As racism row rumbles on, is it time to retire the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’?Roundup
tags: racism, British history, Anglo-Saxon
Michael Wood is professor of public history at the University of Manchester. He has presented numerous BBC series, and his books include The Story of England (Viking, 2010)
There are storms buffeting the world of Anglo-Saxon studies. Like the narrator of the Old English poem The Seafarer, many scholars are feeling battered by “dire sea-surges” and “bitter breast cares”. And the waves are coming from across the Atlantic. In the United States the academic Anglo-Saxon studies establishment, white-dominated and long perceived as excluding of BAME scholars, is now facing a backlash. The first target is the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS), a body predominantly concerned with Old English literature and culture, which over the last 35 years has done a great deal to further knowledge of the pre-Conquest period but which now stands accused of institutional racism. Recently, one of its vice presidents, a woman of colour, resigned describing the field as “rife with antiquated views – prestige, elitism, sexism, racism and bigotry – which have seen many good people leave the field”. On 19 September, after a torrent of recriminations on social media, ISAS announced that it will poll members on a change of name.
But the argument is about much more than a name. And it is by no means an issue confined to the US, though there it has gathered a particular intensity. American critics of ‘Anglo-Saxon studies’ feel the subject is by definition racist, that it has never escaped its roots in 18th and 19th-century colonialism when ‘Anglo-Saxonism’ in both the USA and Britain was used to endorse white supremacy. The slave-owning Thomas Jefferson, after all, founded the republic on imagined Anglo-Saxon roots, based on laws supposedly lost in 1066. This latter-day Anglo-Saxon commonwealth would come to be summed up in the acronym WASP – White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant – a code for racial purity that white supremacists and neo-Nazis have embraced. And this situation, critics allege, is still implicitly underwritten by a white academic establishment that has failed to move with the times and embrace diversity, both in appointments and ideas.
Some US medievalists believe we have already reached the point where reclaiming ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is not possible. Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm, whose resignation from ISAS triggered the current crisis, put it to me: “It’s not about ‘taking back’ the term. We have lost it, and for students of colour in medieval studies, the term carries racist connotations that don’t represent who they are.”
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