if critically and carefully deployed.