Please don’t erase the Anglo-Saxons
It’s official. The Anglo-Saxons are getting canceled.
The move comes more than 1,000 years too late for the previously ascendant Romano-British who couldn’t resist these Germanic peoples who showed up on the shores of England beginning in the fifth century, but surely, they would appreciate the gesture.
As part of an effort to make its instruction more “anti-racist,” Cambridge University is going to teach students that identities such as Anglo-Saxon are “constructed and contingent.” The school’s Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic is hoping to “dismantle the basis of myths of nationalism,” and also is keenly aware of “recent concerns over use of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ and its perceived connection to ethnic/racial English identity.”
To be honest, the Anglo-Saxons have been living on borrowed time for a while now.
In 2019, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists — worried about their association with, yes, the Anglo-Saxons — changed their name to the International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England.
The change came after Mary Rambaran-Olm, the group’s second vice president, resigned and denounced the organization for allegedly encouraging white supremacy. As The Washington Post put it, the group effectively conceded that “‘Anglo Saxon’ is code for whiteness.”
There is no doubt that the term has been used by malicious and ignorant people over the years to make racist arguments and promote a simplified or outright false version of early English history. But that doesn’t mean the Anglo-Saxons didn’t exist or the term must be banished.
For all that the “woke” scholars warn against anachronisms, they should be careful not to imply that the Anglo-Saxons came to England wearing white hoods. To simplify, the island’s defenses weakened after the Romans exited and tribes of Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived and established dominance, although they’d subsequently be involved in desperate struggles for survival against Viking invaders.
The term Anglo-Saxon isn’t exactly a neologism. The authoritative book by Nicholas J. Higham and Martin J. Ryan, “The Anglo-Saxon World,” notes that it was in use by the eighth century, when writers on the continent apparently used it to distinguish between Saxons in England and those back on the continent. King Alfred the Great, one of the important figures in English history, called himself the “king of the Anglo-Saxons.”
The opponents of the term argue that it was nonetheless used infrequently by the Anglo-Saxons. Okay, but how often did the Anglo-Saxons refer to themselves as “insular Saxons,” a term that is proffered as more accurate and less problematic? (The terms “Saxons” and “Angles,” by the way, were used quite a lot at the time.) And if “Anglo-Saxon” is allegedly too white, does “early Medieval English,” another allegedly better phrase, evoke a kaleidoscopic multiracialism?
The Anglo-Saxon ascendancy ended in 1066, when the last Anglo-Saxon king, Harold, suffered a devastating defeat at the hands of the Normans, who were notably brutal and, one must say, as white as the Anglo-Saxons — but “Anglo-Norman” hasn’t become politically incorrect.
The Anglo-Saxon contribution to English history isn’t merely incidental, as Higham and Ryan write.
The name England means “land of the Angles.”
The Anglo-Saxons gave us the most foremost language in the world, English, which derives from Old English or Anglo-Saxon.
They unified what came to be England as we know it, while the English monarchy dates to the Anglo-Saxon period.
The same is true of English Christianity, with the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons beginning in the sixth and seventh century.
The Anglo-Saxons set out the shires that were the units of local government until the lines were redrawn in the late 20th century.
What the academics hostile to their own field of study want to do is take a term that is readily recognized, broadly understood, and generates public interest, and replace it with something more obscure for no good reason.
It doesn’t require a gauzily romantic view of the Anglo-Saxons to conclude that they deserve better than today’s self-loathing Anglo-Saxonists.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Rich Lowry is on Twitter @RichLowry.