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.  

Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm is a specialist of Early Medieval England and Digital Humanities. She is currently working on a number of academic publications on race in early medieval England. Twitter: @ISASaxonists Medium: @mrambaranolm

14 Comments

  1. There’s merit to lots of this, but how on earth does “Anglo-Saxon” erase the fact that the Angles and Saxons were migrants? It’s the names of the foreign places they came from :-/

  2. Perhaps include Bede and his racism in muddling the time sequences in his history to underplay the importance of the earlier Christians in the British Isles, the Britons, Welsh, Irish, Picts, Scots from whom the migrating Angles, Saxons and Jutes came to take their culture? And to note that Beowulf is not even set in the British Isles but in Sweden, etc.

  3. Wilko al Marsba

    Our use of language and the thoughts we Express always betray our particular prejudices.

  4. David Howlett

    It is disquieting that someone who bears the title Dr and describes herself as ‘specialist of early medieval England’, to say nothing of the three other Drs whom she thanks for comments on her draft, should use in a public forum such erroneous locutions as ‘the medieval “Anglo-Saxorum” or “Anglo-Saxoria”‘ and affirm that ‘Historically, the people in early England or “Englelond” did not call themselves “Anglo-Saxons”. The term was used sporadically during the early English period.’ There is a large volume of evidence that has been in print for centuries, in datable texts of unimpeachable authenticiy, that inhabitants of England called themselves Angli, Saxones, Angli Saxones, and their language English and Saxon, that the neighbouring Welsh and Irish called them Saxons. Please consult the Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources and stop disseminating ill-informed statements.

  5. Jenny Moody

    I’m a little confused about how this statement matches up with Dr Olm’s unambiguous comment of Sep 11 (and I quote directly from her twitter account) when she said “No one is suggesting that we stop referring to Anglo-Saxons in archaeology or an historical context”, making it quite clear that the only intention was to change the name of a learned society?

    What has changed?

    The reference to the ‘medieval’ words ‘Anglo-Saxorum’ and ‘Anglo-Saxoria’ is very odd. The first is admittedly a word, but it’s really the genitive plural of Lat. saxum (stone), which was also used as an occasional non-standard genitive of the plural term ‘Saxones’, i.e. ‘Saxons’ (the genitive was usually ‘Saxonum’). The normal usage is reflected in Bede and other writers, when they refer to the ‘gens Anglorum et Saxonum’ ‘the people of the Angles and Saxons’ who came to inhabit the island of Britannia.

    Isn’t the medieval and modern usage ‘Anglo-Saxon’ simply a convenient way of shortening the expression ‘gens Anglorum et Saxonum’? The term Anglosaxones was not used very often, but it was used over a great spread of time from the eighth century to the eleventh, and then later on too, both by writers and rulers in England, and by foreign observers. So it’s disingenuous to say that it was not used, and had no significance. It’s equally disingenuous to suggest that the term ‘English’ was used by anybody to refer to the peoples who lived in England before the time of Bede: when he used the term Angli, he did so to make a point. We simply don’t know what the peoples who inhabited the lowlands of the island of Britain between the fifth century and the time of Bede — or indeed much later — called themselves. The term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ remains useful now — particularly in Britain — not because people there need to invest anything in the idea of an Anglo-Saxon race, but because they understand the word. Also because many of the various medieval people who spoke Old English and its precursors, and who adopted forms of material culture that we conveniently refer to as ‘Anglo-Saxon’, to distinguish them from other period to which the term ‘early English’ already attaches, did not live in places that are now part of England. There’s absolutely no need to believe in the Anglo-Saxons as a race. Nor indeed any reason to think of the Angles or Saxons as ‘tribes’ as is suggested here. But the term will remain helpful to many, because it is one that many people understand in a way that has nothing to do with race, but to do with the culture of peoples who lived in certain places at a certain time in history. All of the terms we could use are political and anachronistic and misleading. It is the job of historians to keep on explaining people how they are misleading.

    As for this word Saxoria. Where on earth did that come from?

  6. I ain’t a scholar on Early English studies, but I follow this area of research as much close as I can.

    The terms “Early English”, “Englisc” and “Anglecynn” for instance are all misused as well by English Nationalist people and are in no way “clean”.

    However as a South American, I think this discussion is quite appropriate given the historical background of the English-speaking colonisation of the American continent. Not sure if it’ll help, but I think that the term “Germano-British” should be a good option as well, since it also includes the Celtic influence (often discredited although all the first kings in the Early English kingdoms had Celtic names) in the making of the Germanic culture of Britain.

    The termo “Anglo-Saxon”, for most part, excludes at least two other peoples known to have taken part in the settlement of Britain: Jutes and Franks. By the way, the Jutes were in fact the first ones to establish a stable kingdom in Britain and the area is still the main political centre of Britain to this day, so it seems to me a bit inappropriate to exclude them in favor of the other peoples involved n the making of the Germanic culture in Britain.

    These are of course the opinions of an amateur, and any mistakes are gladly accepting any needed corrections. However, I still think that “Germano-British” is a good name as “Romano-British” as well.

  7. One of the weakest “historical” articles I have read for a long time! The other comments have nailed perfectly almost all of the actual historical issues with her article, but I have more general concerns. She is correct insofar as “Anglo-Saxon” has been used out of context and sometimes by racists, but to suggest it has no historical merit is absurd. To talk about it as an invention of Colonialism, and to link Colonialism almost exclusively to England (not Britain, never mind all the other equally white – dominant European empires of the era) is just bad history. Her suggestion the term should be replaced, rather than a staunch defence and correction of its appropriate use, shows the desperate and emotionally misguided nature of liberal revisionists with less respect for accuracy and more for the overreaction of some tender sensibilities. To throw out any term that causes offence because of misuse, rather than correct its use for preservation, is a dangerous precedent when people can be offended at almost anything! True students of this topic understand the correct connotations of the expression and should not censor themselves but educate those that are wrong. Censorship will not defeat extremism, but correct education will.
    As a side note, all credibility in my eyes for this article was lost when a picture of Hitler as a Crusading Knight was used in an article which never mentions Nazism, but only alludes to racism and genocide alongside the aforementioned incorrectly restrictive British and American imperialism comments. This is misguided and inflammatory, never mind being out of context – making historically incorrect and dangerous associations between Nazi Germany and England (who, even at the height of its *British* Empire, can hardly be compared by an sensible academic to the industrialised and organised horror of Nazi Germany, and certainly not without mention of other Empires and their serious crimes too).

  8. Ernesto Alejandro González Hernández

    Unavoidingly whenever we use a word or term, we load it with significance and intentions. There is no doubt that white América defines herself as Anglo-Saxon despite the fact her inhabitantes are also of German, Welsh, Scottish, Irish, Scandinavian, Italian, French and other European or even African and Latino descent. The fact is that the elite of power extracts a good portion of its ideological and cultural hegemony aswell social legitimacy from a false and mythical concept: the WASP, which is also a religious discriminatory term.

  9. Geraint Britton

    Interesting to compare the Anglo saxon attitude of how the celtic inhabitants have been labelled by the invaders….
    Welsh in frisian/low German signifies foreign (ie Walnut) and was used by the nazis as a label for what they perceived as inferior cultures (somewhere there’s a propaganda image, made just after the nazi occupation of Paris, of a giant broom sweeping away the eiffel tower, a cockerel, some cubist painting and musical scores, with the title Hinaus mit den Welschen kultur!). Most Welsh people /Cymraeg don’t know what Welsh actually means.

    • Hob Headless

      It was “HINAUS MIT DEM WELSCHEN PLUNDER” (roughly “Out with the romance-speaker’s (French) plunder”) and it was on a poster by Alfred Spaety which was specifically in regards to Alsace-Lorraine (not Paris) telling the Alsatians to reject Frenchness and embrace being part of Germany (as they were traditionally German speakers and seen as Germans by Nazi Germany). “Welschen” wasn’t a stock-term used by the Nazis for groups seen as inferior (a category that didn’t include most Western Europeans, including the Celtic language speakers), it was a German language term (that became derogatory) for Romance Language speakers and remains as such in Swiss German (where it doesn’t have the derogatory connotations).

  10. The modern English people are native to England and decended from angles and saxons, as well as Britonnic peoples( that makes us native Britons). We can’t be removed from our heritage for being racist, it just means people of our heritage are racist.

    Maybe we’re not much related to the stone age peoples that came before the Brittonic, but frankly this is a daft hoop to go through, blood purity was always iffy and gets used to remove people from their cultures in various ways. Other native groups interbred and replaced each other also.

  11. I find myself puzzled by this debate. I suppose that for people who support the change, their view is analogous to those wanted to eliminate the word Aryan as a linguistic classification. Originally, it didn’t mean anything racial–at least I don’t think so– but now, the racist overtones are so strong no one can separate them from the word and its original meaning.

    I can’t help but wonder, though, how morally consistent people are prepared to be. George Washington owned slaves. Should we rename the nation’s capital? I think the case is stronger for renaming the capital than for renaming ISAS. After all, why should African-Americans pay to maintain a city named after an oppressor? People don’t have a choice about taxes. They do have a choice about joining a scholarly organization.

    What do we do about Burundi or Rwanda, where hundreds of thousands were killed in racial conflicts. Probably, some of these racists used names like Tutsi and Hutu in their slogans, racist chants, or whatever. Should the use of those names be restricted?

    In Northern Ireland, people on both sides of this divide committed unmistakably cruel acts against the other side. Often, their victims were unarmed women and young children. What names are we going to ban? Remember, this is also an ethnic dispute between the Irish and people descended from Scottish colonists.

    After the rape of Nanking, what Japanese ethnic labels should no longer be used?

    I am not totally insensitive to the desire to remove “Anglo-Saxon” for the same reason that I understand why many people would not use “Aryan” except in highly specific and limited contexts–perhaps to explain Nazi ideology to students.

    Still, I wonder what universally applicable guidelines there are in this matter. Would these guidelines apply only to “Anglo-Saxons” or whatever you want to call them, or would they apply to everyone equally?

    Still, racism and oppression are, alas, seemingly universal.

  12. What interesting & civilised comments. An interesting debate & I do not think a new one I am sure I have read about this decades ago. I never particularly liked the term Anglo-Saxon, & There have always been complexes of identity. If you had asked a 7th century person in Kent or Northumbria what nationality they were, would it have even been a meaningful question to them? Would it have been different in the same places 200 years later?

    If ethnicity is a cultural category then it can be acquired & relinquished Wolfram was where I discovered the idea of “ethnic genesis” in his book about the Goths. This reminds me of some university debates where they have buildings named after historical people with what are now considered problematic views. Why not just Use numerical of alphabetical labels?! Any label can eventually be problematic. Ancient people’s tended to call themselves by names that were geographical or that ‘bigged’ themselves up, & use disparaging names for neighbours.

    I would add that I find the term ‘racist dogwhistle’ a tad emotional! Is this is a debate where historians & archaeologists diverge?

  13. Nigel Callaghan

    I’m impressed that you can write a lengthy article on the people of the Southern British Isles in the post-Roman period without using the words ‘Welsh’ or ‘Cymry’. We know from various sources, including recent DNA studies, that the invaders did not wipe out the indigenous people and drive them to pockets in the west. They took control, they intermarried, but much of the genetic material of the inhabitants of eastern and southern ‘Angle-land’ was (and still is) Brythonic.

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