The kerfuffle within early medieval studies about the use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ rattles on. On 4 November, an article by eminent TV historian Professor Michael Wood was published in BBC History Extra. The piece makes many valuable points and corrects some flagrant misconceptions floating around the internet. He rightly argues we should be more inclusive as a discipline, but disappointingly Wood comes to no clear conclusions beyond the fact we should all listen. His articulation on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme was equally mealy-mouthed: one learned only that he doesn’t find the label ‘post-Roman’ to be a satisfactory replacement. The result: Wood offers no constructive route forward and the result is an attention-seeking statement. Furthermore, Wood pretends to be oblivious to the nasty tactics at work in this debate by a small cabal of mainly US-based scholars: these persist to the present. Regarding change, he claims: “With goodwill it will be very positive”. Where has he been hiding whilst the near-constant abuse has washed around the academy in the last 2 months?
Meanwhile, Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm published a piece in the History Workshop and subsequently received considerable publicity as the story was shared by many media outlets, including right-wing tabloids. The article sketches some aspects of past uses of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ from the early medieval period to the present as well as selected dimensions of its appropriation in racial terms. For me, this sentence sums up the substandard research framing her arguments, for which I blame the scholars acknowledged as much as Dr Rambaran-Olm: “Rather than accurately portray the early English people as separate tribes (most notably, Angles, Saxons, and Jutes) that migrated to the British Isle, the Anglo-Saxon myth links white people with an imagined heritage based on indigeneity to Britain.” Based on this confused perspective, the piece proposes ‘corrective measures’ for the future: whatever that means is left utterly obscure. Again, despite all the bluster and the support of scholars far more vicious than herself, there is nothing further said here we haven’t heard before.
While the voices of outrage have persisted online, most informed early medieval specialists have kept silent. Yet it is positive that some key voices have dared to enter the fray on social media in defence of the use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’. They have inevitably faced unwarranted and heinous accusations of supporting/enabling white supremacy for deploying a practical and reasonable stance on this academic issue. Well-known and best-selling historian Tom Holland asserted the robust and well-argued view that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ should be retained for historians to deploy, writing both on Twitter and in a letter to The Times. Meanwhile, Dr Charles West (University of Sheffield) has articulated a similar clear statement on the Turbulent Priests blog regarding the necessity to combat appropriations and retain coherent scholarship. Charles recognises the concerns with the term, but sees only worse alternatives. Likewise Clerk of Oxford has articulated a very coherent stance on the merit of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’, and so have Dr Thijis Porck, Dr Caitlin Green and Dr Levi Roach.
Others have made important contributions and many have kept abreast of the abuse and innuendos being spread about anyone who dares to make their opinions known. Unfortunately, individual voices are easily shouted down/cancelled/monstered on social media, no matter how informed they might be. So it comes as some relief that over 65 signatures from leading experts from across a range of disciplines and working in both North America and Europe have supported an open statement by Professor John Hines (Cardiff University) about the merits of retaining the academic use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’. I’m one of the signatories because I think this serves the purpose of explaining the position of many researchers across different disciplines to other scholars, students, and the wider public. You can read it here.
In summary, no one is claiming the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is without problems. Yet the conclusion that can be drawn from this depressing farrago of a social media spat is that the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ can and should be retained for critical and careful academic use. See my previous posts about this subject here for further details. Those that have run away from this argument, or even been instructed by their institutions not to comment, have displayed poor judgement. Instead, I think the discussion, while heated and personal at times, has led to a positive conclusion.