I’ve already made a case for why ‘Anglo-Saxon’ remains a useful and familiar term, although problematic if not applied judiciously and precisely, within our academic vocabulary for the archaeology of the mid-/late first millennium AD in southern and eastern Britain. In this fourth post in a short series, I reflect on the future of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in public, including educational and heritage contexts. My overall point is that it cannot be academics alone who decide to purge its use. Moreover, we need to think carefully about abandoning terms to extremists. While researchers can promote our own particular stances on the term’s use, and specialist societies can vote on their name-changes as they wish, academics don’t own and don’t get to decide on the wider choices made regarding how we refer to the Early Middle Ages. Instead, it is our responsibility as experts to take this debate forward constructively and informed by research both into its past uses and current contexts.
Let’s start with the ISAS debate. It’s always been particularly odd that the former name of ISAS not only adopts a specific ethno-linguistic or historical term ‘Anglo-Saxon’, but it prioritises the identity of its practitioners over its subject. In other words, rather than ‘Society for the Promotion of Anglo-Saxon Studies’ or the ‘Society for Research on Anglo-Saxon England’ (I’ve just made these up by way of illustration, but the latter does mirror the name of the CUP journal at least!), the term has been used to define the society and label the identity of its researchers as ‘Anglo-Saxonists’.
I don’t feel comfortable calling myself an ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ and never have. I can honestly tell you this is one of the reasons I never wanted to join, alongside the long-term sidelining of historical and archaeological research that has typified the society. More broadly, I don’t think there’s ever been a time in the 20th century, let alone the 21st century, when this can have been an unproblematic title for a research specialist, even outside the US. So I agree, that Society is long overdue to consider carefully what new formula it should adopt to explain its parameters and focus of research interests and activities. I wish them luck! But what of the term’s use more broadly?
No matter how uncomfortable the inherited term might be, it’s important to remember that this isn’t just about Society names or the terms we use for expensive specialist book titles. This is a debate for the real world. As I’ve discussed before, we need to think critically regarding our use of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in public and heritage environments. For example, I’ve called out for the need to robustly challenge extremist narratives about the Early Middle Ages, its sites, material cultures, narratives and terms, but also lazy and passive uses of problematic terminology. This applies to past bodies, things, monuments and landscapes and not just simply about words. This is key in the case study of Wayland’s Smithy, now in Oxfordshire (formerly Berkshire). The absence of a narrative about the early medieval perception and use of the site at the monument and in digital materials does little to counter extremist uses of the monument.
This links to a need to be aware of geographical context. I would suggest we need to remember that the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is already in use in complex and varied ways, depending which written source we are discussing, but also which modern-day heritage destination, museum context, or landscapes we are evaluating. It has different connotations and sensitivities if applied far beyond modern-day England. Within the island of Britain, its use will need to be responsive to a patchwork of overlapping issues and agenda, with different applications from Lothian, Cumbria, Wales or Cornwall to Yorkshire, Berkshire, Norfolk and Kent, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ will have different associations. The same will inevitably apply to any replacement term adopted. Good luck with replacing ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with ‘English’ in parts of those aforementioned areas! I certainly consider ‘Anglo-Saxon’ preferable to ‘English’ in the Anglo-Welsh borderlands for what should be obvious reasons.
Researchers cannot ignore the reality that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is being ‘consumed’ and deployed by a far wider range of ‘stakeholders’ and interest groups that one might first anticipate. For example, those interested in and/or adherents to modern Pagan beliefs have sometimes been characterised as inherently racist by some scholars. We risk not only alienating but radicalising faith groups for whom this term has folk or other spiritual dimensions. The same issue applies to Christian communities, including working class communities in England’s North East for whom Bede and the Anglo-Saxons are integral to a regional identity, and one rooted in faith for some, not primarily a nationalist or ancestrally defined identity. The Midlands’ renaissance in the use of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ around the 1100th anniversary of the death of Aethelflaed of Mercia, and the discovery and unprecedented popularity of the Staffordshire Hoard, are further examples that must be carefully considered.
There are also ‘stakeholders’ within the archaeological and heritage world for whom these terms are widely used, including school teachers, community archaeologists, local history and archaeology groups, museum archaeologists, and commercial archaeologists. We must be cautious in imposing a name-change on them without consultation. Another example are re-enactors, for whom ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is a regional and chronological descriptor, but also links to a sense of language and culture. Some of these groups might parade out-moded stereotypes of early medieval ethnic groups, but many are also our primary educational mediators with audiences from school children to pensioners, including reaching many groups who might never otherwise step inside a museum or read a history book. They have the potential, and some have long been working towards, problematising preconceived ethnic characterisations of the period.
These examples are illustrations of a broader point: academics risk confusing and alienating the public, including many in their own professions, by focusing on name-changes over the stories we are telling.
How is the term being used?
Much of the debate thus far has been based on anecdote and rhetoric: ‘my wife says it sounds a bit odd and she’s not even an academic’, ‘I saw a white supremacist use the term on Facebook, so it must be avoided’, ‘people in the USA and elsewhere in the Americas find ‘Anglo-Saxon’ used with particular overt racial connotations, so we should avoid it’. These are fair points to make. Yet we do need to conduct systematic surveys of visitor experiences and regarding how ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is used in academic, popular and other print media. It is also essential to conduct evaluations of ‘end users’ regarding their precise associations with the term when used in historical contexts. This includes those who might perceive the term as off-putting to the study of the early medieval period. It has been argued that the term excludes people. This may well be so! Let’s support research to identify the scale and character of the term’s positive uses as well as its misunderstandings and misappropriations.
Coherent scholarship and research
This links to a call for coherent measured scholarship. I’ve seen attempts by those who have limited scholarly engagement with the issue, and no track record of researching the problems, using Twitter threads to peddle simplified and overtly misleading historiographies of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in academic discourse. Simultaneously they are framing a debate that ignores its wider political, heritage, educational and popular uses. Asserting that any debate or doubt is emboldening racists seems to work on more gullible fellow academics, but it is cheap and shallow rhetoric. Detailed and contextual histories of early medieval research are required more now than ever before, since this is simply not good enough!
New voices are key here, but we must also consult those with experience and knowledge in the period to address this issue. It’s that simple: let’s debate this topic with those who have public engagement experience, including experts, but also those in the heritage and education professions, as well as local groups, faith communities and enthusiasts.
Abandoning intellectual, but also digital and real, space
Despite the clamour, I fear abandoning intellectual, but also digital and real world spaces doesn’t address the issue directly or constructively. See this post for another perspective I sympathise with. Instead, we need to positively and robustly claim this term and others. Hence, I repeat my concern expressed in the earlier post on this subject: retreating from controversial terms and spaces is conceding them, and this needn’t always be the right move. We should certainly not rule out taking them back into active use and making them rich in ideas and contributors, thus rendering them uncomfortable and challenging spaces for white supremacists. This is my preferred strategy.
What will a name-change do?
Of course, if we abandon terms, we do have to consider what replacements we adopt, and we must address what we hope will be gained. Is there a sense this is something we must do to achieve a particular end? In this regard, I must state again that I find it frankly ridiculous to see certain medievalists using ‘early medieval England/English’ as if this offers a neutral alternative! This suggestions they haven’t really thought this through at all.
The nature of the debate
This debate should all be relatively familiar territory to anyone trained in archaeology or anthropology on either side of the Atlantic in the last half decade, where post-colonial and race/ethnicity debates have been commonplace. There are parallels with debates regarding the treatment, repatriation and reburial of human remains to the use of terms like ‘Celts’ and ‘Germans’ in studies of the first millennia BC and AD and extending into heritage and public contexts. Still, more work is needed and I hope to pursue aspects of it. What I would say is that it is fundamentally not good enough to suggest that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has been neutral and unproblematic. The discussion regarding how, and what should change has, however, hardly begun, and populated by rhetoric more than scholarship. Hence, I’ve seen public denouncing of any critical stance on the recent fracas as ‘tone policing’, nit-picking or inspired by stealth racism. This shuts down the debate. Instead, specialists can work to make early medieval studies an open, diverse and exciting field without personal attacks on each other or obsessing about terms.
Proposals for alternatives!
Let’s presume you don’t agree with me and follow the strategy of banning and denouncing the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’. What next? We need some constructive suggestions if we are to replace ‘Anglo-Saxon’, right?
So, by way of conclusion, I gift you three alternative names that should be considered to replace ‘Anglo-Saxon’, one of which I would fully endorse if a change is deemed essential and unavoidable. I simply cannot countenance anything with ‘Germanic’ or ‘English’ to be a satisfactory replacement. I also think ‘post-Roman’ is useless and valorises the problematic periodisation between ‘ancient’ and ‘medieval’.
- The Early Middle Ages/early medieval – simple, bland, and has no linguistic, ethnic, geographical qualifiers, and already widely used for the 5th-11th centuries AD in NW Europe incl. Britain and Ireland;
- The Dark Ages! – You know it makes sense!
- POTFKAAS – The Period of Time Formerly Known As Anglo-Saxon