In 6 previous posts, I’ve addressed different dimensions of the current discussion regarding the use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in research addressing the mid-/late first millennium AD. In the latest British Archaeology magazine (volume 170 for January and February 2020) the editor Mike Pitts introduces this debate to those who might struggle to follow the rambling Twitter and Facebook threads and equally confusing e-publications. Inevitably, those reading this won’t realise the full scale and character of the hyperbole, haranguing and defamatory accusations being spread on social media (that story will come out in due course, but see my first two posts about this issue here and here). Equally, one won’t get from the British Archaeology piece a fuller sense of the history and use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (for my take on the actual use of ‘Anglo-Saxon’, see my self-reflection, broader discussion, museum case study and the collective statement by scholars). Despite this, Pitts retains a clear neutral editorial stance and reviews key aspects of the academic and popular understandings of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and the political contexts of its use on both sides of the Atlantic.

The British Archaeology piece is called: Should British Archaeology Stop Using ‘Anglo-Saxon’? and on the front cover it refers to ‘the great Anglo-Saxon dilemma’. Pitts illustrates the widespread use of the term in past issues of British Archaeology, including articles be Penelope Walton-Rogers about textiles from early medieval graves, John Baker and Stuart Brookes about Alfred and late 9th-century burhs, and articles about the Lincolnshire cemetery of Scremby and the recently published Staffordshire Hoard. Still, he asks of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’: ‘but has its time come?’

10 very different statements by scholars offer their perspectives on the issue. Notably, despite his extensive contacts in the world of archaeology, Mike could only get three takes from archaeologists. I interpret from this that many key experts are simply not willing to speak up on this issue given the aforementioned social media behaviours as outlined in my earlier posts here and here. Moreover, the presence of some strikes me as odd given their lack of demonstrable archaeological expertise or engagement to justify their inclusion in an archaeology magazine. For this reason, I’m particularly glad I did decide (despite strong reservations and the fear of the inevitable backlash that will occur) to speak out and be one of those willing to outline an archaeological perspective. Here’s my answer to Mike’s question: 

I’ve long been uncomfortable and publicly critical of the academic use of the term “Anglo-Saxon”, given its complex history in nationalist, imperial and colonial contexts where its overt racial associations are shifting but persistent. I have worked at two Welsh higher education institutions, and work and live today in the Anglo-Welsh borderlands where these terms are particularly sensitive.

Most scholars in the field see a cautious and critical stance to the use of “Anglo-Saxon” as essential, although I continue to see uncritical use in both scholarly research and public-facing arenas. Still, I wouldn’t consider a blanket policing of the term itself as a constructive or beneficial way forward. There is no ready replacement, and purging terminologies ignores its widespread use, not only across multiple disciplines, but also its wider presence in commercial, governmental, heritage and educational contexts as a shorthand for the mid/late first millennium AD in southern and eastern Britain. Academics can always adapt and shift their use of specialist labels, but abandoning the term “Anglo-Saxon” would not help us reach audiences within and beyond academia, and it would concede intellectual and historical territory to extremists and fringe narratives.

Me in BA!

Since this British Archaeology article went to press, there have been further developments:

  1. The International Society of Anglo-Saxonists has voted on its new name, with ‘The International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England (ISSEME)’ as the preferred description of its focus (which helpfully takes the focus to the subject of study and away from the self-identification term for scholars);
  2. The International Medieval Congress, IMC, which takes place in Leeds every summer, has now decided to ditch its session theme ‘Anglo-Saxon Studies’ and replace it provisionally with ‘Early Medieval England’. Professor Catherine Clarke is one of the other commentators in the British Archaeology piece and her contribution provides her justification for this name-change;
  3. Professor Catherine Karkov has written a blog-post arguing “the way we define and study early medieval England needs to change, dismantle its racist structures and language and start again.” What is to replace it is left for us to guess, but evidently ‘early medieval England’ is perceived by her (quite wrongly in my view) as a safe, inclusive and unproblematic term to replace ‘Anglo-Saxon England’.
  4. The US-based academic publication Journal of English and Germanic Philology has altered its style sheet to explicitly instruct potential authors to avoid using the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’. Oddly, they see no problem with the adjective ‘Germanic’ and explicitly regard ‘English’ as a ‘precise designation’:

“Anglo-Saxon” should be reserved for historiographical contexts and
citations. For the English language pre-1200, “Old English” is preferred. For
geographical and historical designations, specific locations (i.e. “England,”
“Wales,” “Wessex,” “Kent,” etc.) and period markers (“early medieval,”
“sixth through tenth centuries,” “pre-Conquest,” etc.) are preferred.
References to groups of people should use precise designations (“English,”
“Mercians,” “Danes,” “East Angles,” etc.). Specific cases can be discussed
with the relevant editor

Despite these modest shifts in nomenclature in specialist contexts, seemingly without wider consultation beyond members (ISAS/ISSEME), editorial boards (JEGP) or selected delegates (IMC), those who have advocated name-changes, like Karkov, persist in claiming there is no attempt to ban the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’. Simultaneously, they have wasted a lot of energy online trying to pressure its removal. It’s difficult to understand this contradiction. In any case, despite these efforts, the result is they have lost the argument. The only avenue left open to them is to persist in slurring those disagreeing with their stance as racist and/or enabling white supremacy. My previous post on this subject, for example, drew a series of hilarious and defamatory responses and the aforementioned blog-post by Karkov shamefully continues this line of attack. Thankfully we didn’t have to wait long for a solid and convincing counter to Karkov (see this Twitter thread from Professor Judith Jesch).

What of the future? I refer you to my previous post ‘The Anglo-Saxons are here to stay’ and to the measured and reasoned collective statement signed by (now) 70 experts (including me) outlining why the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has continued responsible utility. This statement was reported on in The Times on Monday 2nd December.  

Times Dec 2 2019 p3

In the light of the reservations and negative associations that scholars experience and perceive regarding the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (and I share sincere concerns regarding them), I agree that ‘early medieval’ can be a fair alternative in general terms. I widely use it as a chronological descriptor without geographical or other parameters and I support its use for all those who do not favour ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in their work. However, ‘early medieval’ remains a vague and unsatisfactory replacement to ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in many archaeological and historical contexts. Meanwhile, the specific combination ‘early medieval England’ doesn’t escape ethnic associations; indeed, it risks dangerously conflating political formations, language and ethnicity between the past and present. Especially, the uncritical and ahistorical use of ‘English’ or the odd formula ‘early English’ for societies of the mid-/late first millennium AD brings to the fore even more potential baggage than ‘Anglo-Saxon’, especially in a UK context, because it asserts an unbroken continuum from the Early Middle Ages to the 21st-century. At the very least, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is safely archaic, and anyone using it as an ethnic identifier today is readily self-identifying themselves as a bit of (or a lot of) an ethno-nationalist and/or racist. Not so ‘English’ which conflates a host of present-day imagined identities onto the early medieval past.

So, if the desire of name-changes is to avoid or combat far-right appropriations of the past, I reckon that the labels ‘early medieval England’ and ‘early English’, combined with noise created by the divisions and accusations taking place within medieval studies, leaves the field ripe for ongoing extremist appropriations. At best, this lobbying for name-changes takes us nowhere fast, but more worryingly I fear it might inadvertently be taking the field into darker places. It might just be best if we wish for other things in our endeavours to combat extremist appropriations. In doing so, we should keep the door ajar to the careful and cautious, versatile and precise scholarly use of the label ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in both academic and popular contexts.

Right, back to coping with the UK General Election…