Friday, August 4, 2017


There’s been a lot of traffic in my little corner of the internet lately that suggests that the field of early medieval studies, and Anglo-Saxon studies in particular, has a problem. The problem, not to put too fine a point on it, is racism, with a side helping, it seems, of sexism. I don’t think I have any insights that can solve such serious problems, I am sorry to say, but I think I do have some observations to make that might help us understand where our discipline is now, how we have gotten here, and what we can—and cannot, or should not—do in the present moment.

The whole discipline, the claim has been made, is tainted by the way in which the very terms “Anglo-Saxon” and “Anglo-Saxonist” have been employed, from the nineteenth century to the present, in ways that explicitly or implicitly align with ideas of whiteness and white racial superiority. There can be no real argument with this point that the terms have been used by racists: it is true, and it has long been known. But the notion that these terms are now irrevocably tainted is one that I am not (yet?) persuaded of: different speech communities often use identical words with differing senses. Like even the worst characterizations of Anglo-Saxon studies, America, too, has a long history of both open and institutional racism, and yet I am not sure that we should wish to change the name of the country, just because the politics of some Americans includes white supremacist attitudes.

More troubling to me is the argument that the very structure of the discipline of Anglo-Saxon studies embeds and embodies an institutional racism, especially since the origins of the discipline were almost always built around discovering or rediscovering “authentic” Anglo-Saxon origins: whether that was Archbishop Matthew Parker hoping to throw off the yoke of Roman Christian practice, or nineteenth-century philologists like the Grimm brothers, hoping to discover an authentic German-ness. There is nothing wrong, of course, in wishing or hoping to discover something authentic about the past: the trouble comes in when that kind of authenticity is associated with purity and superiority, when the supposedly inauthentic is seen as corruption. The truth (if we can know such a thing) seems to be that there was nothing pure about even the earliest Anglo-Saxon culture: the Sutton Hoo ship burial includes items from Merovingian Gaul and even from Byzantium: such cosmopolitan connections were apparently deeply valued. And subtracting off those pieces doesn’t leave us with the essential truth of Anglo-Saxon culture, it only leaves us with a fragment instead of a whole.

It is admittedly difficult to draw a firm line between the authentic and the pure, and I myself suspect that some modern disciplinary structures in Anglo-Saxon studies might rightly be criticized for crossing that line. Yet the institutional racism that results can hardly be understood as a problem internal to Anglo-Saxon studies. At least in this country, the hiring of Anglo-Saxon scholars into academic positions is virtually always accomplished by people who are not themselves Anglo-Saxonists. Thus the ranks of working academic Anglo-Saxonists are people who have been selected and chosen by other scholars from outside the field—and their judgments about what the field is and should be. These people making the hiring decisions, I think it is safe to say, may not always be as reflective about the field of Anglo-Saxon Studies as are Anglo-Saxonists themselves.

I will consider just one specific issue, at the risk of irritating or angering some of my Anglo-Saxonist friends. At many universities in the US, Anglo-Saxonists are expected to or encouraged to also teach Old Norse language and literature. Undergraduates often love such course offerings, as they often love Old English. That love, indeed, is one of the shaping structures of modern Anglo-Saxon studies, and yet it is in turn shaped by public, rather than academic, discourses about the past. Considered dispassionately, Old High German and Old Saxon traditions are closer linguistically and culturally (as West Germanic languages) to Old English than is Old Norse. But most of the significant Old Saxon and Old High German poetry is explicitly Christian, inflected by foreign, Roman influence. The Old Norse saga tradition allows us to get at the pagan, warrior culture much more directly, and it is (therefore?) much more exciting. My point, of course, is that what we Anglo-Saxonists choose to teach is, indeed, shaped by interests and desires that come surprisingly close to a search for (or interest in) pure, untainted, Germanic origins. It is part of why we put Beowulf at the center of our study.

Now, I love Beowulf, and I think it is one of the great works of world literature, and it may deserve its place at the center of our discipline: but we need to be clearer, I think, about how and why a work like Beowulf gets its place and deserves its place (the two things have not been the same for Beowulf, I think). And not thinking clearly about that distinction, or not thinking clearly about things like why we teach Old Norse alongside Beowulf so much more often than we teach Old Saxon alongside it, leaves us subject to all the hazards of other kinds of not thinking clearly.

[And let me be clear: I am making no effort here to call out any individual who teaches Old Norse in preference to Old Saxon: I am calling out our discipline as a whole; students who demand or respond to such courses differentially; departmental structures and course-offerings; and the hiring-decision-makers at all levels who respond to their own sets of beliefs and ideas. All of these people and groups shape the discipline, and my point is that the current state of the field does indeed more often teach Old Norse than Old Saxon, and that that very practice is worth attending to. I am asking for self-reflection on the part of those of us who are now in the discipline. Likewise: increasing the diversity of academic Anglo-Saxonists is a laudable goal that I support, but if our habit of teaching Old Norse supports or derives from a search for Germanic purity, the discipline might still embody biases that look an awful lot like institutional racism. Solving these problems must surely involve Anglo-Saxonists, and students, and colleagues who make hiring, staffing, and curricular decisions—but just as surely, these structures are interlinked to structures that run right through our culture, and they won’t be easy to replace. And yes, teaching Old Norse is every bit as valuable as teaching Beowulf: but how we do these things structurally matters. The work before us will not be easy and it must involve us and others.]

Throughout much of the discussion that I’ve seen online surrounding these issues, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis, and the alt-right, are the bogey men whose use or invocation of Anglo-Saxon works like Beowulf and the very term “Anglo-Saxon” itself are driving the discussion. Most academics, perhaps reasonably, do not wish to be associated with such groups and their politics. But the usual claim that I have seen being made about these groups is that they “mis-appropriate” Anglo-Saxon literature or culture. [Medievalists, it turns out, are as likely as anyone else to tell others online that they are doing it wrong; I'm probably guilty of it here in my own essay.] But the claim of mis-appropriation is an extremely odd one, it seems to me—because it makes an unargued assertion about who owns the Anglo-Saxon period, its literature and its history, and their meanings. Unsurprisingly, academics seem to want to believe or claim that they own the meanings, and that they can judge what is or is not misappropriation.

But the truth is, the past is the common heritage and legacy of us all. It is wrong of academics to claim—however obliquely—ownership of the medieval past and its meanings. Of course, academics are indeed interested parties—but so are the white supremacists, after all, at least to hear them tell it. I don’t like or agree with what the white supremacists do with Anglo-Saxon materials—and I am glad they don’t own them either. Beowulf is not the heritage of any racial group in particular (my own Northumbrian ancestors give me no advantage or disadvantage in reading or interpreting Beowulf). Instead, Beowulf is part of the heritage of all who speak English, and indeed, of all the world. We all—including we academics—must share Beowulf and its meanings, rather than hoard them.

Beowulf (and at this point in my little essay, I hope it is clear that the poem stands in for all the texts and artifacts of the medieval past) must be shared on an open-access basis. The great challenge of open access, of course, is the way it suggests that academics must give up any desire to control meanings. Why make digital facsimiles of medieval manuscripts open to all, if academics nonetheless still hope to control or own the meanings made from them? Open access, it seems to me, is meaningless (perhaps I should say pointless) without a different, less restricted vision of the ownership of meanings.

The role of academics in an open access world, it seems to me, will be perhaps to moderate, to persuade, to teach. The open access world will be filled with crazy, crackpot theories, but who is served if academics refuse to acknowledge them because their authors are not academically credentialed? [At the risk of answering my own rhetorical question, it seems to me that academics are served, because such a practice lets them try to maintain their supposed ownership of meaning.] Beowulf teaches us—or tries to—that hoarding is ultimately useless: but this is a lesson it seems that academics and white supremacists both need to learn. The one group needs to stop trying to hoard meaning, since it is impossible; the other needs to learn that hoarding purity is also impossible, no matter how it is defined. Is it wrong of me to suspect that these two groups might help teach each other such lessons?

Most academics, I think it is safe to say, will hesitate to believe that they can learn anything at all from white supremacists—but I worry that this, too, is an expression of an essential belief that the academic world owns meanings. That belief, too, it now seems to me, is also a kind of a dream of hoarded purity.

At the very least, if we have any hope at all of teaching and reaching those whose ideas and meanings are different from our own, we must have and even cultivate the humility to admit that all of our hoarded meanings have never enabled us to purchase Truth. It is a lesson, even, that we might yet learn from Beowulf.

ADDENDUM (August 11, 2017)

One of the great delights of my life is learning, and I am happy to say that, even at my age, I can still learn. In the blog post above, I hoped to share some of my thinking on a topic close to my heart. I have learned some things, in the aftermath, that might also be worth sharing. These are not all the things I have learned, nor do I believe that my learning is complete, but they are the things I am ready to write about here. And my thanks—to all those who wrote to me or communicated with me in a spirit of teaching or helping me to learn—could not be more heartfelt or sincere.

I learned I should have not described white supremacists as “bogey men”: they are far too real, and too dangerous in our world for such a term. This was wrong of me, and I’ll own it. I will try to do better.

I learned, yet again, that what seems clear enough to me in my writing may not always be clear to others. Of course, I’ve learned this one before: it will be a life-long struggle for me, I fear.

In particular, I should have made some of my concluding points far more explicitly: I should have said, rather than merely implying, that we academic medievalists might learn the dangers of our own claims of exclusive ownership of texts and their meanings from those of our opponents who also claim exclusive ownership of texts and meanings. I meant to say that even our claims—to the extent that some of them seem to boil down to claims of exclusive ownership—may work to reject the possibility that the literature of the past is the common heritage of us all. I meant to say that if we engage in a fight over who owns the literature of the past and its meanings, I fear we may have lost a bigger battle, because we have assented to the notion that someone can own the past. Instead of making those points more clearly and explicitly, I unintentionally left room in my text for readers to suppose that I meant that we might learn the explicit lessons that white supremacists wish to teach. This was a definite weakness—even a failure—in my essay, and I will own it. Indeed, I apologize for it.

I should also have found a way to say more straightforwardly and directly what I believe in my heart: I believe it is dangerous to claim categorically that we can have nothing to learn from our opponents. To me such a claim sounds like a denial of their humanity, a rejection of the possibility of any basis for connection at all.

Perhaps I am wrong in my feeling that it is a denial of their humanity, so one thing I hope also to have learned is to put this lesson, too, into a form I hope is clearer, by taking it out of the realm of teaching and learning, and rephrasing it as the simple wish of my own heart alone:

I hope I shall always have the courage to resist the urge to deny the humanity of my opponents, even those who would deny my own or others’ humanity.

Upon the rock of this wish I will stand.


  1. Wonderfully well-put, Tom (though I'm not so sure about the search for purity as a motive for teaching Old Norse!). We need to engage and teach, not abandon or run away from terms just because others use them in reprehensible ways.

    1. DJF--as you probably know, I was as much or more convinced with the effects of the habit or practice of teaching Old Norse as with the motives: what message will students get, when they see our course offerings tending to skip over the Heliand to offer ON? Admittedly, a student who ponders this question would have to be pretty thoughtful. And yes: we are teachers.

  2. Thanks for this thought-provoking essay. I haven't decided exactly where I stand yet, but you've framed some of the key questions very well.

    I particularly like "The role of academics in an open access world, it seems to me, will be perhaps to moderate, to persuade, to teach." Even before an open access world, I think this was my job, and I'm trying to adjust to do it better as access opens more and more.

    1. Thanks, Nicole. I think we need to teach, too, obviously.

  3. Thank you, Tom. Very thoughtful.

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  5. Congrats to Tom Bredehoft-and the other elite academics commenting here-on discovering some inkling of what those of us at non-elite insitutions do everyday (and yes, I know that TB is a bookseller now).

    Nothing like watching out-of-touch, virtue-signaling elites praise one another.