The Massachusetts Medievalist thinks about the power dynamics of “Anglo-Saxon”

Like all medievalists who work in English studies, the Massachusetts Medievalist has been thinking a lot about the term “Anglo-Saxon” and its current usages in academic medieval studies and in culture more broadly defined. Two Medium columns chronologically bookend the current discussion:  Mary Rambaran-Olm‘s in June 2018 and Catherine Karkov‘s on 10 Dec 2019. Between the two, much has happened politically, culturally, and academically: other scholars have weighed in on various blogs and one group of largely UK medievalists has issued a public statement about the “responsible use of the term Anglo-Saxon.”  White supremacists on both sides of the Atlantic have continued their love affairs with medievalist imagery and a supposedly pure, white, patriarchal European past (a situation well summarized by Michael Wood). Throughout, I’ve been contributing to the online debate via email and twitter when I thought I could make a constructive point, and trying to support my colleagues.

I’ve also been musing about the linguistic power dynamics embedded in this call to move away from usage of “Anglo-Saxon” as a term for the language and cultures of England before the Norman Conquest of 1066 (no, it’s not a “ban,” as some UK scholars have called it – who would enforce it? how?).

Many of the generally acceptable terms used in professional discourse to describe race and ethnicity have changed dramatically over the last 100 or so years.  “Colored” (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, established 1909) gave way to “Negro” (United Negro College Fund, established 1944), which was superseded by “Black” (the Black Studies department at San Francisco State, founded in 1968), and then by “African-American” (National Museum of African-American History and Culture, established 2003). “Oriental” and “Asian” demonstrate a similar trajectory. There are multiple examples of this sort of linguistic change from other fields as well: disability studies, gender studies, etc.

Unlike these sorts of gradual and widely accepted linguistic changes, the debate about “Anglo-Saxon” centers on a term used to refer to a dominant rather than a marginalized group.  A change from “Anglo-Saxon” to “early English medieval” entails radical, linguistic de-centering of a form of whiteness constructed during British Imperialism and American Manifest Destiny in the second half of the nineteenth century.  A major and unacknowledged part of the resistance to retirement of the term “Anglo-Saxon” is opposition to a change advocated by the marginalized (scholars of color, early career researchers, graduate students) not just TO but also ABOUT the controlling group (who overwhelmingly are “Anglo-Saxon” in the way the term is used outside of medieval studies: i.e. white). Rather than seeking for change in the way a marginalized group is described in normative discourse (that’s “women,” not “girls”), this change challenges the self-identification and position of white scholars in the implicit linguistic hierarchy of the field.

Enactment of this change by white academics would then confirm momentum away from an entrenched, traditional academic power axis towards an expansive diversity of colleagues and of research interests. I’m urging my white colleagues to edit “Anglo-Saxon” out of course descriptions, course titles, lecture slides, research drafts, social media, and general conversation: those seemingly small, individual changes will accrue to move “Anglo-Saxon” firmly onto the list of outdated racial and ethnic terms as we move towards a more inclusive and global medieval studies  – and that, after all, is the ostensible goal of all parties in the debate over “Anglo-Saxon.”

One Reply to “The Massachusetts Medievalist thinks about the power dynamics of “Anglo-Saxon””

  1. The recent publication of the Staffordshire Hoard constantly uses the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ I am not clear what would be achieved by replacing it with something else.

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