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OPINION | JONATHAN DAVIS-SECORD: The real history of Anglo-Saxons

The term, fast becoming controversial, is associated with two centuries of white supremacist ideology. by JONATHAN DAVIS-SECORD THE WASHINGTON POST ILLUSTRATION BY JOHN DEERING | May 2, 2021 at 8:36 a.m.

When news leaked that Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.,), among others, was planning an “America First” caucus, with its plan to return to “Anglo-Saxon political traditions,” many observers understood that the term “Anglo-Saxon” revealed the group’s ideology as racist. Even House Republican leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) called out the “nativist dog whistles.”

Those whistles were so loud, they led to a strong and swift backlash. Plans for the caucus soon crumbled, with Greene blaming her staff for poorly preparing it, but the damage was done, and the term “Anglo-Saxon” was trending.

This is by no means the first time “Anglo-Saxon” has been used to invoke and support white supremacy. The term has carried racial connotations since its inception, and it has been inextricable from modern white supremacist ideology for the better part of two centuries.

Indeed, many groups have used a distorted historical image of “Anglo-Saxons” to glorify an imaginary all-white past, and to naturalize white rule and fear of people of color.

The reality of the “Anglo-Saxons” was quite different. The historical peoples often known collectively as the Anglo-Saxons lived in England during the early Middle Ages, roughly 400-1100 CE. Ironically, those Anglo-Saxons were themselves mass immigrants. Coming to England in several distinct groups from different parts of continental Europe in the fifth century, they fought alongside the Britons against other Celts on the island.

Soon after, however, they broke their mercenary agreements with the Britons, brought in more immigrants from their original homelands, and effectively conquered all but the areas now known as Wales, Cornwall and Scotland. In the next few centuries, the several small kingdoms founded by these invaders became prominent players in medieval Europe.

They were also early globalists, participating in the extensive trade networks that spanned from Scandinavia to southern Asia. They imported ivory from Africa, garnets and cowrie shells from India, and even Islamic coins.

Early medieval England produced influential intellectuals like the Venerable Bede, whose works helped define the educated culture of Europe for centuries to come. They also welcomed church leaders from Africa and the Levant, such as Hadrian and Theodore.

Although these kingdoms waged a great deal of warfare throughout England, rarely did they pursue conflict beyond the island, preferring instead to develop economic, religious and intellectual connections internationally.

The term “Anglo-Saxon” was rarely used at the time in England. They did not see themselves as a unified race, and actually were a motley collection of different peoples competing with each other. The kingdoms shared a language now known as Old English, but they spoke different dialects, warred with each other, and sometimes allied with native forces to get an edge over each other.

Partially in response to Viking attacks in the 800s, these kingdoms eventually began to unify politically, but England came fully under Danish control soon after 1,000 CE. Then, in 1066 CE, William, Duke of Normandy, conquered the island and brought a certain end to the early English period.

The Anglo-Saxon label that first appeared shortly before 800 CE in continental Latin works as a way to distinguish the English speakers in England from the distant relatives they had left in what are now Germany and Denmark. The label had not yet developed its overtly racist connotations at this point, but it nonetheless distinguished peoples in a way that built into modern racism.

The majority of the term’s appearances in early documents within England itself occurred again in Latin texts, where it indicated expanded royal control over the previously separate kingdoms of the Angles, the Saxons and several other segments of the island’s population. Specifically, King Aethelstan (d. 939 CE) was described in charters at the end of his life as “emperor of the Anglo-Saxons and Northumbrians, governor of the pagans and defender of the Britons.”

Those Angles and Saxons—and their kingdoms—were distinct, and the other kingdoms of English speakers (not to mention Wales, Scotland or Danish settlements) were certainly left out of the term’s coverage.

For centuries after the Norman conquest in 1066, however, the label fell out of use almost entirely.

It was another 700 years before the Anglo-Saxon label came into widespread use, and it was at that point that it began to morph into a justification for white supremacy. Early medieval English law codes had been resources for anti-monarchist arguments in Early Modern England, and early Americans adopted that approach too.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, wanted to construct a connection between the new white-dominated democracy and an “Anglo-Saxon” heritage. In the 19th century, at the height of British colonialism in Asia and Africa and of U.S. ideas of manifest destiny and continental conquest, the term became more popular for differentiating white colonists and culture from the people they were subjugating.

As Britain imposed control over more parts of the globe, they used the term to justify seizing power from people of color. For example, British phrenologist George Combe wrote that colonial expansion in India could only be explained by the racial inferiority of Hindu people, who were “utterly unable to contend against a mere handful of Anglo-Saxons.”

As white settlers in North America displaced Native Americans, invaded Mexico and expanded slavery to the west, they became preoccupied with notions of racial identity and superiority, and with keeping power in white hands.

For example, in describing an expedition to expand Texan control over what is now New Mexico, journalist George Kendall wrote that Mexicans were animalistic, “and so they will continue to be until the race becomes extinct or amalgamated with Anglo-Saxon stock.”

The idea that white Americans sprang from some imagined Anglo-Saxon heritage flowers anew in moments of mass immigration or perceived threats to white dominance, such as civil rights gains for non-white Americans. For example, in the 1920s, Ku Klux Klan materials claimed to support “Anglo-Saxon” forms of government, and the U.S. passed restrictive immigration laws grounded in eugenics theories.

The term “Anglo-Saxon” was also adopted by academics studying early medieval England as the discipline developed in the late 19th century, and the study of the Old English language was then conflated with study of an “Anglo-Saxon” racial heritage. These racist connotations were often ignored as the 20th century progressed, yet their exclusionary violence never disappeared.

Scholars of color in the field routinely face aggressive questioning from white colleagues who asked with disbelief what possible interest a person of color could have in early medieval England. Scholars of color have been working against this barely hidden aggression for decades, and they have suffered for it, being silenced, attacked and sometimes forced out of the profession.

It was only at the urging of scholars of color in September 2019 that the professional organization once called the “International Society of Anglo-Saxonists” underwent self-reflection over its name, a process that revealed the field’s continuing rancor and exclusionary barriers.

Ultimately, the group changed its name to become the “International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England,” but only after bitter debate and the loss of many members. Academic use of “Anglo-Saxon” continues, but at least awareness of its past and present connotations is increasing.

In the end, the obvious racism of America First’s use of Anglo-Saxons doomed the idea for the caucus, but that racism is not new, and it looks to be repurposed once again. The continuing use of the Anglo-Saxon label perpetuates popular misinterpretations of the past and strengthens contemporary racism.

Ironically again, the Anglo-Saxon invasion of England prefigures the threat that white supremacists now imagine impending at the U.S.-Mexico border. They fear a modern version of the supposed “race replacement” that they think took place in early medieval England, except they consider the medieval version acceptable because of the invaders’ white skin.

The culture, literature and history of early medieval England are fascinating and important subjects of study. But understanding the reality of early medieval England also reveals the falsity of modern invocations of “Anglo-Saxon” heritage.

The rich and marvelous literature, art and intellectual achievements of early medieval England came out of a diverse and fragmented society shaped by waves of migration and invasion, not by a homogeneous whiteness. We should study that real past, but not to justify white supremacy or a fantasy of a white paradise in medieval Europe.

Jonathan Davis-Secord is an associate professor of English at the University of New Mexico.

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