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Hating the Saxon: The Academic Battle Against The English Origin Story
Anglo-Saxonism, the post-war struggle against Germanic Studies and the new genetic revelations
On the 21st of September this year a paper was published in Nature purporting to have solved an ancient conundrum in English history, the origins and arrival of the Anglo-Saxons - the Adventus Saxonum. For most of the public this has never been a real debate - the English were formed through the mixture of pre-Roman Britons and the incoming Anglo-Saxon invaders and settlers. This narrative has been at the heart of Our Island Story for centuries, giving us our national language and character, the formation of the nation being forged through the tug-of-war between Norman and Saxon. But since WW2 there has been a scholarly rejection of this story, one taking on many forms and guises through archaeological and historical trends. This has ranged from arguments that the Anglo-Saxons were actually a very small elite band of warriors, to the wholesale dismissal that anyone arrived at all. Alongside this has come a critique that belief in a unique Anglo-Saxon mentality or race is fundamentally immoral and untrue, a colonial distortion of reality which underpinned the British Empire’s claim to superiority. This argument has found a mildly receptive audience in Anglosphere scholarship and its proponents have sought to ban even the term Anglo-Saxon from the academic lexicon. So, what is going on here? Why would the confirmation that England was founded by Germanic settlers be so contentious to so many researchers?
The Origins of Anglo-Saxonism
Up until the English Reformation the main national myth was largely focused on Brutus, the Arthurian era and the figure of King Arthur himself. With the break from Rome and the development of a separate English church, there was a hurried interest amongst scholars and antiquarians to uncover the roots of a unique English character, one which could shore up claims to a deeper and more legitimate form of Christianity. Archbishop Matthew Parker in particular was responsible for translating and updating works like the Saxon Homily on the Sacrament, by Ælfric of Eynsham, helping defend English Protestantism against its detractors. Both an interest in the English language and in promoting Anglo-Saxon liberties against the Norman yoke found a welcome audience amongst Tudor parliamentarians and Oxford scholars, laying the foundations for the conflict between Crown and Commons. Certainly, by the 17th century there was a growing consensus that the Anglo-Saxons were a people of exceptional liberty, who created free institutions and the common law, and who were later subjugated by the Normans. The Great Struggle through the use of Magna Carta, common law juries, Parliament and the Saxon spirit triumphed over autocratic foreign rule.
Alongside the flourishing of English antiquarianism came the fraternal connections to the Germanic peoples in general. Translations of Tacitus had been available since around 1470, but his descriptions of the Germanic people exploded in popularity between 1600 - 1649, which saw 67 editions of the Annals and Histories published across Europe. The eminent antiquarian William Camden (1551 - 1623) in particular emphasised the founding stock of the Saxon peoples, that powerful Germanic tree from which flowered the English branch. Leaning on Tacitus’ description of the Germans as a peculiar and pure people, untainted by marriage with others, Camden and his colleagues, such as Richard Rowlands, connected England’s Saxon heritage with the Germanic languages and the cluster of northern peoples - the Danes, Germans, Normans and Dutch. This was to have profound consequences for how the nascent British Empire came to view itself, with a magnificent national story of freedom-loving Germanic settlers, capable of self-discipline and self-rule, free from outside interference, England could confidently project its destiny out into the world. This is what others have dubbed ‘Anglo-Saxonism’, the belief in the unique and masterful qualities of the English race, which could be traced back to the primeval forests of Germania. Self-government, free institutions, conventions of liberty, common law and the English language defined Anglo-Saxonism prior to WW2.
Excavating the Past
This brief overview of Anglo-Saxonism touches on major themes that came together over many centuries into a coherent vision, but the messy reality for scholars and treasure-hunters through those long years was anything but crystal clear. In both the fields of physical excavations and historico-legal studies, the men who pioneered ‘Anglo-Saxon studies’ found the past confusing and uncertain, sometimes even unpleasant and frightening. The Tudor revolution in English history probably marks the moment when the English became truly cognizant of their ancient past, through the recovery of both the early English language and their laws and literature. The historical narrative that Britain had been invaded by Germanic settlers and warriors was nothing new to the Tudor ear, works ranging from Bede to Henry of Huntingdon were readily available, but it took the work of two men in particular - Laurence Nowell and William Lambarde - to convert the Anglo-Saxon legacy into something living, continuous and inspirational.
Laurence Nowell and William Lambarde, both born in the 1530’s, came of intellectual age during a major inflection point in English history. Drawn to the figure of William Cecil, arguably the most important and powerful man in Elizabethan England, both found themselves providing tactical, geographical, historical and legal information which was to help set England apart during her precarious break with the Continent and its Catholic powers. Cecil employed Nowell as a tutor for his ward, the Earl of Oxford, and he funded and housed many of the preeminent scholars of the day, including Nowell, John Hart and Arthur Golding, who translated Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Nowell and Lambarde went on to study, research and ultimately publish an astonishing array of books. These included: the first accurate map of England, A general description of England and Ireland with the costes adioyning, which Cecil always carried with him; the first English county history, The Perambulation of Kent; the first translated compilation of Anglo-Saxon laws, the Archaionomia, and the first Anglo-Saxon dictionary, the Vocabularium Saxonicum. It is hard to overstate the influence these texts had on English history, they were read by later thinkers such as Francis Bacon and Edward Coke (who envisaged Parliament as the successor to the Saxon witanagemot), they passed on copies of Beowulf and provided the material needed to bind England together as one nation under the aegis of the Saxon past.
Archaeologically the Elizabethan period had yet to catch up with the revolution in Anglo-Saxon thought and work. The majority of primitive excavations and fieldwork focused on Roman and Celtic Britain, the historical documentation of the Saxon arrivals being clear enough to deter curious antiquarians. With the Civil War and Restoration came obvious Saxonist triumphs, but it wasn’t until the mid 1700’s that Anglo-Saxon archaeology really began in earnest. Camden had written about Saxon era coins, which were clearly in scholarly circulation back in the 1600’s, and the Alfred Jewel had been discovered in 1693 in Somerset, but the time had come to open the barrows. Of the new generation of antiquarians, none was perhaps so industrious as the Reverend Bryan Faussett, who excavated over 750 Anglo-Saxon burial mounds and graves between 1757 and 1773, recording every detail and object in minute details. By the time of his death in 1776 he had amassed the world’s largest collection of Anglo-Saxon artefacts, from swords to brooches, belt buckles to bejeweled pendants. Faussett’s work, and those of his and his contemporaries, fed into the major archaeological text of the period - the Nenia Britannica: or, a sepulchral history of Great Britain; from the earliest period to its general conversion to Christianity, by James Douglas in 1793.
This work, a masterful compilation of all the excavations to date, formed the foundation for later Victorian efforts and visually depicted the Saxon soldier as both a mythical romantic figure, but also a living spirit who permeated the souls of those excavators digging into the barrows. This growing quasi-racial image of the Saxon then found its apogee in the 1799 publication The History of the Anglo-Saxons, written by Sharon Turner, a self-taught student of English and Icelandic literature. Turner studied the artefact collections and Tudor/Elizabethan manuscripts extensively, putting forth a full-throated defence of the cleansing power of the Germanic barbarians and the Anglo-Saxons in particular, “in the shape of a good constitution, temperate kingship, the witenagemot, and general principles of freedom”. Turner believed in a single human family, but stressed the importance of liberty, parliamentary institutions and hatred of the Norman yoke to the English character.
The Victorian Imagination
Without delving into the wider history of Germanic and Indo-European studies which flowered in the 1800’s, it is crucial to at least underscore the importance of Anglo-Saxonism to the Victorians to understand the post-war backlash against the entire field. With Turner’s and Douglas’ books came not only a wider public appreciation for their Saxon forebears, but a cultural cementing of Anglo-Saxonism as an explanation for the success of the British Empire. Writers like Sir Walter Scott brimmed with pride for the manly, chivalrous and truthful Saxon, one blessed by God to conquer and rule the world. Carlyle, Arnold, Kingsley and Disraeli leant on phrenologists and ethnologists like George Combe:
Combe praised the Caucasians above all other races, the Teutonic branch over other Caucasians, and the Anglo-Saxons over all Teutons
The belief in Anglo-Saxon liberties and freedoms had become enmeshed with the wider Germanic conviction that Teutonic virtues and virility were exceptional and would become globally dominant. As English-speaking institutions came to rule significant portions of the world, it was hard for anyone brought up with the story of Anglo-Saxon superiority not to feel giddy with a sense of destiny. John M Kemble’s work, such as his 1849 Saxons in England, solidified a core belief that the Aryan Germanic spirit was one of regeneration. As the Germanic tribes re-invigorated a dying and corrupt Rome, and the Anglo-Saxons infused a backwards marsh with a freedom-loving martial ethic, so would the expansion of the Anglosphere into the wider world revitalise and energise the sordid and primitive corners of the Earth. As the anatomist Robert Knox wrote:
The Saxon, or true German, that is, the Scandinavian race. The only race which truly comprehends the meaning of the word liberty… their laws, manners, institutions, they brought with them from the woods of Germany, and they have transferred them to the woods of America
The Post-War Backlash
The century between the 1840’s and 1940’s could fill another article on the subject of Anglo-Saxon archaeology, but in tracing our story here we can accept that the heady brew of Empire, Germanic and Anglo race science, European war and doctrines like Manifest Destiny helped produce a post-war generation which fully rejected all intellectual movements related to cultural and ethnic supremacy. With the defeat of Nazism came a move away from Culture-History, national origin stories and the belief in an intrinsic volk or people bound to collective terms like Celtic, Viking or Anglo-Saxon. The mood looked forward to the advent of scientific techniques and a more objective eye towards the past, untinged by misty-eyed nostalgia. Historical periods were subdivided, guided by radiocarbon dating. Isotope and geochemical analyses broke new ground, as older methods of comparative osteology and linguistics fell away. Scientific hypotheses were offered and scrutinised, and grand historical narratives such as Indo-European prehistory fell into disrepute.
Primarily the focus has been to deconstruct these meta-narratives, going right back to Rome. Since the story of the Anglo-Saxon arrival is predicated on a number of fundamental axioms, the goal has been to strip them of any explanatory power. Starting with the distinction between Roman and Germanic, oceans of ink have been spilled pulling apart what these two civilisational terms mean. Since the concept of ‘being Roman’ underwent a radical shift towards the end of the Western Empire, and since ‘being Germanic’ largely depended on nationalist constructions of a ‘Germanic ethos’, both have been attacked as historical fictions. Taking Gildas and Bede’s accounts of the Saxon invasions as true came under immense fire, and the Victorian archaeological method of linking distinct material cultures with the Saxons, Angles and Jutes was dismissed as lacking rigour and saturated with romanticism. To quote archaeologist James M Harland:
Substantial scholarship has been devoted to critiquing the concept of ‘Germanic’ cultural identity… numerous studies have grappled with various aspects of the early medieval record held to embody authentic remnants, preserved from before the Völkerwanderung, of the protohistoric ‘Germanic’ past, and in almost all cases these are found to be lacking.
Thus, to the deconstructivist eye, there is no basis for claiming that Anglo-Saxon is a meaningful concept. It is simply a projection backwards into time, grouping together disparate and unrelated peoples into an unreasonable whole. This debate has been unusually emotional for academics, and probably nowhere better illustrated than the battle over the idea of ethnicity in archaeology, which has focused on the Germanic peoples.
In 1961, the medieval historian Reinhard Wenskus published his masterpiece Stammesbildung und Verfassung, loosely translating to something like ‘tribal formation and constitution’. This landmark text formed the core of a school of thought, known as the Vienna School of History, which aimed to abolish the idea that Germanic barbarian identity was founded on biological, racial or kinship lines. Instead, their proposed ‘ethnogenesis’ concept posited that the Germanic peoples were a diverse alliance of groups, led by a core elite which preserved and maintained the Traditionskerne, or ‘core-traditions’. Only in this way, the school argued, could their be truly be a stable Germanic identity which stretched from North Africa to Iceland, from the Balkans to Norway. In opposition to this line of argument came the recent Toronto School, which takes a strident position against any framework which supports any idea of ethnicity. Scholars like Walter Goffart, Andrew Gillett and Michael Kilukowski have gone so far as to dismiss Germanic literature such as Old Norse poetry as having anything of value to archaeology, and to attack the Vienna School as crypto-nationalists. In their eyes, archaeology should never attempt to trace ethnicity or even the migrations of peoples. As Wolf Liebeschuetz says in his 2015 book, East and West in Late Antiquity:
We cannot trust what Roman historians, especially Caesar and Tacitus, say about Germanic customs because their descriptions are hopelessly distorted. The Romans applied to the Germans their own classical preconceptions of what barbarian peoples must be like. Archaeology can trace cultural diffusion, but it cannot be used to distinguish between peoples, and should not be used to trace migration. Arguments from language and etymology are irrelevant.
In a similar vein, Sebastian Brather in the important 2002 volume On Barbarian Identity: Critical Approaches to Ethnicity in the Early Middle Ages rails against all approaches in archaeology which rely on ethnicity.
My view is in a sense a 'pessimistic' one. I cannot see any way that archaeology could identify 'ethnic identities' of the past. The search for ethnic groups follows the national(istic) imagination of the last two hundred years, and does not meet the expressiveness of archaeological sources… 'Ethnic identity' is beyond the reach of archaeology, whether it was important in early history or not (this is a question for historiography). The archaeological search for 'ethnic identities' was not of scientific interest, but more or less a matter of national discourse and nationalistic emphasis. It was used for the construction of modem national identities.
This is a remarkable sentiment, and not one shared by the vast majority of archaeologists around the world, many of whom spend their lives researching national and ethnic origins. But it underscores the disdain the later generation of archaeologists have for any line of argument which could lead to the legitimisation of distinct biological/ethnic peoples in history.
‘There were no Anglo-Saxons’
Hopefully by now we can see how sharply post-war scholarship diverged from its earlier iterations. The battle-lines have cut deeper and deeper into the intellectual suppositions of ethnicity, race, culture and migrations, to the point where archaeologists actually forbid interpretations which suggest any form of cultural distinction between peoples. While these fights have been played out in the larger sphere of Germanic studies more broadly, they have obviously found their way into Anglo-Saxon research.
To pick on two recent books in the popular literature on British history, Francis Pryor’s Britain AD (2005) and Susan Oosthuizen’s The Emergence of the English (2019), we see a new consensus position being cemented across the field. Broadly it runs something like this - the Gildasian ‘Dark Age’ and post-Roman social breakdown is wrong, archaeology shows a clear pattern of continuity in farming and social life, the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons is based on circular reasoning and conservative interpretations of the data, there is no evidence for mass warfare, strife, elite imposition or ethnic segregation. A better explanation would be a slowly changing continuity of Latin Britain with a reorientation towards Germany and Scandinavia for trade which results in the diffusion and spread of the English language and Germanic artefacts and styles. To quote Pryor:
It is probably fair to say that serious scholars who believe in largescale Anglo-Saxon mass migrations are now in the minority. Most people, myself included, accept that there was a certain amount of movement in and out of Britain, just as there was in the Iron Age and the Roman period. We might well discover one day that certain Anglo-Saxon cemeteries in, say, East Yorkshire, contain the bodies of immigrant populations. I do not believe, however, that such discoveries will invalidate the consensus that the changes attributed to the arrival of Anglo-Saxons were usually caused by people changing their minds, rather than their places of residence
Pryor attacks older studies, such as J.N.L Myres influential 1969 work Anglo-Saxon Pottery and the Settlement of England, which painstakingly shows how Saxon pottery and cremation urns arrive in successive waves from the Continent. Decrying his love for Bede and Gildas, Pryor waves Myres away with the simple ‘pots are not people’ refrain. This is in line with many decades of arguments against the correlation of ‘Germanic’ artefacts or burial traditions with ‘German’ people themselves. To quote archaeologist Julian Richards in 1992:
Mortuary ritual reinforces cultural differences and helps classify Anglo-Saxon
society. It provides a means of describing social identity... we must accept that many of those given a Germanic burial rite were not immigrants from North Germany and Scandinavia. The form of burial is a symbol being used to assert the
domination of Germanic culture, not the annihilation of the previous inhabitants
Early genetic studies on the Anglo-Saxon legacy, now known to be incorrect, have helped buttress this line of argument. Both Stephen Oppenheimer and Bryan Sykes, analysing papers in the early 2000’s, arrived on the consensus that the Anglo-Saxons left little genetic legacy, and that British population genetics have been largely unchanged since the end of the Ice Age. Anyone familiar with post-2015 genetic studies will find this almost amusing, but for scholars like Pryor and Oosthuizen, both traditional pot-and-soil archaeologists, these confirmations shored up the position that the migrations and invasions were a myth.
To bring us fully to date, with the strident anti-racist ideology percolating into Britain from America, we have seen some very public attacks on the term Anglo-Saxon itself. Under immense pressure from younger researchers, in November 2019 the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists voted to change its name to the International Society for the Study of Early Medieval England, citing the long history of American imperialism and racism bound up in the title. The campaign has probably over-reached in attempting to force scholars, universities and museums to relabel everything Anglo-Saxon and there has been push-back from academics in the field, but it is a sobering to think that even the phrase is at risk of extinction within the halls and laboratories of research.
The Turning Tide
With the advent of comparative full-genome studies we seem to have entered a new phase of debate in Anglo-Saxon studies. Those on the offensive for the last few decades are very much on the defensive, and statements that ‘no-one believes in Anglo-Saxon mass migration’ already look very dated. This recent paper seems to have blown away the accumulated layers of obfuscation and argument to reveal a clear truth - the migration did happen. Granted the details are now open for further investigation and hopefully we will see constructive rather than hostile responses. Certainly nobody fully accepts Bede and Gildas as the absolute truth, if they ever did, but with scholarly acceptance of oral tradition amongst indigenous people as preserving not just centuries but millennia of accurate information, and with genetics cutting a swathe through the old guard, we should be nothing but charitable to those early chroniclers. I’ve attempted to lay out something of a potted history of Anglo-Saxon historiography and the politics and science of its continued study. Whatever one makes of national origin stories, we should see here a wonderful tale of scholarship and passion - Our Island Story - no longer relegated to romantic myth, but one returning with youth and vigour.