It’s All White People’: Allegations of White Supremacy Are Tearing Apart a Prestigious Medieval Studies Group
Hannah Natanson, Washington Post, September 19, 2019
Mary Rambaran-Olm hates drama.
Facing several hundred people in an auditorium in downtown Washington this month, Rambaran-Olm spoke for less than a minute: The International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS) was encouraging and emboldening white supremacists, she said, an attitude typified by its refusal to change its name. Rambaran-Olm, a woman of color, was stepping down as the group’s second vice president, effective immediately.
On Tuesday, following multiple resignations and outraged statements from other medieval groups condemning its actions, ISAS formally voted to alter its name, bowing to critics who argue that “Anglo Saxon” is code for whiteness, a phrase that is co-opted today by white supremacists around the world to advance a false version of white-dominated history.
It was a landmark moment for the group and for medieval studies. ISAS, one of the largest and longest-standing scholarly associations in the field, holds a highly regarded conference every two years that attracts scholars across the globe. Presenting at the event as a young scholar is “a huge deal” that can make your career, according to Erik Wade, a visiting lecturer at the University of Bonn who studies Old English literature and history.
But the battle over the term “Anglo Saxon” has implications beyond ISAS: It’s emblematic of broader issues roiling the world of medieval studies, Wade said. Over the past two weeks, Rambaran-Olm’s actions have forced the field into a contentious debate about the ways its past and present scholarship may reinforce white supremacy, a reckoning some are hailing as long overdue.
“The name change encapsulates a much larger issue of how medieval studies must wrestle with its own disciplinary history of racism and its connections to whiteness,” Wade said. “When something as small as changing an organization’s name generates this kind of pushback, that suggests how entrenched these hierarchies are.”
The “term ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ is problematic. It has sometimes been used outside the field to describe those holding repugnant and racist views, and has contributed to a lack of diversity among those working on early medieval England and its intellectual and literary culture,” the statement reads in part. “We are grateful for the patience and support of our members as we begin to rebuild bridges between the divisions in the Society.”
It was never just about a name, said Eileen Fradenburg Joy, a scholar in the field and a former ISAS member.
“The entire field of medieval studies is undergoing massive upheaval because they have not dealt with long-standing issues of racism and sexism,” Joy said. “This name change controversy is sowing the fault lines that still exist between white scholars — because it’s all white people, a bunch of white people arguing over whether they’re racist.”
The discipline of English medieval studies — which is overwhelmingly white — focuses on literature, art and culture produced between roughly A.D. 500 and 1500 in England. Key texts studied include “Beowulf” and Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”
White supremacists have recently sought to revive this period of history as proof of white racial superiority, pointing in part to the era’s literary achievements as evidence that white society was far ahead of other cultures, according to Wade. They also see it as a time “of pure masculinity, some sort of warrior culture where men could be men,” Wade said.
The term “Anglo Saxon” has come to symbolize this particular vision of white medieval dominance, Wade said — a vision that is completely wrong for several reasons.
First of all, it was not a “monolithic white period”: People immigrated to England from all over (including places like Greece and North Africa), and would not have described themselves as “Anglo Saxon” at the time, said Wade, who resigned as a member of ISAS this week to show support for Rambaran-Olm.
Second, Wade said, people living in the region were not the insular and self-important bunch that white supremacists want them to be. The English did not “think of themselves as the center of the world,” according to Wade, and in fact looked to other societies for inspiration and education.
Some of the most revered medieval texts draw heavily on literature produced by Spanish monks. Many in England were “totally obsessed” with travelogues about India and Egypt, Wade said. One prominent English king modeled currency on coins produced in Islam and another wrote to people in the Arab Empire asking for medical advice.
The false historical narrative that white people — in particular, Anglo Saxon people — were the only race to produce worthwhile literature, art and scientific discoveries during the Middle Ages took root when “professional medieval studies” launched in Britain in the late 1700s, according to Wade. At the time, the British Empire wanted to justify its colonization of other countries around the globe, so it was “politically convenient” to develop a view that the English had “always been superior,” Wade said.