The many myths of the term ‘Anglo-Saxon’

By | March 26, 2023

Mary Rambaran-Olm and Erik Wade write:

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.

Who, then, were the groups that lend Anglo-Saxon its name? The Angles were one of the main Germanic peoples (from modern day southern Denmark and northern Germany) to settle in Great Britain. The first known mention of the Anglii was recorded by the first-century Roman historian Tacitus. Just as the Angles settled in Britain, so too did the Saxons, along with the Frisians, Jutes and other lesser-known peoples. Originally from what is now Germany, these Saxons became one of the dominant groups in Britain, though the stand-alone word Seax in Old English was not widely used and only for the Saxon groups, never for all these people together. Together, they were mostly commonly called “Englisc.”

For years, scholars of medieval history have explained that the term Anglo-Saxon has a long history of misuse, is inaccurate and is generally used in a racist context. Based on surviving texts, early inhabitants of the region more commonly called themselves englisc and angelcynn. Over the span of the early English period, from 410 A.D. (when various tribes settled on the British islands after the Romans left) to shortly after 1066, the term only appears three times in the entire corpus of Old English literature. All of these instances are in the tenth century.

Modern references to “Anglo-Saxon political traditions” would benefit from readings of actual Old English charters—early medieval documents predominantly preoccupied with land grants, writs and wills. From the eighth century onward, these charters increasingly favored granting land to laypeople, many of whom were migrants. Those Americans who seek a return to the roots of Anglo-Saxons should realize that this actually translates to more open, inclusive borders. [Continue reading…]