Post ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Melancholia

Catherine Karkov
Dec 10, 2019 · 6 min read

In After Empire: Melancholia as Convivial Culture, Paul Gilroy asks whether Britain will ever come to terms with the lost glories of its past and move beyond its melancholic desire for that past and the racial anxiety of the present. (He was hopeful, but that was before Brexit.) He locates the invention of race and racial hierarchies in colonialism and empire, and sees a transgenerational trauma in the nation’s failure to truly acknowledge the violence and racism of the British Empire. I ask whether — or, more hopefully, when — those of us who study early medieval England will ever be able to move beyond the loss of ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Studies and the deep-seated racial anxieties that have come to the surface with its loss. Gilroy’s and my questions are related because ‘Anglo-Saxon’ Studies developed in the context of and alongside the rise of the British Empire in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Its methodologies, classifications, and way of thinking about the English, the English language, the island of Britain, and the pre-1066 past, developed side by side with the idea and image of the empire. In fact, as numerous scholars have shown, it was used to provide historic justifications for that empire and its racism. It provided the fiction of a ‘pure’ English past and its often equally fictitious institutions (trial by jury, the navy, a proto-parliamentary system of government) alongside the idea that the English were in some way a chosen people.

The idea that the English were a chosen people has its origins in Gregory the Great and the accounts provided by the anonymous author of the Whitby Life of Gregoryand by Bede of the pope’s encounter with a group of Angle English-speaking boys in the Roman market. The wordplay of the conversation that followed constructed the boys as angelic and their language and land as inherently blessed by God. In fact, it located their chosen nature specifically in their language (which allowed the wordplay between Angle/angel and so forth) and in their whiteness (their fair skins or white bodies). Bede’s text was studied and edited throughout the nineteenth century with Charles Plummer’s authoritative edition appearing in 1896. Though it was admittedly not a generally popular work, historians such as Sharon Turner, whose History of the Anglo-Saxons, appeared between 1799 and 1805, claimed direct links between the moral and intellectual qualities of the ‘Anglo-Saxons’ and those of the modern English. This scholarly rediscovery of Bede and translation of other early medieval texts allowed the English, as well as the colonial Americans who saw themselves as their direct descendants, to carry these ideas with them into the modern world and into their colonies.

All this is, or should be, familiar ground to those who study early medieval England and I rehearse it here simply in order to reiterate how inextricably tied to racism and racial hierarchies the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is in English history and culture, and to reemphasize that this is not just an American issue. It may not carry exactly the same racist implications that it does in the US with its settler colonialism WASP culture, but it is equally racially charged, in fact arguably more so. For Benjamin Thorpe, like Turner one of the so-called fathers of ‘Anglo-Saxon Studies’, the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ tongue was a weapon with the strength of iron and the beauty of burnished steel. John Mitchell Kemble, the first to translate the Beowulfinto modern English, saw the poem as a direct link back to ‘our’ ancestors, and used his translation to cast the poem as a national narrative and reimagined the nation in the image of the poem. On both sides of the Atlantic Beowulfwas translated and adapted for children as a text that could instil in the young imperialist values, nationalist pride, racism, and a myth of heroic masculinity. At the same time, while archaeological discoveries allowed for greater precision in understanding the chronology and complexity of early medieval Britain, they were also deployed as the foundation for the racism and ethnicism of such pseudoscientific fields as eugenics and craniology. In Joseph Bernard Davis and John Truman’s Crania Britannicaof 1865, the size and shape of skulls and other skeletal features were used to liken the medieval Britons (especially the Welsh) to contemporary African and ‘Oriental’ peoples, all of whom were lacking in social and technological sophistication. The implication was that the historic colonisation of the Welsh provided just cause for the colonisation of other lands and peoples in the modern world. The deeply racist Charles Kingsley conveyed his belief in the moral and religious superiority of the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ people in his popular novels Hereward the Wake: Last of the English(1866) and Westward Ho!(1855), the title of which became a catchphrase for settler colonialism and manifest destiny in the US. It is dedicated to the Rajah Sir James Brooke and George Augustus Selwyn, Bishop of New Zealand, who he felt carried ‘That type of English virtue, at once manful and godly, practical and enthusiastic, prudent and self-sacrificing’.

Given this history, it is impossible to claim, as do some, that the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is free of racist meaning in the UK. It is impossible to claim that it represents some objective (if there could even be said to be such a thing) field of scholarship, or that because it became popular in the nineteenth century as a more geographic and ethnically diverse term than ‘Saxon’ that it should be retained in the twenty-first century. On the one hand, no one has called or is calling for a taboo or ban on the use of the term in specific historical contexts; on the other hand, given its history and its modern popularisation in the context of imperial nationalism and racism is there any argument for retaining it? Thorpe and his shining ‘Anglo-Saxon’ linguistic sword weaponised the term long before it was appropriated by contemporary white supremacists or identified as a sign of the racism, oppression, and white privilege of an academic field. The claim that those who continue to use the term are not directly responsible for wrongs committed in quite different contexts is ultimately untrue. As scholars we are well aware by now of the racist roots of our field and the term that supposedly describes our discipline and the people we study, and we should be well aware that in retaining the term we are complicit in perpetuating this harm As Gilroy demonstrates, England is still a country of postimperial melancholy and racist anxiety — a state that seems only to have gotten worse since he wrote — and the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is very much at the heart of ideas of empire, of what is lost but cannot be given up. The term cannot be separated from its racist past and the violence it helped to justify, nor from its racist implications today, nor from the violence committed by those who in their academic defence of the term incite attacks on their colleagues. The petition signed by a group of (largely) UK academics arguing for retention of an (arguably) historically precise and critically aware use of the term is now circulating amongst white supremacists as an academic endorsement of their views.

As medievalists of colour have amply demonstrated, the term is exclusionary, preventing students from entering a field in which they cannot feel included and preventing those who do enter it from being considered serious colleagues. Promoting retention of the term has served only to endanger the careers, well-being, even lives of those (many, if not most, of whom are PhD students and early career researchers in vulnerable positions) who have so cogently made clear that the term is racist. Even pre-1066 use of the term was limited and was exclusionary label for what was a much more ethnically complex culture. Most importantly, however, to value an outdated term over the lives and careers of colleagues is both absurd and horrific. It is a clinging to the past that remains stubbornly blind to the racism of the past and its direct connections with the racism of the present. It is also another proof, as if we needed one, of the toxicity of so much of contemporary academic culture especiallyin the UK. The way we define and study early medieval England needs to change, dismantle its racist structures and language and start again. Gilroy found hope in the ‘convivial’ and subversive artistic culture that was emerging in cities across the UK; I find hope in the convivial and subversive interventions of those students and scholars who are fighting for a more just, inclusive, and egalitarian medieval studies.

  • * I would like to thank Mary Rambaran-Olm and Erik Wade for discussion of these issues.
  • ** For further discussion of ‘Anglo-Saxonists’, nationalism and empire see Joshua ‘The Middle Ages as Property: Beowulf, Translation, and the Ghosts of Nationalism’. postmedieval10.2 (2019), 137–50; Donna Beth Ellard, Anglo-Saxon(ist) Pasts, postSaxon Futures (Punctum Books, forthcoming); Catherine E. Karkov, Imagining Anglo-Saxon England: Utopia, Dystopia, Heterotopia (Boydell &. Brewer, forthcoming).

Catherine Karkov

Written by

Medievalist, Art Historian

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