The Many Myths of the Term ‘Anglo-Saxon’

tags: English history, British history, medieval history, White Supremacy, Anglo Saxons

Dr. Erik Wade—a visiting lecturer at the Universität-Bonn—researches the global origins of early medieval English ideas of sexuality and race.

Dr. Mary Rambaran-Olm specializes in early medieval England, and as a Provost postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Toronto she is investigating race in early England.

People in the United States and Great Britain have long drawn on imagined Anglo-Saxon heritage as an exemplar of European whiteness. Before becoming president, Teddy Roosevelt led his “Rough Riders” on the 1898 U.S. invasion of Cuba with a copy of Edmond Demolins’ racist manifesto Anglo-Saxon Superiority in tow. In the 1920s, the Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America lobbied in favor of segregation and argued for the exclusion of those with even a drop “of any blood other than Caucasian.” In the same time frame, a Baptist minister from Atlanta declared, “The Ku Klux Klan is not fighting anybody; it is simply pro Anglo-Saxon.” Across the Atlantic, in 1943, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill smugly inquired, “Why be apologetic about Anglo-Saxon superiority, that we were superior, that we had the common heritage which had been worked out over the centuries in England and had been perfected by our constitution?”

Today, the term “Anglo-Saxon” is little used in mainstream American circles, perhaps as a chiding WASP label directed toward northeastern elites. But as news from earlier this year has shown, it still exists as a supremacist dog whistle. Its association with whiteness has saturated our lexicon to the point that it’s often misused in political discourse and weaponized to promote far-right ideology. In April 2021, the U.S. House of Representatives’ America First Caucus published a seven-page policy platform claiming that the country’s borders and culture are “strengthened by a common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.” On social media, jokes about a return to trial by combat, swordfights, thatched roofs, and other seemingly Anglo-Saxon practices quickly gained traction.

How did this obscure term—little used in the Middle Ages themselves—become a modern phrase meaning both a medieval period in early England and a euphemism for whiteness? Who were the actual people now known as the Anglo-Saxons? And what terminology should be used instead of this ahistorical title?

The Anglo-Saxon myth perpetuates a false idea of what it means to be “native” to Britain. Though the hyphenated term is sometimes used as a catchall phrase to describe the dominant tribes of early England, it’s historically inaccurate and wasn’t actually used much prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066. The name didn’t even originate in England: Instead, it first appeared on the continent, where Latin writers used it to distinguish between the Germanic Saxons of mainland Europe and the English Saxons.

The few uses of “Anglo-Saxon” in Old English seem to be borrowed from the Latin Angli Saxones. Manuscript evidence from pre-Conquest England reveals that kings used the Latin term almost exclusively in Latin charters, legal documents and, for a brief period, in their titles, such as Anglorum Saxonum Rex, or king of the Anglo-Saxons. The references describe kings like Alfred and Edward who did not rule (nor claim to rule) all the English kingdoms. They were specifically referring to the English Saxons from the continental Saxons. Scholars have no evidence of anyone before 1066 referring to themselves as an “Anglo-Saxon” in the singular or describing their politics and traditions as “Anglo-Saxon.” While one might be king of the English-Saxons, nobody seems to have claimed to be an “English-Saxon,” in other words.

Read entire article at Smithsonian