Ideas Empires Featured Racism

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

Anglo Saxon Attitudes
David Abulafia
Written by David Abulafia

Cambridge University Press has seen fit to change the name of its esteemed historical journal Anglo-Saxon England because the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ apparently has racial connotations. David Abulafia defends a name that has entered every aspect of our culture and discusses the sophistication and diversity of Anglo-Saxon England.

[A shorter version of this article appeared in The Daily Telegraph on 11 May 2024]


No one who visits the Sutton Hoo gallery at the British Museum ever forgets the magnificent artistry of our Anglo-Saxon predecessors. We may think of the fourth to the tenth centuries as a ‘Dark Age’, ruled by crude barbarism and marked by economic collapse, but the gold and bejewelled treasures that they left behind are spellbinding.

The Sutton Hoo Excavation in 1939

This is why it is regrettable that a distinguished journal that dominates the study of the Anglo-Saxon history, literature and art, simply and inoffensively entitled Anglo-Saxon England, is to be renamed by its no less reputable publisher, Cambridge University Press, under the bland new title Early Medieval England and its Neighbours. Journals of this sort establish themselves as leaders in their field over a good many years, and name recognition matters, especially when ghastly research assessment exercises and promotions committees want to see that academics are publishing their work in ‘top-ranked’ journals. There has been a hue and cry about the term Anglo-Saxon because white supremacists in the United States have mobilised it as a racist variant of the term Aryan. If that is the reason for the change, then I have a simple piece of advice: don’t let bigots and bullies determine how you behave. We have seen the same problem when complaints have been made about the use of the English flag on St George’s Day, and even the Union flag has been ignorantly disdained because of its misuse by our thankfully very small parties of the Far Right.

Other factors come into play. Among historians and archaeologists there is increasing unease about the use of ethnic labels, which are thought to be intrinsically tainted by the possibility of racism. I recently reviewed a book by the Oxford classicist Josephine Quinn that refused to call the ancient Etruscans by that name; they were ‘Etrurians’, people who simply happened to live in what is now Tuscany. That is to forget their language, unrelated to any other, and customs that were regarded as distinctive by their contemporaries. Any suggestion of broad ethnic cohesiveness generates suspicion in an academic world where the fantasies of Critical Race Theory find racism under every ancient stone. So let’s accept that the Anglo-Saxons were a mélange, Angles and Saxons and Jutes from a wide arc of coastline stretching from the Netherlands to Jutland. Let’s accept that they intermarried on a large scale with the Celtic Britons and other hangers-on from the days of Roman Britain. That is certainly what Susan Oosthuizen, a Cambridge archaeologist, thinks in her little book The Emergence of the English, published in 2019. She rejects what she calls the ‘apartheid model’ of Anglo-Saxons dominating a multitude of conquered Celts, while many Celts escaped the Germanic invaders by fleeing westwards to Cornwall, Wales and Cumbria.

If the English are the product of a fusion between the invaders and the native Britons, that only underlines the fact that the term Anglo-Saxon is no longer a racial label but a cultural one. The invaders did impose their language and rejected Christianity, which had gained a hold in Roman Britain. But the magnificent treasures found at Sutton Hoo in 1939 indicate that Christianity was making inroads by the early seventh century, not long after the Jutish king of Kent accepted baptism from the first archbishop of Canterbury. Thereafter Anglo-Saxon culture flourished in a myriad of ways: English monasteries produced startlingly beautiful manuscripts and Anglo-Saxon literature flowered, including rich alliterative poetry; its cultural ties extended to the royal courts in France and Germany. King Alfred is the only English king to be known as ‘the Great’, not just for holding his own against Danish invaders but for his patronage of learning. The Anglo-Saxon kingdoms merged, divided and merged again, but out of their rivalries emerged a large and wealthy kingdom, rich in wool sent to the looms of Flanders, and therefore highly attractive to waves of Viking raiders, followed in 1066 by William, duke of Normandy, himself of Viking descent.

The Alfred Jewel, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford

The desirability of this kingdom reflects the high standard of artistic production, learning and prosperity that by the eleventh century had few rivals in northern Europe. Moreover, its legacy has been extremely powerful. The English language acquired a good deal of its vocabulary from Latin and French, but at its root lies the Germanic speech of the Anglo-Saxons. If we dispense with the Anglo-Saxons, what happens to the name of England, the country of the Angles, or Essex and Sussex, territories of the Saxons? (And what happens to the titles ‘Duke and Duchess of Sussex’?) Can we talk any longer of the Anglophone countries? Others, like the Russians, will in any case mockingly continue to refer to the British as Anglosaksy. Meanwhile Cambridge University’s famous Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, packed with many of the leading experts in this very field, becomes what? Cambridge University Press would do well to acknowledge that its headquarters are in East Anglia. It is far better to accept that this was a particularly flourishing and fascinating period of this island’s history. It deserves a proper name, and it already has one.

About the author

David Abulafia

David Abulafia

David Samuel Harvard Abulafia CBE FSA FRHistS FBA (born 12 December 1949) is an English historian with a particular interest in Italy, Spain and the rest of the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages and Renaissance. He spent most of his career at the University of Cambridge, rising to become a professor at the age of 50. He retired in 2017 as Professor Emeritus of Mediterranean History. He is a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge.[2] He was Chairman of the History Faculty at Cambridge University, 2003-5, and was elected a member of the governing Council of Cambridge University in 2008. He is visiting Beacon Professor at the new University of Gibraltar, where he also serves on the Academic Board. He is a visiting professor at the College of Europe (Natolin branch, Poland).

He is a Fellow of the British Academy and a member of the Academia Europaea. In 2013 he was awarded one of three inaugural British Academy Medals for his work on Mediterranean history. In 2020, he was awarded the Wolfson History Prize for The Boundless Sea: A Human History of the Oceans