Anglo-Saxon

Update: Friday, 13 September 2019

The University of Illinois Press has given permission for me to post a pre-publication copy of the paper which will appear in an upcoming issue of JEGP (tentatively October 2020, 119.4).

A pdf of the paper can be downloaded from here.


[Note: I have a forthcoming article in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology (JEGP) on this topic which goes into much greater detail. I am posting this summary to correct some misinformation about the term Anglo-Saxon, its history, and its present-day usage that is currently circulating. Contrary to what others have said, the term is overwhelmingly used as a contemporary racial or ethnic label rather than as a reference to the historical, pre-Conquest period. This racial usage is also prevalent in other academic fields where Anglo-Saxon is used to mean “white.”

The information presented here is based on a study of corpora of usage, including the:

  • Dictionary of Old English Web Corpus
  • Oxford English Dictionary Online (OED)
  • Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH)
  • Corpus of Middle English Prose and Verse (CoME)
  • Middle English Dictionary
  • Corpus of Early Modern English (CoEME)
  • Corpus of Historical American English (COHA)
  • Hansard Corpus
  • Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA)
  • Strathy Corpus of Canadian English
  • Corpus of News on the Web (NOW)

My study is of English-language and medieval Latin usage only, including present-day use in countries where English is not the predominant language. I have not studied how the term is used in other present-day languages, such as Spanish, French, and German.]

What sparked my interest in the usage of Anglo-Saxon was an off-hand remark at the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS) 2013 conference in Dublin. At a reception at the British embassy, the host, the chargé d’affaires at the embassy, quipped that when they had been first approached to host the group, they had to do some background research to determine whether or not ISAS was some sort of white supremacist organization. The remark, made in jest, is a succinct summation of how the name affects how those outside the field view us and what we do.

Anglo-Saxon is a label that essentially carries three broad meanings, one quite racially charged. The first meaning is a historical one, referring to the Germanic peoples who settled in England starting around the year 450 C. E. The second meaning refers to contemporary white people in general, and this sense often carries a connotation of white supremacy. The third sense is that of a transnational identity, referring to the predominantly English-speaking countries and their cultures, politics, and economics.

In contemporary North American speech, the explicitly racial uses of Anglo-Saxon make up some 66% of all uses of the term, with the third cultural sense making up about 12%. So some 78% of North American uses of Anglo-Saxon are as a contemporary marker of identity, usually racial or ethnic. Only about 22% are references to pre-Conquest England, its people, or its language.

Most other nations exhibit similar numbers. The exception is Britain, where the numbers are reversed, and about 75% of the uses are historical references to the pre-Conquest period. This is undoubtedly due to the British public’s interest in national history (newspaper articles about archaeological finds, etc.). But even in Britain, about 25% of the uses are in the context of a contemporary identity label, and Anglo-Saxon is often used to distinguish the English from the Welsh, Scots, or Irish.

These present-day numbers have not significantly shifted since the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit referendum. The racial implications of the term are not new; this has been the situation for decades.

Historically, the people of early medieval England did not refer to themselves as Anglo-Saxons. Their preferred term for themselves was English (Englisc). Those living on the Continent at the time did refer to the English as Anglo-Saxons, distinguishing the Saxons living in England from those living on the Continent. The first person known to have used the term was Alcuin, who, writing in Latin, refers to Northumbria as Anglorum Sax[o]nia, or Saxony of the English. Alcuin, himself a Northumbrian by birth, was not being precise in his ethnic distinctions, as Northumbria was an Anglian, not a Saxon, kingdom.

Shortly after Alcuin wrote this, Paul the Deacon used the term in his Historia Langobardorum to refer to the people directly. Like Alcuin, Paul the Deacon was probably not being specific as to the ethnicity of the Anglo-Saxons, referring generally to people living in England. Other Continental writers also used the term in their Latin writings.

But the term is remarkably absent in English writing of the period. Anglo-Latin writers only used the term in royal titles. But in these titles Anglo-Saxon has a very specific and limited meaning. It refers only to the union of the kingdoms of Wessex (Saxon) and Mercia (Anglian) under Alfred the Great and his successors—and primarily his son Edward, for about half of these extant titles are in reference to these two men. For instance, in one charter (Birch 746) Æthelstan is referred to as:

AngulSexna and Norþhymbra imperator, paganorum gubernator, Brittannorumque propugnator

(Emperor of the Anglo-Saxons and Northumbrians, governor of the pagans, and defender of the Britons)

Note that Northumbrians, i.e., Angles, are not considered Anglo-Saxon here. And Britons refers to Celtic peoples, and pagans refers either to Danes or is used as a catch-all term for anyone else living in what is now England.

But these uses are in Latin. There are only three uses of Anglo-Saxon in the extant Old English literature. Two of these are in royal titles, like the one above, and one is in the macaronic, tenth-century English-Latin-Greek poem bearing the modern title Aldhelm:

Ealdelm æþele sceop etiam fuit
ipselos on æðele Angolsexna, byscop in Bretene

(Aldhelm, a bishop in Britain, he was also exalted as a noble poet in the land of the Anglo-Saxons)

It’s not exactly clear what the land of the Anglo-Saxons refers to here. Aldhelm (c. 639–709) was of the Wessex royal house, and it could refer specifically to the kingdom of Mercia-Wessex, or given the Latin elements in the poem, it could reflect the Anglo-Latin titular and Continental uses of the term. In any case, it’s clear that Anglo-Saxon was not a term that those living in England prior to the Norman Conquest applied to themselves.

Anglo-Saxon disappears in insular writing, both Latin and English, following the Norman Conquest, but it is revived by William Camden in his 1586 Latin Britannia. And in 1589, following Camden’s lead, George Puttenham used the term in English in his The Arte of English Poesie:

I meane the speach [...] so is ours at this day the Norman English. Before the Conquest of the Normans it was the Anglesaxon, and before that the British.

Puttenham’s work, which was widely circulated and read, led to others using the term in this historical sense.

Up until the end of the eighteenth century, all the uses of Anglo-Saxon were in historical references to pre-Conquest England. But in 1794 we get the first use of the term in a contemporary context, distinguishing the legal system of England from that of Scotland. It appears in the transcript of the March 1794 sedition trial of the political reformer Joseph Gerrald:

The doctrines which I have advanced are founded upon the great and immutable principles of reason and of truth; that they are the sentiments of the most revered writers, Locke, Sydney, Jones—that even Mr. Pitt and the Duke of Richmond formerly professed to act upon them; that they are perfectly congenial to the spirit of the Anglo-Saxon government, and not in a great degree differing from the principles of the old constitution of Scotland.

The racial sense of Anglo-Saxon is in place by the 1830s. Rufus Choate, speaking in the U. S. House of Representatives on 13 June 1832 said:

The whole circle of the plain, substantial, and useful arts, trades, and branches of manufacture, which characterize the judicious and practical industry of the Anglo-Saxon race of men, wheresoever upon earth they may be found.

This racial sense has become the predominant one throughout the Anglophone world, with the exception of Britain. In North America, fully two thirds of all present-day uses of Anglo-Saxon are in the sense of “white.” This includes mainstream news media and in other academic fields. For example, here is a quotation from a 2004 issue of the magazine American Heritage that equates “Anglo-Saxon” physiognomy with the epitome of beauty:

Michael Jackson’s grotesque metamorphosis is the most celebrated and egregious but by no means the only example of this trend. But the ability to reinvent ourselves physically raises the old question of authenticity [...] most aesthetic procedures are designed to enable the patient to pass as something he or she does not feel, whether it be younger or sexier or more Anglo-Saxon than accidents of nature and birth have determined

Not only does the author of this piece use Anglo-Saxon as an adjective to describe ethnic features, she connects them with Jackon’s cosmetic surgeries with their racial implications. She equates “Anglo-Saxon” physiognomy with the epitome of beauty and non-whites who attempt to achieve this are “grotesque.” This passage is by no means unusual.

It is not simply white supremacists who use the term in this way. Academics in other fields understand the term to mean “white,” and the percentages of usage in academic journals mirrors that of broader, more mainstream sources—even with medievalists overwhelmingly using it in the historical sense. For example, there is this 2011 use from the journal American Indian Quarterly:

Instead of the term “colonialism,” we might refer to the workings of the ideology of Manifest Destiny and the interests of Anglo-Saxon supremacy that it promotes.

The continued use of Anglo-Saxon by medievalists invites misunderstanding about our research and our motives by our colleagues in other fields.

The third sense, a not explicitly racialized sense referring to the politics, economics, law, and culture of Anglophone nations, dates to at least 2 March 1877, when it was used in a speech by William Vernon Harcourt in the British House of Commons about the legality of naval blockades:

Upon that subject there were two distinct schools—the Continental, and what he should call the Anglo-Saxon, as the English and American writers were not divided on the subject.

While not explicitly relying upon a racial or ethnic distinction, this third sense does carry an implicit racial connotation, and it is a marker of contemporary identity. In political science and in economics it is common to refer to Anglo-Saxon capitalism, to distinguish the economic policies of the U. S. and Britain from those of the Continent. In Israel, Anglo-Saxon is used to refer any Anglophone Jew, regardless of country of origin, a usage that has been in place since at least 1951.

Those who use the term in “Anglo-Saxon” studies should be aware that most people, including most academics in other fields, do not use or understand the term in the way we do. The term is generally viewed as a synonym for “white.”

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