Higher Education's Medievalist Moral Panic

Higher Education's Medievalist Moral Panic

Charlotte Allen
Charlotte Allen
12 min read

On September 19, the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS), a 36-year-old organization of academics specializing in the history, culture, and literature of England before the Norman Conquest, hastily voted to change its name. Indeed, the vote was so hasty that the organization had no idea what its new name ought to be (it is soliciting suggestions from members). Nonetheless, the majority of its 600-odd members were certain of one thing: they no longer wanted to be associated with the words “Anglo-Saxon.”

In the view of many of those members, that term had become tainted, appropriated by an assortment of white supremacists, white nationalists, and neo-Nazis that calls itself the “alt-right.” During the Charlottesville, Virginia melée of August 11–12, 2017, which included a supremacist’s murder of a woman by car attack, the white nationalists who marched had carried banners and standards incorporating iconography that, if not always precisely Anglo-Saxon in inspiration, was certainly medieval: Templar crosses, the double eagle of the Holy Roman Empire, and in one case, a Germanic rune beloved of neo-Nazis that was used during Anglo-Saxon times.

More ominously, Brenton Tarrant, who murdered 51 people in an anti-Islamic shooting spree at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, on March 15, 2019, wrote a 74-page manifesto which included a quotation from a poem by Rudyard Kipling that has been garbled by white nationalists and given the title The Wrath of the Awakened Saxon. Kipling had actually titled his 1917 poem The Beginnings to memorialize his grief and anger after the combat death of his son during World I. Provoked by German atrocities, Kipling wrote in his refrain, the normally peaceful “English began to hate.” White supremacists posting on the Internet have altered that refrain to read “[T]he Saxon began to hate,” tying the poem to Northern European ethnicity. Tarrant might have read one of the versions of that alteration that have appeared on numerous white-identity websites, sometimes accompanied by artists’ romanticized depictions of supposed Anglo-Saxons in chain mail and leather leg-thongs. Patrick Cruzius, charged with murdering 22 people in El Paso, Texas, in a shooting rampage on August 3, 2019 that seemed to target Hispanic immigrants, cited Tarrant’s manifesto—although not Tarrant’s reference to The Wrath of the Saxon—in a manifesto of his own.

A statement from the ISAS’s advisory board accompanying its September 19 announcement of the planned name change read: “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.” But there was something more at stake: During the run-up to the announcement the majority of the board and at least one of its officers had resigned, some of them very publicly, issuing statements excoriating the organization for failing to tackle issues such as “racism, sexism, inclusiveness, representation” and turning a blind eye to sexual abuse of female scholars in the field. The ISAS’s executive director, Robin Norris, also handed in her resignation, stating in an email: “We made you wait too long for change.” The term “Anglo-Saxon” had become an all-purpose grievance nexus for the academic Left—and also a nexus of professional embarrassment and self-doubt for scholars who like to think of themselves as tolerant liberals and feel vaguely ashamed that most of the people taking an interest in Anglo-Saxon studies happen to be white and that a lot of them are men.

Even if there had been no white-supremacist issue, a name change might have been in order for the ISAS, founded in 1983. “Anglo-Saxon” as a catchall name has been regarded by specialists as intellectually problematic for many decades. For one thing, the Germanic-origin Angles and Saxons who participated in the early-medieval invasion and settlement of Britain after the Romans withdrew in 410, had been joined by numerous other tribesmen: Jutes, Frisians, and others hailing from what are now Denmark, the Netherlands, and the Baltic states. Furthermore, genetic evidence indicates that those warrior-invaders extensively intermarried with Britain’s Celtic population, itself genetically intermixed with the Romans who had ruled Britain from the mid-first century.

The Celts themselves had been relatively recent intruders (around 800 B.C.) who mingled themselves into the pre-Celtic gene pool of the builders of Stonehenge and similar monuments dating from millennia earlier. And even after England became “Anglo-Saxon,” Viking invasions from Scandinavia overran nearly all the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms during the eighth and ninth centuries, flooding them with Viking genes and Viking words and customs. Even after the Scandinavians were mostly driven back by the end of the ninth century (although England had a Danish king, Canute, who reigned until 1035), foreign immigration continued in the form of traders, missionaries, travelers who stayed on, and royal and noble brides from the Continent. At least three decades ago scholars abandoned the term “Anglo-Saxon” with reference to the various Germanic-origin dialects spoken and written in pre-Conquest England; the preferred term nowadays is “Old English.”

Still, it is fair to say that England during the half-millennium before 1066 did have a culture that could be called distinctly Anglo-Saxon. The Angles and Saxons gave their names to territorial swathes of England that persist to this day: Essex, Sussex, East Anglia. Their Old English dialects replaced other spoken languages in all but the remotest corners. Medieval monks writing in Latin called that tongue Anglice. Specifically, the West Saxon dialect spoken in Wessex, the southwestern English territory of King Alfred the Great (ca. 847-899), became the preeminent literary language of pre-Conquest England. Nearly all extant Old English prose and poetry, including the famous narrative poem Beowulf, were written down in that West Saxon dialect. There was even a distinctive “Anglo-Saxon” script for those writings, distinguished by the long, pointed tails of many of its letters; it looked completely different from the scribes’ Latin scripts. Poetry in Old English used a complex alliterative metrical scheme common to northern languages but unlike anything to be found in Latin or the languages of continental Europe. It was understandable that from 1983 until fairly recently the words “Anglo-Saxonists” were generally unproblematic.

What happened to make those words suddenly problematic in 2019 was the emergence of postmodernist and post-colonialist theory as the dominant ideology in university literature departments. The Gospel According to Edward Said—that academic scholarship in literature and history has been no more than a self-glorifying project of Western imperialism, tainted by notions of Western European (read white) superiority—became a baseline assumption among English professors and even many academic historians. It took a while for medievalists to latch on, since medieval studies is a highly technical and thus conservative discipline demanding training in arcane languages, manuscript-reading, and other skills. But latch on some of them eventually did. In 2001, Eileen A. Joy, then a graduate student specializing in Old English literature at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, filed a doctoral dissertation, “Beowulf and the Floating Wreck of History,” arguing that “Anglo-Saxon England” was actually a “cultural construct” formed by “the negotiations and interactions between scholars and their subjects” and shot through with “discourses of…dominant ideologies” promulgated by the imperialism-infected nineteenth-century British scholars who had published and edited the first Old English texts.

There was a grain of truth to this rhetoric that has undoubtedly made Anglo-Saxonists who like to think of themselves as multiculturally attuned progressives uneasy. A cult of King Alfred as unifier of England flourished during the Victorian era, inspiring many a statue and encomium. Walter Scott’s 1819 novel Ivanhoe, with its Anglo-Saxon hero standing up to Norman occupiers, encouraged many English and their progeny in North America and elsewhere to identify ethnically with their real or imagined forbears of pre-Conquest times. The nicknames “WASP” (“White Anglo-Saxon Protestant”) and “Anglo” have become all-purpose descriptors of Americans who might be white but who don’t even necessarily have English blood. A nineteenth-century fad for recreating Gothic architecture accompanied the Anglo-Saxon craze—although Gothic architecture itself dates from the thirteenth century, long after historic Anglo-Saxon hegemony in England had disappeared. It is also true that only a tiny percentage of scholars working in the Anglo-Saxon period are non-white for whatever reason: racism, lack of interest, or the generally dismal job prospects for Ph.D.’s in the humanities.

Eileen Joy went on in 2004 to found the BABEL Working Group, a “collective” of radical scholars “devoted to more present-minded medieval studies, a more historically-minded cultural studies, and a misfit heteroversity.” After a stint as a tenured professor at Southern Illinois University she quit academia in 2013 after founding Punctum Books, a print-on-demand publishing firm whose eclectic titles include critiques of capitalism, explorations of “queer theory,” and The Medieval Disability Sourcebook. She also became a point woman in a loose affiliation of radical medievalist gadflies who tasked themselves with calling out other medievalists over alleged acts of misogyny, racism, homophobia, and other sins of incorrect attitude.

One of the first targets was Allen J. Frantzen, a respected scholar of Old English—and, as it happened, an openly gay man—who had taught at Loyola University-Chicago for 35 years until his retirement in 2014. In 2015, Frantzen posted an entry (since removed) on his personal blog, “How to Fight Your Way Out of the Feminist Fog,” that decried feminism as “a sour mix of victimization and privilege” and echoed the diction of “men’s rights” websites in urging men to take the “red pill” of resistance. Joy and others signed a petition in 2016 to the Medieval Academy of America, the nation’s premier medievalist organization, demanding what amounted to a censure of Frantzen as “misogynistic” and “bullying.” The Medieval Academy declined to take action—but not before a sizable number of other Old English scholars had circulated a statement declaring that a “majority” in their field were committed to be “welcoming to all others, irrespective of identity.” During the summer of 2017, Joy surfaced again in an article about medieval studies in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which she declared: “The field has been rather proud of its resistance to critical theory, which then just attracts even more people to the field who themselves want to be resistant to theory and see medieval studies as a safe place—a safe place to be elitist, a safe place to be white, a safe place to be Christian, Eurocentric, misogynist, etc.”

At around the same time, in July 2017, complaints about how “absolutely…white” Anglo-Saxon scholarship was specifically alleged to be began to surface in radical-medievalist blogs. Adam Miyashiro, now an assistant professor of English at Stockton University in New Jersey and a self-described “product of the multiethnic mix of Asian and Polynesian peoples” in Hawaii, fretted online that the ISAS’s annual meeting in Honolulu that year featured papers mostly delivered by white (plus a few East Asian) scholars on specialist topics dealing with features of Old English philology and the strategic significance of battles against the Vikings. Miyashiro seemed particularly incensed that ISAS had rejected a paper of his own titled “Beowulf and its Others: Sovereignty, Race, and Medieval Settler-Colonialism.” According to Miyashiro’s proposed paper, Grendel, the monster that the hero Beowulf defeats in the poem, was actually “an indigenous person with a specific biopolitics.” Miyashiro’s paper “linked a non-European reading of Beowulf to the contemporary issues of white supremacy that plague Anglo-Saxon studies, and medieval studies more broadly.” In turning down his paper, Miyashiro argued, the ISAS had committed “erasure of the native.”

That summer was the summer of Charlottesville, and the fact that some of the white-nationalist participants had sported medieval-looking paraphernalia sparked alarm among academic medievalists. It mattered little that the number of wannabe medievals taking part in the white-supremacist demonstration had been small: “dozens” was the way National Public Radio had described them. The apprehension extended well beyond the leftist fringe. For example, Daniel Donoghue, an English professor at Harvard whose scholarship generally eschews the trendy, emailed me that he and his editor had agonized over whether to change the title of Donoghue’s then-forthcoming monograph, How the Anglo-Saxons Read Their Poems. “It was a conversation we wouldn’t have had, say, two or three years ago,” Donoghue wrote. “[B]ut I’d prefer to avoid any association between my work and vile racists.”

In October 2017, George Washington University hosted a pair of back-to-back all-day conferences devoted to alt-right appropriation of the Middle Ages and its alleged encouragement by academic medievalists. The Frantzen controversy came up as an example of professors’ alleged tacit encouragement of violence against women. The main target for denunciation, however, was Rachel Fulton Brown, a historian of medieval religion at the university of Chicago who had waged an online feud with Dorothy Kim, then an assistant professor of medieval English literature at Vassar (she has since moved on to Brandeis). Brown had defied, in a sarcasm-laden blog post, a demand by Kim after Charlottesville that medievalist professors use their classrooms to assure their students that they were not white supremacists. Kim, a Korean-American who describes herself as a “woman of color,” was one of Joy’s clients at Punctum Books, with a line of projected titles condemning “digital whiteness” in medieval studies. She was also a regular speaker on the medievalist conference circuit, where she participated in panels on “whiteness,” “diversity and inclusiveness,” and a need for “decolonization” in medieval studies.

Brown was already under fire from the academic Left over her much-publicized friendship with the gay conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who had just been accused of fraternizing with white nationalists in a lengthy Buzzfeed expose. Other medievalists accused Brown, who had tenure at Chicago, of bullying the tenure-less Kim. This time the Medieval Academy was more responsive. The organization publicly announced that it had established an ad hoc committee designed to protect its members from “verbal abuse, discrimination, bullying, and harassment of any type.” Several members of the Medieval Academy’s board, along with its executive director, sent a sympathetic private letter to Kim offering her a free membership and waiving her registration fee at the organization’s annual meeting in 2018.

In July 2018, Eileen Joy’s BABEL Working Group, in conjunction with another organization, Medievalists of Color (Kim and Miyashiro are both on the board), launched a campaign to boycott the May 2019 meeting of Western Michigan University’s Medieval Institute’s annual conference, a typically huge (3,000-person) annual gathering of medieval scholars on Western Michigan’s campus in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The organizers of the May 2018 conference had declined to bar Brown, on grounds of “intellectual and academic freedom,” from a session titled “Whiteness in Medieval Studies 2.0” at which Dorothy Kim was a featured panelist. The session’s organizer, Seeta Chaganti, a professor of medieval English at the University of California-Davis, announced her refusal to participate in any future conferences in Kalamazoo. The decision not to keep out Brown (who did not in fact attend the session) “allowed a false conception of academic freedom to undermine true academic freedom,” Chaganti wrote in a statement.

BABEL’s “open letter” calling for a boycott of Kalamazoo in 2019 complained that the Medieval Institute had rejected sessions proposed by BABEL, Medievalists of Color, the Society for Medieval Feminist Scholarship, and similar groups that would have dealt with such “self-critical” topics as “How to be a White Ally in Medieval Studies 101,” “Decentering Privilege,” and “Toxic Medievalisms: Misuses and Abuses of the Medieval in Contemporary Culture.” The Medieval Institute countered that many of those topics were already covered in sessions sponsored by others that it did approve, and that it in fact did allow BABEL to sponsor a single session on “whiteness” at the 2019 conference.

Meanwhile Joy had fastened her social-media sights since 2017 on yet another male Anglo-Saxonist—and ISAS member—even more prominent than Allen Frantzen, accusing him in a series of Facebook and Twitter posts of being a “serial sexual predator” of campus women for at least three decades. Since, as far as I know, no actual alleged victim of this man has come forward publicly to accuse him, and an email I sent him asking for comment went unanswered, I am not going to name him. But Joy’s Twitter rants against this scholar, which include excoriations of ISAS for demanding “proof” of the allegations instead of promptly expelling him, have gained credence among other female medievalists.

It was in this over-seasoned stew of #MeToo allegations, aggressive social-justice ideology, the likely pressure on younger scholars of trying to make a living in a branch of the humanities for which there is declining demand, and moral panic over association, no matter how tenuous, with murderous white-supremacist deeds that the ISAS seems to have collapsed into a profound identity crisis. On September 10, Mary Ramboran-Olm, an independent scholar with no formal university affiliation, announced at a “Race Before Race” conference in Washington of medievalist and early modern scholars that she was resigning her position as board member and second vice president of ISAS. In an interview with Inside Higher Education she said that her fellow Anglo-Saxonists “seem to be one of the least equipped and slow to move ourselves into the 21st century with regard to tackling racism, sexism, inclusiveness, representation” and other issues.”

Medievalists of Color promptly issued a statement of support, describing Ramboran-Olm as “a woman of color in an organization so dominated by whiteness that it has not yet ceased referring to itself by a name that attracts and empowers white supremacists.” Two days later, on September 12, Irina Dumitrescu, a professor of English and medieval studies at the University of Bonn, announced that she, too, was resigning from the ISAS board. She cited, besides the “issues of racism” that the organization had failed to deal with, its “protection of sexual predators and abusers.” That seemed to be a reference to the professor accused of serial sexual predation. Yet although Dumitrescu called herself a victim of “abuse” in her resignation letter, she named no names.

Perhaps the ISAS, in rushing through a vote to change its name just a week later, was simply atoning for its distinct, if admittedly slight, association with murderers who might have seen a mangled version of a Rudyard Kipling poem about “Saxons” on the Internet. But it seems as likely that relentless ideological pressure from a rump group of leftist scholars with agendas and bullying issues of their own led the Society to capitulate to a passing social-justice fad that sees racism and misogyny everywhere. One thing is certain, though: It’s no longer okay in academia these days to call yourself an “Anglo-Saxonist”—even if you do happen to studying long-dead people who called themselves Angles and Saxons.


Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen has a PhD in medieval studies from the Catholic University of America. She has written frequently for the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and First Things.