Identity Politics

By Michael Angerer

The peaceful world of medieval studies is hardly well-known for sparking Twitter wars or making front-page news–and yet here we are. A quarrel of seismic proportions has shaken the foundations of the field as academic usage of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ has come under fire for its potentially racist connotations. It has long been a commonplace to refer to England’s ‘Anglo-Saxon’ past when discussing the early Middle Ages, even as right-wing nationalist groups also happily make use of such terminology. As a result, early medieval studies are now at the centre of a debate striking at the very heart of English identity. Perhaps wisely, many medievalists have chosen not to involve themselves in the controversy at all. While there can be no question of settling the issue in a single article, one cannot help but acknowledge how the debate has highlighted the pertinence of the study of the European Middle Ages to today’s culture and politics. There is nothing particularly new about the uneasy relationship between early medieval scholarship and the nationalist ideologies that seek to misappropriate it. The current controversy, however, began in September 2019 at a the RaceB4Race conference in Washington, D C, when Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm, then Vice President of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS), gave a speech denouncing the inherent racism of the field and resigned from her functions with the society. Further resignations followed. Initially, this was meant to draw attention to wider issues of elitism, sexism, and racism in the field, and particularly the slow rate of change within ISAS itself. But what quickly came to dominate public discussion was the question of whether using the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ was still appropriate in an academic context. In the US, the world of academia has seen a series of rows and accusations on social media, often peppered with racist abuse and personal attacks. Now, the issue has crossed the pond.

The argument put forward by those who would like to see an end to the term has several layers. The problem is in part that various right-wing movements routinely appropriate the word to denote an idealised white ancestry; they use their medievalism to divide society, all the while presenting a serious threat to the public perception of early medieval studies. More importantly, however, it is argued that the term never had any legitimacy at all. It is indeed true that ‘Anglo-Saxon’ was only infrequently used throughout the period that is today saddled with the label. It only really gained traction from the 16th century on, as English antiquarians began to reconstruct the history of pre-Conquest England. As one might expect, this handy designation then became a staple for imperialists and nationalists in the 18th and 19th centuries, who relied on an idealised vision of the past to justify their ideology. This is as true for Thomas Jefferson, who aspired to build a nation on imagined ‘Anglo-Saxon’ roots, as for the Victorian veneration of King Alfred. Scholarship has changed a lot since the 19th century––but parts of the ideological baggage cling on.

By now, some institutions in the field of early medieval studies have decided to respond to the controversy. Rambaran-Olm’s departure from ISAS prompted the organisation to vote on changing its name. The motion in favour of a change passed, even though at the time no alternative name had yet been found; the society is now known as the International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England. Meanwhile, some American journals have updated their style guidelines to discourage the use of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in scholarly articles. The face of medieval studies in the US is changing as the field attempts to present itself as more inclusive. So far, however, this debate has not been followed by the same transformation in the UK and Europe. It is not that the term has no political weight at all in England: in 2017, Henry Bolton, then leader of the UK Independence Party, was still openly deploring the disappearance of the ‘indigenous Anglo-Saxon population’ on talkRADIO. But it’s true that approaches to issues of race and class often differ between the US and the UK, and this matter seems to be no exception.

It is not just right-wing parties fearing for their imaginary cultural heritage who would like to retain the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’, but also some specialists in the field. The Forum for Multidisciplinary Anglo-Saxon Studies, for instance, was established in late 2019 to advocate a ‘responsible use’ of the term. Its carefully-argued open letter has to date been signed by 71 academics from across the UK and various universities across the globe. On the one hand, they acknowledge the political implications of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ in the US; on the other hand, however, they argue that this designation is perceived quite differently around the world––notably in England, where a discussion of the early medieval period is part of the National Curriculum for history. The signatories see their point further strengthened by the fact that the term was indeed used for political and cultural purposes from the eighth century on. As a result, the letter encourages scholars to reclaim a term that has by now come to acquire a very specific meaning in archaeology, history, art history, and palaeography. Whether the forum’s stated aim of preventing further ‘destructive divisions’ will be realised is, however, yet to be seen.

Nevertheless, there is an important issue that this discussion has already managed to bring to the fore: that a careful examination of terms we take for granted is in itself useful and, indeed, necessary. The uncritical use of terms linked to national identities can be particularly problematic, especially when it encourages their instrumentalisation by political groups—the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ problem is merely a case in point. But here is an area where medieval studies can assert their place in modern society: as a way to problematise and question the emergence of such terms, and as a way to undercut the simplistic understandings of history and culture that political groups use to shelter themselves from historical realities. Only in this manner will it be possible to bring out into the open the many problems that surround contemporary notions of cultural identity. The roots of such notions frequently reach back into the Middle Ages—and if medievalists do not publicly address such processes of cultural formation and their inherent problems, who will?

Another example underscores the necessity of critical examination, mostly because it is an example of a missed opportunity. ‘Anglo-Saxon’ was not the only important yet questionable term in 19th century scholarship of the European Middle Ages: another central term was ‘Germanic.’ Of course, there are some differences. For one, ‘Germanic’ had far less basis in historical and vernacular documents; at the same time, it was employed much more overtly for ideological purposes and with much graver consequences. In any case, it played a crucial role in constructing a common ‘Germanic’ past and identity for the people of Northern Europe, particularly among German scholars. In fact, this sense of ethnic and cultural unity was such that Karl Simrock’s 1859 edition of Beowulf bore the subtitle Das älteste deutsche Heldenepos, ‘the oldest German heroic epic’. It is probably unnecessary to state how attractive such an ideologically charged term was to German politics in the first half of the 20th century. It was an attractiveness which scholars recognised, which led to the gradual demise of the term in some of the academic disciplines of post-war Europe.

Unfortunately, this demise was, in many ways, still purely academic. In literature, E G Stanley’s The Search for Anglo-Saxon Paganism (1975) set out to debunk romanticised notions of ‘Germanic’ culture and religion. Around the same time, historians such as Reinhard Wenskus began to seriously question whether the ‘Germanic’ peoples did in fact have a common ethnicity at all. Yet by and large, the term was simply dropped. The critical discussion of the term ‘Germanic’ never made it into popular consciousness. As a result, inaccurate notions of ‘Germanicness’ survive to this day in popular perceptions of the Middle Ages, and still make an occasional appearance in academic works. Even the Encyclopaedia Britannica still refers to Beowulf as part of ‘a heroic tradition grounded in Germanic religion and mythology.’ It should come as no surprise to anyone, then, that this term has resurfaced and is in fact in use by the very same groups that also insist on their ‘Anglo-Saxon’ heritage. What could have been an excellent occasion for medieval studies to challenge common misconceptions and make a difference in popular culture has passed too quickly and with too little notice.

And yet it is still possible to make a difference. Some may find it more inviting to forget about the millennium that so inconveniently stands between the golden age of Antiquity and the glories of the Renaissance––it is a common reflex to question the relevance of all things medieval. But, after all, it is the European Middle Ages that provided the formative stages of our cultural identities: this millennium saw the rise of vernacular languages throughout Europe, and the simultaneous coalescing of cultural and national identities. England is only one example, though a pre-eminent one, owing to the particularly early and widespread use of the vernacular. Mark Atherton has only recently charted the emergence of what may be called an English culture and political unity in the tenth century in The Making of England (2019). Somewhat similar processes may be observed in other European countries. This period gave us far more than just problematic terminology: it laid the foundations for the group identities which, in designations like ‘Anglo-Saxon’, ‘English’ or ‘French’ have partly persisted to this day.

Such a context also helps to make sense of early occurrences of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon.’ Its ideological underpinnings are in some way provided by the Venerable Bede, whose Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in the eighth century, gives an account of the migration of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes to Great Britain. In so doing, Bede set down a common past for the gens Anglorum sive Saxonum, the people of the Angles and the Saxons who were in his time united by Christianity. During the centuries that followed, this common migration myth remained important as a cultural factor: along with the rise of the terms Angelcynn and Englisc to designate the inhabitants of England, it appears to pave the way for the later instrumentalisation of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ by the kings of Wessex from the ninth century on. In the rare instances in which they called themselves king of the Angli Saxones, King Alfred and his descendants could draw on this common past to conjure up a common culture and lay claim to the overlordship of all of England. Above all, what we see is that this kind of cultural identifier does not emerge in an ideological vacuum: from the very beginning, its imposition is open to ideological critique.

In fact, there is no reason why such historical investigations should confine themselves to notions of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ identity. As stated above, the European Middle Ages saw the emergence of countless other national identifiers, all of which are open to questioning: ‘French’, ‘German,’ and not least ‘English’. Accordingly, some of the earliest-known examples of the former two languages have recently undergone reappraisal: the Oaths of Strasbourg, made in 842, contain pledges in Old French and Old High German between two of the heirs to the Frankish empire. It was long assumed that the different languages simply represented a cultural divide between the followers of the two princes. Yet Bernard Cerquiglini’s L’invention de Nithard (2018) underlines the role ideology played in assigning each group their own vernacular, even though the actual situation may have been closer to a merry sprinkling of different languages and origins across both camps. To presuppose linguistic or cultural unity on this basis alone is questionable at best. As for the vexed question of Englishness, it is effectively a direct extension of the problem of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ origins. The Old English term for ‘English’ survived the Norman Conquest, only to reappear in rather confusing circumstances in Layamon’s Middle English version of the History of the Kings of Britain. Suddenly, we are confronted with an occasional distinction between Saxons on the one hand and the Ænglisc people on the other, who may or may not include the Celtic Britons and the Normans. As always, the terminology is neither stable nor precise, and seems to vary according to ideological implications.

This all remains particularly relevant in the current political climate, as far-right parties across Europe successfully channel fears of displacement. At least in the political mainstream, those who shy away from openly ethnic nationalism can still find safety in cultural nationalism, which champions the preservation of a specific culture rather than an ethnic group. And too often, confused notions about the origins of European identities still help to fuse both culture and ethnicity. As a result, cultures are presented as immutable communities whose origins are lost in the Dark Ages. Those right-wing groups who like to think of themselves as the last Anglo-Saxons are merely the most visible part of a much wider trend. The ready availability of national identifiers, such as ‘English’ or ‘French,’ makes it easy to imagine oneself as being part of a fixed group that has always existed. Even more than notions of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ purity, such cultural assumptions have become the last ideological defence against all forms of migration and cultural change. And until such assumptions of stability and immutability can be destabilised and transformed, they will continue to be used in this way. It is easy for us to base our identity on simplistic conceptions of our cultural history. It creates the illusion that these categories are historically stable, and it makes for a comfortable past into which we can retreat. But it is a false sense of stability, and one too often and too easily misappropriated. It is up to scholars of the Middle Ages to retrace the gradual emergence of European cultural identities and the terms by which they are designated. To expose their shifting ideological origins is to make visible the ideological dimension of current conceptions of identity. A look back in history is all it needs to undercut the notion that identity or culture is rigid and objectively defined. When political actors deploy the cloak of national culture, it is the study of the Middle Ages that allows us to unmask the fixed terms seeking to negate the inherent instability of group identity.


MICHAEL ANGERER reads English and French at Oriel. He prefers not to dwell on the fact that he probably reads more dead languages than he speaks live ones.


Art by Isabella Lill

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