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by Ed West
Monday, 2
December 2019

There’s nothing taboo about the Anglo Saxons

The latest controversy over the term 'Anglo-Saxon' ignores their significant history
by Ed West
Has Alfred the Great now been cancelled too?

Of all the tribes running around Europe at the end of the Roman period, no two have had as great a legacy as the Franks and the Angles. The former were so successful that theirs became a generic name for Europeans across the world, so that in the Vietnam War local people would refer to American soldiers as firangi; a century earlier the British in India were called firangi and the Portuguese in China the folangji while Europe is Farangistan in Persian and syphilis was in Arabic al-‘aya al-afranji, the Frankish disease.

The Angles, meanwhile, not only gave their name to one of Europe’s major countries but also to a somewhat related ethnic group in an entirely different continent thousands of miles away.

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The Times reports today that dozens of historians have written to defend the term “Anglo-Saxons”, which some academics want removed because it is “bound up with white supremacy”. Last month the same paper reported that:

In a membership poll at the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists in September 60 per cent voted to remove the Anglo-Saxon reference from its name. The society said that the term had ‘contributed to a lack of diversity among those working on early medieval England’. But disgruntled members, mostly from the UK, argued that the term Anglo-Saxon or a variant should continue to be used.
- The Times

Historian Tom Holland, one of the 61 signatories, tweeted at the time, “The term ‘Anglo-Saxon’ is inextricably bound up with the claim by Alfred to rule as ‘rex Angul-Saxonum’, his use of Bede to back-project a shared Anglian-Saxon identity and the emergence of England. Scholars of medieval history must be free to use it.”

Sad, Alfred the Great has been cancelled then.

“Anglo-Saxon” is a pretty exact historical term to describe the people of England between around 400 and 1066; it’s a useful phrase, unlike for example “white supremacy”, which is used so liberally as to be meaningless. ‘White Anglo-Saxon Protestant’ is a useful term in a 20th century American context, especially in the period before white Protestants, Catholics and Jews began to intermarry at very high rates. More recently ‘Anglo’ has come to mean just a generic white non-Hispanic person; so like “Frank”, the term is applied to different people in different contexts.

Sure, many American “Wasps” were once proud of their Anglo-Saxon heritage; Thomas Jefferson wanted the seal of the President to commemorate “Hengist and Horsa, the Saxon chiefs from whom we claim the honor of being descended, and whose political principles and form of government we have assumed.”

That would be fairly problematic today, I imagine, because high-status Americans now find that sort of ethnic pride distasteful, if not outright proof of moral deviancy.

Although ironically Hengist and Horsa (if they actually existed) were actually Jutes, the third Germanic tribe who invaded Britain but rather lost out in the whole naming-of-England thing. Still, it could be worse; they could be Vandals, I suppose. There’s an entire culture and history there, but you sack Rome once and no one forgets it.

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