Ed West Ed West

The plot to erase the Anglo-Saxons

An Anglo-Saxon coin depicting Coenwulf King of Merica (photo: Getty)

Sea-thieves messenger, deliver back in reply,
tell your people this spiteful message,
that here stands undaunted an Earl with his band of men
who will defend our homeland,
Aethelred’s country, the lord of my
people and land. Fall shall you
heathen in battle! To us it would be shameful
that you with our coin to your ships should get away
without a fight, now you thus far
into our homeland have come.
You shall not so easily carry off our treasure:
with us must spear and blade first decide the terms,
fierce conflict, is the tribute we will hand over.

So speaks Byrhtnoth, hero of the poem ‘The Battle of Maldon’, telling of an epic clash of arms in Essex against Viking raiders in 991.

Essex derives from ‘land of the East Saxons’, one of many geographic legacies of the two main Germanic tribes who arrived in Britain as Rome fell. Just to the north was the region which had once been the Kingdom of the East Angles, the other major grouping in the invasion of the fifth century (the poor Jutes, smaller in number, rather get overlooked).

Ethelred, the rather hapless ruler whose policy of paying off the invaders became an eternal lesson in bad policy, was the great-nephew of the first ruler to unite the people long referred to as ‘Anglo-Saxons’, and who by the time the poem was written had a sense of themselves as one people.

The Anglo-Saxons lost that great battle, with Byrhtnoth heroically slain, and the only original manuscript was destroyed in the Ashburnham House Fire of 1731, although a copy was found much later, so that most of the poem has been saved. His people famously suffered a far greater catastrophe the following century when defeat outside Hastings in Sussex (land of the south Saxons) led to foreign rule and the suppression of their language. Today, though, the Anglo-Saxons face a new humiliation at the hands of a force far more insidious than the Normans – North American academics.

Just as the once vanquished Vikings returned in force during Ethelred’s time, sensing weakness, so the assault on the Anglo-Saxons has begun again, with Cambridge last week renaming its Anglo-Saxon England journal ‘Early Medieval England and its Neighbours’. Dominic Sandbrook, for one, was not impressed.

As Samuel Rubinstein writes in the Critic: ‘Since its foundation in 1972, the journal Anglo-Saxon England, published by Cambridge University Press, has been the most prestigious in the field… The rebrand, its ironically Anglocentric name notwithstanding, promises a “broader approach” and “interdisciplinary scope” alongside the “same high quality” as Anglo-Saxon England. Few who are familiar with the journal in its former guise would accept the implication that Anglo-Saxon England was ever lacking in “breadth” or “interdisciplinarity” (whatever this actually means).’

The battle began in 2019 when Canadian academic Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm, two years earlier elected vice president of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS), where she called herself a ‘woman of colour and Anglo-Saxonist’ in her victory speech, resigned her position on account of its supposedly racist name.

That year, sensing the approaching longships, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists voted to change its name to the International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England, ‘in recognition of the problematic connotations that are widely associated with the terms “Anglo-Saxon”’. The society concluded that the name ‘has sometimes been used outside the field to describe those holding repugnant and racist views, and has contributed to a lack of diversity among those working on early-medieval England and its intellectual and literary culture.’

Dr Rambaran-Olm later declared that the field of Anglo-Saxon studies is one of ‘inherent whiteness’, and wrote in the Smithsonian magazine that: ‘The Anglo-Saxon myth perpetuates a false idea of what it means to be “native” to Britain.’

In response, in December 2019, several dozen scholars wrote a letter defending the use of Anglo-Saxon, declaring that

‘The conditions in which the term is encountered, and how it is perceived, are very different in the USA from elsewhere. In the UK the period has been carefully presented and discussed in popular and successful documentaries and exhibitions over many years.

The term “Anglo-Saxon” is historically authentic in the sense that from the 8th century it was used externally to refer to a dominant population in southern Britain. Its earliest uses, therefore, embody exactly the significant issues we can expect any general ethnic or national label to represent.’

Tom Holland, one of the signatories, wrote: ‘The term “Anglo-Saxon” is inextricably bound up with the claim by Alfred to rule as “rex Angul-Saxonum”, his use of Bede to back-project a shared Anglian-Saxon identity and the emergence of England. Scholars of medieval history must be free to use it.’

The Danegeld, however, had already been handed over, and as Rubinstein notes, Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm ‘retreated from academic life in an “act of resistance”, as she grandly called it on her blog. She now appears to spend most of her time knitting — a hobby inspired, she says, by Audre Lorde’s claim that “selfcare is an act of political warfare” — and tweeting… about Hamas.’

Rambaran-Olm claimed that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is an ‘ahistorical’ term because ‘The people in early England or Englelonde did not call themselves Anglo-Saxons.’ This idea is obviously popular enough that BBC Bitesize have repeated it, even though it’s not true; the earliest usage dates back as far as Paul the Deacon, writing in Latin in the eighth century and using it to distinguish them from the old Saxons on the continent.

Alfred the Great styled himself Angulsaxonum rex, and his grandson Athelstan, the first king of England, rex Angulsexna, as well as ‘emperor of the Northumbrians, governor of the pagans, and defender of the Britons’ (his nephew King Edgar had the even grander sounding title ‘Autocrat of All Albion and its Environs’).

What is bizarre, as Rubinstein pointed out, is that ‘if I were the sort of person to get irked by such things, as apparently Rambaran-Olm does, “England” would trouble me far more than “Anglo-Saxon”. The word “England” dates from the early eleventh century, in use for a generation that could have witnessed Hastings. To speak of “the Anglo-Saxons” for the period between the fifth and eleventh centuries is less “ahistorical” than it is to speak of “England”.’

Indeed, even had they not referred to themselves as Anglo-Saxons, it would still be a useful and meaningful term to describe a culture chiefly comprising the Angles and Saxons, and to distinguish it from the seismic cultural change that occurred after 1066. Several historical periods are commonly referred to by names that would have mystified the people who lived through it.

One of the more amusing justifications for referring to this period as ‘early medieval’ is that they didn’t call themselves Anglo-Saxon. Yet they certainly didn’t call themselves ‘early medieval’, medieval being a 19th century term that has its roots in the Renaissance invention of a ‘middle ages’.

If this all seems like a bizarre way to justify the overt politicisation of history, it is the inevitable result of the extreme imbalance that has developed in academia, one that has made the discipline far more moralising (and boring). Last year it was reported that ‘Cambridge is teaching students that Anglo-Saxons did not exist as a distinct ethnic group as part of efforts to undermine “myths of nationalism”. Its teaching aims to “dismantle the basis of myths of nationalism” by explaining that the Anglo-Saxons were not a distinct ethnic group, according to information from the department.’ The department explained that ‘several of the elements discussed above have been expanded to make ASNC teaching more anti-racist.’

Deliberately making a history course ‘more anti-racist’ is not scholarship, it’s activism. Of course, history is there to be used and abused, and always has been; as Rubinstein notes, ‘Rambaran-Olm’s article in History Workshop criticises those English Protestant Anglo-Saxonists in the sixteenth century who allowed political and theological concerns to interfere with their academic endeavours. Then, without any hint of irony, she states that “scholarly work, even historical studies, are never separate from current social and political realities”.’

Deliberately making a history course ‘more anti-racist’ is not scholarship, it’s activism

The Anglo-Saxons came to have huge historical importance to many Englishmen in part because of the Reformation, which both drove a new nationalism and also led to the rediscovery of many old works, including Asser’s biography of Alfred, due to the ransacking of the monasteries.

Anglo-Saxonism was tied up both with internal political battles within England, and its long early modern conflict with France. The Normans stood as perfect representatives of both an autocratic and faintly foreign upper class, and England’s chief enemy. 

Gerrard Winstanley, the leader of the Diggers, identified his band of radicals as inheritors of Saxon freedom, and in The New Law of Righteousness argued that: ‘Seeing the common people of England by joynt consent of person and purse have caste out Charles our Norman oppressour, wee have by this victory recovered ourselves from under his Norman yoake’. This was activism, too, promoting a mythical idea of Anglo-Saxon freedom which wasn’t remotely accurate – it was the Normans, after all, who abolished slavery in England.

American revolutionaries such as Thomas Jefferson would see themselves as descendants and political successors of the Anglo-Saxons, both in a political and racial sense. Jefferson was a keen student of the period and proposed that one side of the seal of the United States feature Hengest and Horsa, ‘the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honour of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.’ Thomas Paine warned that Americans under the British would be ‘ourselves suffering like the wretched Britons under the oppression of the Conqueror’.

As the United States came to become globally dominant, often working in tandem with its now junior partner and former mother country, ‘Anglo-Saxon’ came to be used as a term for the English-speaking nations, in particular by those who saw them as sharing common interests (such as Charles de Gaulle). Today it is still used by begrudging friends and enemies alike, including a Russian regime which has an outsized idea of Britain’s influence (one that sadly doesn’t reflect reality).

Of course, in America the term also came to be used in a different sense, to distinguish those of British and north-west European descent from more recent arrivals from south and east Europe, as well as other groups – and the modern unease on that side of the Atlantic stems from the country’s racial politics. Once ruled by racial narcissists like Jefferson, it is now dominated by a reactive feeling of racial masochism. But this co-exists with a sense of arrogance born of moral certainty, and progressivism in the world’s powerful nation has a sense of global mission that cares nothing for the rest of the world.

One American scholar argued against the use of this ‘clumsy’ term because ‘as a wealth of scholarship has shown, its cultural baggage – strong traditional association with white supremacy, past  and present  means that we today have an ethical decision… a majority of people, worldwide, associate the term with the idea of a “white race”. So I wouldn’t call myself an “Anglo-Saxonist” because white people isn’t what I study. I specialise in the oral and written culture, especially religious, of people who spoke Old English (Old Norse, Middle Welsh, Old Irish, Latin, etc). There were a lot of white people back then, but not all – I won’t erase the diversity that was there.’

Fine – if American progressives have an issue with their country’s English and European heritage, that’s sad, but that’s America’s problem to deal with. I’m not sure we should really care what the majority of people worldwide think of the term Anglo-Saxon, and neither should we be weighed down with other people’s baggage. To do so would be to accept colonisation.

Of course that cultural colonisation is long established, to the extent that Britain has adopted American ways of looking at our past, pushing a multicultural brand of pseudo-history which is comically untrue.

This is driven not just by American cultural dominance but by the most powerful force in the world – racial narcissism. People want the prestige of their group raised, and the thought leaders of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ world are happy to encourage them. The main reason that I don’t see the woke revolution turning back is because, as Louise Perry argued, the basic drive behind woke progressivism isn’t anything as complex and interesting as Marxist dialectics or even a mutated form of Christian piety, but ethnic narcissism. No serious academic really thinks that a ‘racialised’ term prevents people from studying a culture with which they have no ancestral connection, something which has been disproved by countless scholars down the ages. To accept that would be to normalise ethnic narcissism in a field inspired by a sense of universal curiosity.

Yet because ethnic narcissism and pride is a zero-sum game, such prestige-raising can only be done at the expense of others, so the groups not allowed to indulge in this competition are degraded, to such a point that we placidly allow the very name of our ancestors to be erased. The only thing that can push back against such a powerful moralising force is courage, and there doesn’t seem to be much around. What would Byrhtnoth have thought?

This article first appeared in Ed West’s Wrong Side of History Substack.

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