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The end of “Anglo-Saxon”?

The rebranding of Anglo-Saxon England is senseless and silly

My first (and, to date, only) academic publication focused on a Biblical commentary by the tenth-century monk Ælfric of Eynsham, a man whom, at least until recently, everyone would have described as an “Anglo-Saxon” without a second thought. Unsurprisingly, then, “Anglo-Saxon” crops up in that essay rather often. One of the journal’s reviewers was moved by this to offer me a note of caution. “We definitely do not have a policy on using or avoiding the term Anglo-Saxon”, I was assured; but “given recent debate”, and the fact that the journal “addresses a readership on both sides of the Atlantic”, I should ponder carefully whether I really wanted it there.   

I chuckled when I read this: the reviewer probably did not know that I was in fact a contributor to this “recent debate”, having written an article defending “Anglo-Saxon” for The Critic a few months prior. Of course I had to stand my ground, and my Ælfric article remained pleasingly un-censored. Still, I confess, I was surprised that the matter had been raised at all. I had naïvely thought that, by the summer of 2023, the Great Anglo-Saxon Debate had more or less subsided, and that the sounder arguments had won out. In fact, I worried that my Critic article had arrived too late, and been a pointless, if cathartic, exercise in dead-horse-beating.  

The activist high noon of 2020 had long passed; the world appeared to be a little more sane. The skies, I thought, were peaceful. The case against “Anglo-Saxon” was so logically absurd, so systematically dishonest about the historical record, that — with all my faith in the marketplace of ideas — I thought that it had been crushed.

Moreover, the principal agitator against “Anglo-Saxon”, Dr Mary Rambaran-Olm, had retreated from academic life in an “act of resistance”, as she grandly called it on her blog. She now appears to spend most of her time knitting — a hobby inspired, she says, by Audre Lorde’s claim that “selfcare is an act of political warfare” — and tweeting sympathetically about Hamas.

Grendel and his mother may have been vanquished, but still the dragon remains. My celebrations had been premature. Even in Britain — where many Anglo-Saxonists have honourably tried to decolonise their subject from American obsessions — the bad and bad-faith arguments were once again making an impact.

Yesterday the war recommenced. Since its foundation in 1972, the journal Anglo-Saxon England, published by Cambridge University Press, has been the most prestigious in the field. After building up that strong reputation, it has now taken on a new, less elegant, name: Early Medieval England and its Neighbours. The rebrand, its ironically Anglocentric name notwithstanding, promises a “broader approach” and “interdisciplinary scope” alongside the “same high quality” as Anglo-Saxon England. Few who are familiar with the journal in its former guise would accept the implication that Anglo-Saxon England was ever lacking in “breadth” or “interdisciplinarity” (whatever this actually means).   

It is of course striking that Cambridge University Press has not been clear about their intentions behind this rebrand

It is of course striking that Cambridge University Press has not been clear about their intentions behind this rebrand. It is obvious that their move from “Anglo-Saxon” to “Early Medieval England” is a political act, a capitulation to Mary Rambaran-Olm and her coterie. If the people behind the rebrand thought that this was a defensible position to take — if they thought that it could be rationally supported — they would surely have made an effort to present that case, rather than feebly evading the issue altogether.

Why has such a change been made? It is possible that the great and the good of Anglo-Saxon studies in Britain have genuinely been convinced by the force of Rambaran-Olm’s shoddy arguments. But I doubt it. It is more likely — as Dominic Sandbrook put it — that they are simply “drips” who “lack the courage to say no to a handful of mad Americans”. Or, to cast it in a slightly more charitable light, that they are anxious that, without the rebrand, Anglo-Saxon England would struggle to address an audience on both sides of the Atlantic. 

But this in itself would be an abdication of scholarly responsibility. One should not be browbeaten into accepting something that one knows to be false — in this case, that the term “Anglo-Saxon” is intrinsically racist — whatever the external pressures. As this new journal, Early Medieval England and its Neighbours, has already caved to such pressures, we can hardly expect it to uphold the “same high quality” for which Anglo-Saxon England was justly known. 

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