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  • What Do We Mean by Anglo-Saxon?Pre-Conquest to the Present
  • David Wilton

As an undergraduate majoring in Government and Law at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania in the 1980s, I regularly passed by the dedicatory plaque in the lobby of the Kirby Hall of Civil Rights, a building built in 1930 and funded by one of the co-founders of the Woolworth's retail chain. The plaque reads, in part, "To provide facilities for instruction in the Anglo-Saxon ideals of the true principles of constitutional freedom, including the right of man to own property and do with it as he will."1 Even as a politically naïve eighteen-year-old I recognized the racially problematic nature of this use of Anglo-Saxon, and the faculty and staff had recognized it too, artfully positioning a bulletin board so the plaque was obscured from casual view. To read the plaque, one had to walk around and step behind the bulletin board. Today the field of medieval studies, and in particular the subfield that studies pre-Conquest England, faces the same problem with the term Anglo-Saxon. In this article I will provide evidence from linguistic corpora for what is often known or assumed from anecdotal experience: that the term is an identity label associated with whiteness and is often the self-identification preferred by white supremacists. While few, if any, professional medievalists today would associate themselves with such racist views, the continued use of Anglo-Saxon by those in the field perpetuates and lends legitimacy to those views. Furthermore, by continuing to use it we place the literary and historical study of the period into a silo of national identity that is, partially at least, also defined by origins, race, and ethnicity.2 This association of Anglo-Saxon with racial and national identity has created expectations for who is welcome in the field of pre-Conquest studies. As Mary Rambaran-Olm has noted, "the field has traditionally been represented by white people and unsurprisingly still attracts mostly white students due to the field's [End Page 425] inherent whiteness."3 And Daniel Remein has written that, "For most English speakers in North America, Anglo-Saxon means white. . . . Anglo-Saxon Studies is facing a problem of how this field itself is raced, which conditions not only our capacity to think about race in early medieval Britain, but also how students' and scholars' very bodies enter the field."4

While the use of Anglo-Saxon is problematic, the use of Anglo-Saxonist as a label for professional medievalists who study the period is even more fraught. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) gives two definitions of the term, both dating to the nineteenth century: "an expert in or student of Old English language, literature, and culture" and "person who believes in the importance or superiority of Anglo-Saxon language, people, or culture (past or present)."5 Not only is it easy to perceive the first definition as lending support and legitimacy to the second, but such a perception is justified by the history of the field of pre-Conquest studies. This problematic nature of Anglo-Saxon, and especially Anglo-Saxonist, was the impetus behind the 2019 decision of the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists to change its name.6

The use of Anglo-Saxon as an ethnic identifier is also reinforced by the use of Anglo as a standalone term or in hyphenates to refer to people of white or, in colonial and postcolonial contexts, mixed-race descent. In his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson uses Anglo-American to refer to Anglophones living in what is now Canada, and the standalone Anglo to refer to an English-speaking resident of Upper Canada is in place by 1800. Anglo-Indian meaning a British resident of India appears by 1805 and meaning a person of mixed British and Indian ancestry by the 1830s. And Anglo referring to English-speaking Americans, in contrast to Latin Americans, is in place by the 1840s with the expansion of American territory into that which had belonged to Mexico.7 These uses continue to be widespread in present-day vocabulary, lending legitimacy and strength...


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