A friend drew my attention to a recent BBC Radio 6 programme from Sunday 12 January 2020: ‘The Leisure Society with Gemma Cairney‘. Cairney was in conversation about life and music with playwright and critic (as well as proud European) Bonnie Greer.
They met at the Department of Medieval and Later Antiquities at the British Museum, hosted by Dr Sue Brunning. Between discussions of Greer’s life and experiences accompanied by music, they discussed Greer’s passion for the Anglo-Saxon and other early medieval artefacts on display in the British Museum.
Greer explained how the British Museum was everyone’s, and that despite a narrow view of England perpetuated by some, the Anglo-Saxons tell us about the complex history of these islands, including migration and multiculturalism. This spoke to her own background and life. Moreover, Greer explained that the artisans who made these objects were telling stories to each other and now to us, and we can read these stories and celebrate parallels with our own migrant stories. Greer directly cites awareness that ‘some’ suggest we cannot call them ‘Anglo-Saxons’ anymore, but for her, the important point is the fabulously complex and intricate polychrome material cultures and the peoples that made them. Near the end, she likened the Anglo-Saxon objects on display to the artist Prince. The artefacts were the results of labour and skill, but also of long-term contemplation. Like Prince, the material culture existed, had variety, courage, and revealed suffering and genius (I paraphrase). Moreover, she makes clear that the artefacts are ‘part of our tradition & part of our link with ourselves’.
I regard this as a great example of how the Early Middle Ages, including its ethnic labels, can excite and engage people with human creative stories linking the distant and recent past, as well as personal journeys. The passion for colours, the skill in their creation, the stories that drove their use and circulation, capture Greer’s imagination. She calls the Anglo-Saxons ‘the most incredible group of people ever’. Greer is not pretending to be an expert in early medieval literature, an historian or an archaeologist; she is speaking of her long-term amateur enthusiasm for the past. The concept of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ are one of her avenues of engagement.
Who am I to snub or query her use of the label? Who am I to dictate to individuals like Greer that they shouldn’t use the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ when it is negotiated with such insight and eloquence? It reveals, as I’ve argued elsewhere when countering those who would have us abandon labels like ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to extremists, that the far-right and white supremacists don’t own the ‘Anglo-Saxons’. We shouldn’t allow tiny groups of hatemongers to dictate how people living in these islands, and around the globe today, can positively and imaginatively engage with the early medieval past through wonderful and intriguing traces, especially the stories they bear about complex historical processes of migration, connections and social change thanks to detailed archaeological research. The popular enthusiasm for the discovery, conservation work and archaeological research on the Staffordshire Hoard is but one example among many of how the Anglo-Saxon past offers numerous avenues for popular public engagement through its rich and varied material culture.
Now, I don’t share Greer’s level of enthusiasm for the term: it is one of many with a troubled past and present. Still, like Prince, it is clear that the Anglo-Saxons mean different things to different people, and their material cultures tell us different stories. Moreover, I’d venture, again like Prince, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ material culture remains sexy to some, outwith, and in confrontation to, the racial undertones some regard the label and the period as possessing! See my Twitter thread about the programme here.