The WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) culture has been the most aggressive, powerful, and arrogant society in the world for the last thousand years, so it is natural that it should receive a certain amount of warranted criticism” J B McCleary
“French horror at ‘Anglo-Saxon’ welfare reforms” – BBC News, Paris
It’s an odd thing, our use of the phrase ‘Anglo-Saxon’. I have a bit of a beef about how it is used in the world today. Or rather, a bit of an cu-mete.
The term Anglo-Saxon is used all over the world, not to describe those people who came to England in the 5th century, but in a wider context to describe a contemporary group of people. It describes people from the British Isles, most usually the English, and those descended from colonial settlers from these shores. It is noticeably used in North America in a negative sense, referring to a privileged, white, middle-class and conservative demographic, to the point where the term WASP is used as an insult.
Why is this?
Not, ‘Why do people dislike the concept of colonial landowners and their descendents who hold the majority of the power and wealth in a nation?’ – I suffer no illusions about how a nation’s colonial past might affect its popularity, but rather, ‘Why pick Anglo-Saxon’?
The history of the English over the first millennia AD can be simplified, almost criminally so, into a linear progression of invasions or mass immigrations that goes something as follows: Celts, followed by the Romans, then back to the Celts, before the arrival of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes; a brief flourish of Vikings – that is to say, boisterous Norwegians and Danes, before the conquest of the Normans. Horribly reductive? Yes, but as a generously large rule of thumb, more or less true.
Now let us look at the Anglo-Saxons. Angles and Saxons – two tribes like many others in post-Roman Europe, with the Jutes added in as well for free. Warlike? No more violent or less peaceful than any other. Yet are they the barbaric brutes who ruthless crushed the peaceful pipe-playing Celts as cinema and wistful literature would poorly suggest? No, of course not. The Saxons are just as much ‘Celtic’ as any other pre-Christian Northern European tribe in many respects – at least if you take the impossibly romantic, Victorian influenced view of ‘Celts’.
It is the Anglo-Saxons who arguably gave us the concept of ‘Common Law’ – that no man is above the law, be he king, bishop or labourer and that each man should be afforded equal protection. The Magna Carta, a list of rights for wealthy landowners is oft held up as some sort of paradigm for the common man, an English equivalent of the Bill of Rights, but it is only the partial reapplication by Angevin kings of concepts introduced by the Saxons. Henry II tried something similar with the application of common law over the clergy, and all he gets remembered for its causing the top of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s head to get lopped off. Such is the myopic filter of historical repute.
The Anglo-Saxons introduced trial by jury. Of course, Ancient Greece and Rome had such systems, amongst others, but our current system and those of North America, can be traced, back to the 9th century. They also introduced trial by ordeal too, running around with iron bars in one’s hands, so there is always rough with the smooth. It was perhaps not trial by jury as we know it, but more of a group of men offering their oath to accuse another. However, the concept of using the word of one’s peers has an egalitarian feel to it that one does not get from the Normans or chivalry obsessed Angevins. Romantic history finds flaunting oneself in shiny plate armour around tournament fields, jousting for a lady’s favours, to be much more attractive than judicial systems, but I think I know which one deserves more praise.
Was Anglo-Saxon England, therefore, some kind of democratic utopia? Of course not. It was still a violent, medieval nation, which suffered from the same ills as any other country. Slavery was still commonplace at the time of the conquest, with over 10% of the population recorded as slaves in the Domesday Book in 1086. Bloodfeuds and oaths caused families to slay each other with wanton abandon. Yet why should their name be used over that of the Normans, for example, to describe privileged colonialists?
Now I do not question that sometimes, people wish to use a term to describe people from these shores, or their descendents. Nor do I find it incomprehensible that people may not like the effects of Britain’s imperial past. I even agree, if maybe only partially, with the first quote at the top of this post. Yet let us consider what, I believe, to be among the least tasteful aspects of our nation’s culture.
Military expansionism, at first into Wales, Scotland, Ireland and then, in later centuries, the world, is never going to make you friends. Great Britain is not the only country to have had an empire, even if Hollywood would often have you believe England is sole perpetrator, but it was the nation that governed the American colonies and many of the countries whose diasporas that make up the US population. Yet English military expansionism did not truly start until after the arrival of the Normans.
The Saxons did not so much invade these shores but rather arrived in a steady stream, invited by others or themselves, over the course of two centuries. Did they live peacefully? No, they raided and fought with their neighbours as much as anyone did. Did they press to colonise Wales and Scotland? No, such expansionism did not fully occur until the Norman king, Henry I. This was, of course, after the brutal repression of the Saxons by the newly arrived Normans, not least in Northern England. Remember; whatever the English have inflicted on the rest of the world throughout history, they practiced first on their own people.
Our social class system, so frequently baffling to those from other parts, has never been particularly endearing. Mired in hereditary privilege, it was, and is returning to be, the system of high office being held by a select few, purchased commissions, sons of the titled and wealthy being promoted over the competent and oppression of the masses. Whilst every country’s wealth tends to be held by a select minority, Britain developed a reputation for elitism, aloofness or ‘snobbism’.
Has this been exaggerated by popular media and the fact Britain was once colonial overlord to those producing it? Undoubtedly so. Yet there has been a social immobility, a land obsessed with titles, heritage and heraldry, it can be argued, derived from a feudal system brought to these shores by, yep, you guessed it, the Normans.
I repeat, Saxon England was no rainbow-skied utopia, but would England have become so entrenched and obsessed with its classes without the Normans? I think not. Despite the protestations of Monty Python’s King Arthur, they actually did vote for kings. The throne, in Saxon England, did not necessarily pass from father to eldest son, but rather a king would be elected by the witan; a council of noblemen and clergy. More likely than not, it would be the eldest son of the previous king, or eldest brother, but there was certainly no ‘anointed by God’, despotism at work here.
Let us not forget either, that in terms of privilege in this country, it is the Saxons, if anyone, who represent the original oppressed masses, the underclass. When the Normans conquered England, the entire ruling class was replaced en masse. There would not be an English speaking king until Edward III in the 14th century and it would take over 350 years for Henry V to adopt English as the language of government.
This was a two-tier society, with the Saxons firmly on the bottom. Readers are most likely familiar with the dichotomy of the words for animals and meats in English, as so famously explained by Scott in Ivanhoe. Namely, that the word for a meat in English normally derives from French and that the word for the animal comes from Anglo-Saxon – beef and cow; mutton and sheep, pork and pig. The implication being that the Saxon underclass farmed them; the ruling Normans ate them.
So is it fair that this embodiment of an oppressed people, downtrodden labourers under foreign overlords came to represent the very thing they were not – privileged and wealthy landowners?
The reason we use ‘Anglo-Saxon’, of course, is because it is semantically convenient – as with many words or phrases, the meaning of Anglo-Saxon has evolved over the centuries to something quite different to its original form. At least the Anglo-Saxons lived in England – spare a thought for the Dutch, whose adjective originally described their neighbours, the Germans.
The next time you hear quotes of Anglo-Saxon privilege, or Gallic deprecations of Anglo-Saxon culture, please bear in mind one final point. Most of our swearwords derive from Old English, as opposed to French. Coarse language, whilst never being the sole preserve of the working classes, is always going to flourish more in the field and street than in the palace or abbey. Much like the animal/meat issue; those that use it most influence its etymology. We speak of arses, shit and f’ing, as opposed to culs, merd and baising, as it might have been.
Yet it is in this case, one aspect that we do take from the Saxons, we ask people to pardon our French…
It’s all a load of ballokes, isn’t it?
This article also appears as a guest blog on Top Hat Books