A well-known Stewart Lee comedy sketch parodies racist attitudes towards immigrants and immigration, framed around the narrative ‘we’ve seen it all before’, x-group ‘comin’ over here’. In this post, I reflect on the ramifications for the recent kerfuffle regarding the academic use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’.
Lee is evoking the most simplistic of successive migration narratives for Britain’s past deliberately to make a rhetorical argument through his humour. Lee begins with him recalling the Poles ‘comin’ over here’ and ‘mending everything’, then moving back in time to remember the ‘Indians’ ‘comin’ over here’ to invent a national cuisine. Back again still Lee evokes the ‘Huguenots’ from France ‘comin’ over here’ and ‘doubting transubstantiation’. And then:
before them in the fifth century, was the Anglo-Saxons wannit? Bloody Anglo-Saxons! Comin’ over here, from northern Continental Europe. The Anglo-Saxons, with their inlaid jewellery and their ship-burial traditions, and their miserable epic poetry! … if you come over here Anglo-Saxons learn to speak the fxxking language!
Having explicitly evoked early Anglo-Saxon burial archaeology, Lee then heads back in time farther still and deals with the ‘bloody Beaker folk, coming over here!’ and then before that, 6000 years ago, ‘the Neolithic people’. And then taking it to utter extremes, fish crawling up onto the land told to get back into the sea rather than populate ‘our land’. His point is already well executed, but Lee takes it to before time itself when nothing existed at all anywhere but ‘you could leave your front door unlocked’ before the house didn’t exist.
Of course the details of Stewart’s narrative of natural history and archaeology are a stark simplification taken to illogical extremes for comedy effect. Even for the characterisation of the Anglo-Saxons, Lee latches onto cultural tropes that make little sense to the specialist. For example, as almost every professional, academic and amateur archaeologist will know, ‘ship-burial’ is hardly a unique or commonplace Anglo-Saxon burial tradition. Yet to dwell on this misses the point entirely. Stewart is of course pointing out that audiences will be aware of the ship-burials of Sutton Hoo and perhaps also Snape which epitomise ‘early Anglo-Saxon England’ in popular history. The comedy works by taking the broad sweep of Britain’s geological and archaeological past to mock illogical and bigoted anti-immigration attitudes and phrases, specifically false claims of indigeneity. This is particularly aimed at mocking UKIP’s Paul Nuttall.
Yet the sketch has taken on a new power and significance in recent months. In December Asian Dub Foundation, released their sampling of Lee’s sketch in their song ‘Comin’ Over Here’ from the 2020 album ‘Access Denied’. It did amazingly well in the UK charts, becoming Brexit Number One on 1 January 2021 coinciding with the end of the transition period for the UK leaving the EU. Lee’s sketch was thus revitalised in a new context of anti-Brexit, which was driven in no small part by a broader patriotic and xenophobic anti-immigration discourse. Yet simultaneously, the ADF creation combats the same yet intensified bigotry towards people perceived as not ‘native’ or ‘indigenous’ to these islands. Lee and ADF challenge this nativism in a forthright and powerful way, deploying the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in a clear and striking fashion. Given how strongly anti-immigration sentiments (conflating non-EU and EU migrants) pervaded popular discourse in the run-up and aftermath of the 2016 Brexit referendum, the mash-up of Lee and ADF has struck a powerful message, reflecting back on what has transpired in UK politics, and the social, economic and ethnic conflicts which are set to unfold ‘post-Brexit’.
Not everyone will agree with Lee’s political stance, his stark historical narrative or find his comedy funny; those aren’t necessary for me to make my point. Similarly, I may be a fan of the ADF but I don’t demand anyone else shares my musical tastes. However, the implications should be loud and clear in relation to recent misguided demands that the label ‘Anglo-Saxons’ should be retired from use by academics, heritage practitioners, educators, publishers and just about everyone.
Academic nomenclature is riddled with problems and ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ is a deeply rooted component of British history since the 19th century, as my research has shown for archaeological investigations. Yet there is nothing considered or clever about running away from legacies and terminology in an attempt to airbrush the past and our scholarly responsibilities. This is especially ill-considered in favour of the flagrantly divisive and ahistorical use of ‘English’ instead. The term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ retains utility in a variety of regards as a recognised shorthand for complex peoples and processes of socio-economic, political and ideological change in the mid-late first millennium AD. It therefore enshrines multiple dangers and possibilities equally, just as the end of Roman Britain and its various successors (Saxons, Vikings, Normans) have been mobilised in contrasting fashions during the Brexit referendum debates.
‘Anglo-Saxon’ retains unquestionable advantages over terms like ‘English’ by explicitly differentiating the populations and language of the Early Middle Ages from the present, distinguishing clearly between then and now. As I’ve argued before, it also doesn’t restrict or extend our discussions to the area that is now England: ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has more profitable uses in relation to material culture and historical geography than ‘English’ ever has. And these points are absolutely crucial for combatting various forms of popular and extremist misrepresentations of Britain’s past in early 21st-century Britain, including multiple nationalisms and racisms. Indeed, as ADF show, it can be effectively mobilised against its racist and nationalistic appropriations.
A further lesson from the ADF/Lee song is that, even in the most simplified of popular renditions, the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ are often understood relationally and thus their identities and significance for the present pertains to a succession of earlier and later migrations and invasions and mixings of indigenous and incoming peoples in various different ways. Therefore, whatever we call the peoples inhabiting southern and eastern Britain in the fifth to early eleventh centuries, the dual challenges of extremist appropriations, celebrating indigeneity or immigrants, are left to be tackled and untangled if we focus on single terms and periods.
In this regard, ethnic labels cannot be effectively regarded as analogues to statues; they are not inscribed with exclusive and official validated narratives. Instead, they can be claimed and reclaimed, repurposed and re-contextualised depending on the context of their use. Every student of literature and language knows this, and so do archaeologists and historians. Such ethnonyms might instead be regarded as public spaces rather than monuments, in which some might erect and inscribe markers of hate and exclusion, others will assert their presences and voices, but equally no single group can ‘control’. As academics, we cannot gate-keep or dictate rules of use of these spaces, especially when racists will deploy them in starkly illogical ways without evidential bases. Certainly this isn’t possible over the long term and it is impossible to determine their exclusive use for one person or another. Yet it is for this very reason that academia should think twice before abandoning such environments to become safe-spaces for the ignorant and for bigots and hatemongers. This is especially the case for the term’s UK use, where it is so widely deployed in the education and heritage sectors beyond academia and it serves to effectively introduce various publics to a key segment of Britain’s early historic past.
Therefore, I would argue against retiring this academic label and question the false hope that in doing so it will rid the field of its racists and racial legacies (and without an established vision of what terms might be more effective, with equally problematic terms such as ‘English’ advocated as replacements). Instead, maintaining at least the option of using ‘Anglo-Saxons’/’Anglo-Saxon’/’Anglo-Saxon England’ alongside other period and regional terms is an ethically robust and responsible stance. Indeed, fostering public engagement and education activities can be part of an ‘Anglo-Saxon archaeology for all’ in which the terms is reclaimed in academic and public engagement contexts. Indeed, I would argue that archaeologists have been at the forefront of critiquing Anglo-Saxonism by developing not only critical revaluations of the history of the discipline but also robust and original new theoretical questions, methodological avenues, and a host of new discoveries.
In different ways and varying degrees, arguments might be made for retaining other problematic terms (if in very different contexts and for different reasons), like ‘Neanderthal’, ‘Neolithic’, ‘Beaker’, ‘Celt’, ‘Phoenician’, ‘Etruscan’, ‘Greek’, ‘Roman’, ‘Viking’, ‘Norman’ or ‘medieval’, as well as simplistic and misleading imperial/regal labels such as ‘Byzantine’, ‘Carolingian’, ‘Plantagenet’, ‘Tudor’ or ‘Victorian’ to define peoples, periods and regions of the human past. Specialists need to be constantly vigilant against their misuses, but the terms needn’t be jettisoned entirely. Indeed, such terms remain widely and effectively used and familiar, and so they should have a place within scholarship if only to discuss and critique their misuses. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ can be appropriated as a badge of honour for a bigoted and ignorant few, and it has been a long-established slur against English-speaking ‘white’ people for others. Yet beyond each of these narrow appropriations, the term defines a widely recognised period of the human past and its peoples, and their rich and diverse connections.
It is in this context that I’ve remained critical but also positive about the potential of popular culture manifestations and re-imaginings of Anglo-Saxon archaeology, including the popular Netflix film The Dig especially in regards to provoking new audiences to engage with the significances of the early medieval past in today’s world. Likewise, I’m broadly supportive of projects and heritage organisations wishing to stay with these terms rather than advocating their wholesale abandonment if they commit to its responsible use and deploy it in narratives that question and subvert traditional narratives of origins and identity. For more on this argument, see my Aeon article: The Fight for ‘Anglo-Saxon’.
In summary, if the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ can be effectively mobilised to denounce anti-immigrant attitudes in the specific context of Brexit and its impending aftermath, as by Stewart Lee and the band ADF, it should remind us of our academic and professional responsibilities to, where appropriate and in context, retain its critical and cautious uses too and, in particular, recognise its contextual and relational merits for public engagement in particular. As I’ve argued before, and alongside other researchers, the issue remains for individual academics and organisations to carefully and responsibly advocate best practice in name-use, not name-changes, especially when there is no clear discussion of what names might be better!