Misnaming the Medieval: Rejecting “Anglo-Saxon” Studies

English map of the world, created in Canterbury c.1025-1050. British Library Cotton MS Tiberius BV.

When we think of the study of Old English literature or its language, we often think of the epic poem Beowulf. We seldom consider the scholarly field in which Beowulf is most closely scrutinized, nor the pervading assumptions within our lexicon about the people within the period that Beowulf was composed.

‘Anglo-Saxons’ has long been associated with the early English people, but this label suffers from a long history of misuse. The scholarship and field supposedly draw their name from the people that scholars study, although the labels ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon studies’ are also fraught with inaccuracies. The term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ (rather than the medieval ‘Anglo-Saxorum’ or ‘Anglo-Saxoria’) gained popularity in the eighteenth and nineteenth century as a means of connecting white people to their supposed origins. Historically, the people in early England or ‘Englelond’ did not call themselves ‘Anglo-Saxons’. The term was used sporadically during the early English period, but by and large, the people in early medieval England referred to themselves as ‘Englisc’ or ‘Anglecynn.’

In the centuries following the Norman Conquest of 1066, only scant references of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ exist, most notably in reference to royal titles. It was not until the sixteenth century that English antiquarians and scholars began to collect early English manuscripts and compile dictionaries of Old English. This sudden interest in the early English period was not as benign as one might think. In contrast to the Catholic church, Protestant Reformers in England aimed to establish precedent for their sectarian beliefs by reinterpreting early medieval English Christianity to create links between the “primitive English church” and Reformers’ present day. Between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, an English nationalizing agenda emerged, centered on an English ‘race’ dependent upon an appropriation and a refashioning of the past. English discourse depicted the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ as reflecting ideals of national liberty.

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. This false account of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ as a nation and ‘race’ has played heavily in political discourse over the past 500 years, often reconstructed to include fictitious narratives to promote political messages of patriotism, imperialism, or racial superiority. As the English language—along with English imperialism—erased indigenous languages and swept across the globe, the Anglo-Saxon myth served as empirical ‘proof’ mandating racial superiority. The study of race fascinated scientists and ethnographers throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and equally, early twentieth-century Anglo-Saxonists directly worked with scientific racism in their scholarship, including phrenology. Their anachronistic medievalism ignored a more factual image of ‘others’ in England who had ancestral ties to the land. Despite the long history of invasion and integration in England, English scholars sought to imagine a direct connection to the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ past free from alien associations in order to cleanse English history of the ‘foreign’ elements that, in fact, constituted the English population. Today, far-right identitarian groups seeking to prove their superior ancestry by portraying the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ in ways that both promote English identity and national sociopolitical progress.

Nazi propaganda poster showing Hitler as a knight in shining armour. “The Standard Bearer” by Hubert Lanzinger, 1935.

During British (and afterwards American) imperialism and colonization, the racial meaning of ‘Anglo-Saxon,’ became the most dominant usage of the term, rather than a historical reference to pre-Conquest England. This white supremacist movement in Euro-America has used the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to justify racial violence and colonial genocide for at least 200 years. The racial meaning throughout the English-speaking world deepened and came to be associated crudely with whiteness.  ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has become a supremacist dog-whistle reinforcing the idea of the ‘Anglo-Saxon race’ as an indigenous group in England.  It suspiciously erases the fact that the Angle and Saxon peoples were ‘migrants’. The term’s association with whiteness has saturated our lexicon to the point that it is absurdly misused in political discourse.

Gold dinar of King Offa of Mercia (reigned 757–796), bearing an Arabic inscription, reflecting the importance of the gold dinar in international trade (British Museum, CM 1913,1213.1).

The scholarly field that investigates early England supposedly draws its name from the people studied, although the labels ‘Anglo-Saxonists’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon studies’ are fraught with inaccuracies. Today’s field represents more than just literature and linguistics, as archaeologists and historians (material, art, and otherwise) are all under one large umbrella.  Historically, Anglo-Saxon studies itself has reinforced superiority of northern European or ‘Anglo-Saxon’ whiteness.  Today we see the word misused extensively as a label for white identity despite it being inaccurate. Within the field of Anglo-Saxon studies, we have more recently been examining what the term means, how it is used, and what it represents. The field has traditionally been represented by white people and unsurprisingly still attracts mostly white students due to the field’s inherent whiteness. The discipline’s largest organization (International Society of Anglo-Saxonists) had a membership vote recently where more than 60% voted to remove ‘Anglo-Saxon’ from the organization’s name. Since the vote, disgruntled voters mostly from the United Kingdom have argued that the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or variations of it should continue in the organization name, in a nauseating attempt to sidestep its inaccurate use even within a historical context. Equally, this willful ignorance reveals an appalling lack of concern over the dehumanization of colleagues of color and supporters who acknowledge the term’s racist connotations. While some scholars outside the US argue that the term’s misuse is an American problem, it is also noteworthy that some British scholars—some of whom identified themselves as ‘English’ or more gallingly ‘Anglo-Saxon’ on academic listservs and across social media—and their institutions remain so intimately wedded to this inaccurate term. The contested term is not neutral. In fact, one cannot be neutral in the face of racism. Scholarly work, even historical studies, are never separate from current social and political realities.

The term’s nationalist connections and whiteness in predominantly English-speaking countries extends beyond laypeople’s vernacular. Such refusal to understand the racist roots of the discipline and how the term inaccurately represents the early English demonstrates an insidious and obstinate ignorance within academic institutions.  By and large though scholars are coming to understand the need to interrogate the use of this term and many are keen to find terms that represents scholars, the field and the early English more accurately. Medievalists, in particular, were able to remove ‘the Dark Ages’ from scholarly lexicon (although it is sometimes used in common parlance among laypeople) because it mischaracterized the early medieval period. In this way, we have a benchmark for removing an incorrect term.

Returning to Beowulf, part of its intrinsic value and richness as a text lies in the fact that it was not produced in isolation or hermetically sealed off insularity; thus, white nationalist claims to it are amiss. By the same token, replacing the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with one that is more historically accurate does not mean we are ceding to white supremacists. Their ideology is based on myth, where selected terms, symbols, and narratives used to promote hate and white identity are wholly inaccurate and/or misappropriated. Just as the field of early English studies is evolving with new evidence and findings that help shed light on the early medieval period, scholars specializing in this period also have an obligation to interrogate the language they use, and to guide the public’s understanding of these historical terms. We do not need to change previous scholarship or titles that include the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ or ‘Anglo-Saxonist,’ but we can take corrective measures because language is always evolving. It matters when we use a racist dog-whistle term like ‘Anglo-Saxon,’ which is neither neutral nor correctly represents the early English people. As the old adage goes: ‘words matter.’

I would like to thank Dr. Adam Miyashiro, Dr. Erik Wade and Dr. Dorothy Kim for their comments on earlier drafts of this piece.