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In light of recent discussions about the term ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ and the debate around the name of the International Society for Anglo-Saxonists, I have decided to change the name of my blog. Some thoughts on the matter follow below.
On the terms ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxonist’
One of the few contemporary uses of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’: a twelfth-century copy of a tenth-century charter of Athelstan “ongolsaxna cyning” [king of the Anglo-Saxons]
For me, the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has always referred to those people who spoke a Germanic language (Old English) and hailed from the British Isles, roughly between 450 and 1100. This is how the term is generally used in the United Kingdom: in schools (e.g., this BBC-website aimed at 7 to 11-year-olds), museums (e.g., the recent ‘Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms‘ exhibition in the British Library) and heritage locations (e.g., the awesome West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village). In scholarship on the period, the term is commonly used with reference to archaeology, art, sculpture, manuscripts, numismatics and so on – i.e. to refer to the non-linguistic cultural artefacts made by the speakers of Old English. To my knowledge, this is also the way the Dutch cognate ‘Angelsaksisch’ and the German ‘angelsächsisch’ are generally used. In my own scholarship and on this blog, I have also used the term in this way. For me, an Anglo-Saxonist is a scholar of the language, literature and culture of the inhabitants of pre-Conquest England.
The usage of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon/Angelsaksisch/angelsächsisch’ described above stands out compared to English usage elsewhere, as has been expertly pointed out by an article by Dave Wilton (available here) as well as various Medievalists of Colour (see the Twitter account @Isasaxonists for relevant updates and links). The term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has been appropriated and used by various white supremacist groups (including the KKK) to further their misguided ideological agenda and, given that context, the use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in medievalist scholarship is problematic for those for whom ‘white supremacy’ is one of the first and foremost connotations. These negative connotations of the term are also found in the secondary sense of the word ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ in the Oxford English Dictionary: “A person who believes in the importance or superiority of Anglo-Saxon language, people, or culture (past or present)” (the primary sense being “An expert in or student of Old English language, literature, and culture”).
As a result, various scholars have been (for years) proposing that the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists change its name to avoid these associations and become a more inclusive society by opening it up to those whose first associations with the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ are not necessarily early medieval.
For the Society, the aims and purposes of which are international and which should not want to ostracize a major part of the academic community, I support this name change, if only to avoid the association with the secondary sense of the OED entry. In order to avoid any misconception about my own moniker ‘Dutch Anglo-Saxonist’ and given the divisiveness of the term within my professional field (for an impression, see this blog by Howard Williams), I have decided to change this as well: my website will henceforth continue under my own name [update: for a short while, I considered the moniker ‘boaring medievalist’ but that did not feel right].
Should we stop using the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ altogether?
Clearly, the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has negative connotations in some contexts. Does this mean we should do away with the term entirely? In the current debate about the name of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists, good arguments have been brought forward for both shunning and holding on to the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ to refer to the Germanic speaking people who lived in Britain in the early Middle Ages. I am leaning towards the latter.
One particular problem is the absence of an unproblematic alternative. Some of the alternatives offered thus far are either imprecise (‘Medieval North Atlantic’ and ‘Medieval Insular’ cover more than ‘Anglo-Saxon’) or have similarly been misappropriated by racists groups and/or seem more apt for literary and linguistic purposes (variants with ‘English/England/Englisc’). Introducing a wholly new term (e.g., ‘Anglo-Germanic’) may have some advantages, but also disadvantages – it may render the field unrecognisable to the outside world (which damages possibilites for successful outreach and means fewer chances at research funding) and, eventually, if the new term does gain traction it is likely to be misused as well.
In addition, there is a rich tradition of scholarship that uses the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’: The Corpus of Anglo-Saxon Stone Sculpture, the Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts in Microfiche Facsimile series, Gneuss and Lapidge’s Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts, Gale Owen-Crocker’s Dress in Anglo-Saxon England, Elisabeth Okasha’s Hand-list of Anglo-Saxon Non-Runic Inscriptions, etc., etc., etc. The term is so ingrained in the study of this field that it is hard to do without it: if we want our students to build on prior scholarship, they will have to be taught that the meaning of the word ‘Anglo-Saxon’ depends on the context in which it is and has been used.
When I discussed the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with my MA students on Friday (we were discussing words that change meaning depending on context), one of them said ‘we should put up a fight and claim back the term!’. A valuable opinion and I think this is also where I stand. It would indeed be a shame to ‘surrender’ the terminology because it has been appropriated by hate groups. In fact, I think this fight is indeed taking place and I am encouraged by the successes of the Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition at the British Library, the ‘Anglo-Saxon History and Language‘ Facebook group (14k members) and TV series such as Michael Wood’s King Alfred and the Anglo-Saxons and various documentaries on the Anglo-Saxons by Janina Ramirez, which all encourage a wider audience to associate the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ with the amazing art, language, literature and culture of the early medieval speakers of Old English. I can only hope that my own use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ on this blog thus far has had the same effect and will do so, moving forward.
At any rate, this blog will continue under my personal name. I intend to continue blogging about the languages, cultures and histories of Anglo-Saxon England in the early Middle Ages.