From October 2019 to January 2020, I composed a series of 8 blog-posts addressing aspects of a furore in early medieval studies regarding the use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to describe the societies and communities of 5th-11th-century lowland Britain and their contacts and connections, including not only the material culture, built environment and landscapes of this period, but also the scholars and scholarly dedicated to its study. These posts developed from an earlier Feb 2015 blog-post where I outlined my academic opinion that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is one of a series of problematic terms we have inherited, but we should persist in using it in critical and precise ways. This applies both in academia circles as well as within public outreach and community engagement, where appropriate.
What’s the issue with ‘Anglo-Saxon’? I’ve addressed this before and I don’t want to go through all the points again. For some today, it is used in popular parlance as a slur, a descriptor of English-speaking peoples, and even by some as a badge of honour of racial ‘whiteness’. This is no coincidence: because this ethnonym has a deep and troubling history of use in scholarly writings and popular literature since the 19th century and archaeology has its roots in using this term racially, building from its use by a range of emergent disciplines and interacting with its use in political discourse. This has been recently equated with one particular perspective: that the wholesale use of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in academic contexts is compromised as ‘racist’ and cannot be salvaged because some extremists and practitioners continue to deploy it.
I cannot dispute the problematic nature of the term, but I have disputed the narrow chain of reasoning promoting its wholesale discarding.
Despite obnoxious misuses and the deep troubling roots when deployed to refer to the early medieval period and present-day imagined configurations claiming early medieval origins – as with (for example) ‘Picts’, ‘Irish’, ‘Scots’, ‘Franks’, ‘Goths’, ‘Lombards’, ‘Vikings’, ‘Germans’ and ‘Celts’ alongside so many other problematic ethnonyms – the term (alongside ‘Angles’ and ‘Saxons’) has remained widely used in mainstream academia and popular culture. This applies to a host of disciplines and the term’s use within interdisciplinary scholarship and research projects. It is used to refer to landscapes, buildings, monuments, manuscripts and material culture as well as the art, language and society from the 5th to 11th centuries. Crucially, in the UK, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is used far beyond academia as a time period and to refer to the date-range and geographical span of some material cultures without racial connotations, including by enthusiasts and amateur historians, archaeologists and place-name researchers, educators, metal-detectorists, heritage organisations, museums, faith groups and local communities. Indeed, the term’s vagueness is its strength: it captures a sense of complexity and hybridity which ‘English’ fails to do for this period.
So, my argument remains that we need to work hard to be cautious and precise when we use it, and critical and combative when it is misused within and beyond academia. It is also essential we distance ourselves from, and openly challenge, those who would wilfully mischaracterise the term in racist venues and fashions, including a raft of political extremists, notably ethno-nationalists and white supremacists, but also some academics. Silently ditching the term to avoid controversy is intellectually and ethically inept and cedes the term’s use to extremist and ignorant individuals and groups. Thus, abandoning the term harbours risks for the present and the future of early medieval studies, adding yet another layer of confusion and elite exclusion to non-specialists and allowing the term to be co-opted as a badge of honour by those with deplorable xenophobic agendas in both real-world landscapes and digital environments.
In my view, this is a time for action and combating false narratives. By this I don’t just mean narratives pedalled by racists, but the various strands of pseudoarchaeology pervading mainstream academic discourse too. In doing so, terms like ‘Anglo-Saxon’ have many positive and powerful potentialities for interdisciplinary research, public outreach and community projects. ‘Early medieval England’ and ‘English’ are not viable alternatives for many archaeologists, and they evoke racial and nationalistic associations and multiple anachronisms of their own.
That’s why I’ve stayed with this issue over the month and I’ve already appeared in the magazine British Archaeology making a version of this argument and I’ve signed a joint statement about the value of the term.
Following on from that, a few months back I was invited to write a longer piece pitched at a broad audience about this topic. You can read the article here in Aeon magazine. I propose we continue the task of working towards an Anglo-Saxon archaeology for all, and that involves standing up for terms and their responsible use, not running away from difficult issues or setting up more barriers of exclusory terminology.
What comes next? Once attention moves on, responsible voices – authors, editors, students, practitioners and a host of stakeholder groups and amateurs (aforementioned) – will be left to pick up the pieces and work to make effective changes in how we study, write, educate and engage the public about the Anglo-Saxon period, thus identifying long-lasting and sustainable solutions to long-standing problems with our narratives and nomenclatures and its racial baggage and underpinnings.
That’s fine, and that’s usually the way with the elitist academic world: lots of posturing and discrediting followed but long periods where everyone timidly scrambles around wondering what they are now ‘allowed’ to say. As it happens, I’ve been working on this for 25 years and never in that time repeatedly used ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxons’ as a lazy catch-all term as some scholars have continued to do until very recently. Frankly, if some of this work had been taken more seriously, alongside that of a host of other archaoelogists, perhaps literary and linguistic specialists wouldn’t have found themselves in this stark and ugly academic kerfuffle.
Whatever happens in future, let’s be clear that I’ve long warned about the dangers and challenges about these issues in my academic research on the history of archaeology and the interpretation of early medieval archaeological data. I have not been ignoring this problem! Hence, I will continue to do my best, where possible, to write and engage other scholars and practitioners, as well as diverse publics, with the fascinating and complex archaeological histories from the early medieval world. In my Aeon article, I identify many examples of how this is happening in museums, heritage sites and research projects. For me and I suspect many others, this is far better than conceding archaeologists’ status as a word-shy, subsidiary and deferential disciplinary twig on a branch of early medieval studies which has already revealed itself to be way out of step with current academic trends and thinking. After all, it is to archaeology and archaeologists that much of the future of investigating the 5th-11th centuries lies, and it has been so for many decades. If that shocks anyone reading this, particularly you literary scholars, it begs the question: where have you been hiding?
So let’s work hard to open our subject to diverse audiences and practitioners, be inclusive and versatile in our language, and engaging and exciting in the stories we tell from material evidence. Oh yes, and let’s keep our debates heated but not abusive and personal if it’s ok with you!
Here’s to an Anglo-Saxon archaeology for all, as opposed to an entrenched and ambiguous ‘early medieval England’ appealing to no one in particular.
So have a read Aeon article and let me know what you think!