I have bad news for you: the Anglo-Saxons didn’t exist.
I realise you may have studied them or taught classes about them, but the fact remains: they didn’t exist.
There’s a lively debate going on among historians at the moment about what happened in Britain after the Roman legionaries left. How and when the English emerged are not, it seems, simple questions to answer. However, we don’t need to be drawn into this debate to see that, in the words of a recent article from Current Archaeology, it’s time to axe the Anglo-Saxons. We simply need to recognise that no one ever referred to himself or herself as an “Anglo-Saxon”.
The Angles existed and so did the Saxons, but not the Anglo-Saxons. At best, “Anglo-Saxon” is a convenient shorthand.
Much the same is true of the Vikings. Look at this famous description from the (so-called) Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of the first (so-called) Viking attack on the monastery on Lindisfarne in AD 793:
“In this year, dire portents appeared over Northumbria. They consisted of immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine followed, and a little after that, on 8th June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne.”
The chronicle didn’t mention “Vikings”. It referred instead to “heathen men”. On other occasions, it called the attackers Danes, Northmen, Pirates or Pagans. But not Vikings. And so we could go on: the Glorious Revolution wasn’t glorious. The Byzantine Empire wasn’t Byzantine. And the Middle Ages certainly weren’t medieval.
In English literature in the 16th century, CS Lewis pointed out, that the division of history into an era of classical civilisation, followed by the Dark Ages, then the Middle Ages, and finally the glories of the Renaissance is “a preposterous conception” that was dreamt up by humanists who wanted to glorify their own achievements.
There was no Dark Age after the Roman Empire fell and the so-called Middle Ages were not merely a preparation for the Renaissance. And if you’re not convinced, ask yourself this question: when were the Middle Ages?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines them as: “The period in European history between ancient and modern times, now usually taken as extending from the fall of the Roman Empire in the West (c500) to the fall of Constantinople (1453) or the beginning of the Renaissance (14th cent.); the medieval period; esp. the later part of this period, after 1000.” There are all sorts of problems with this definition. When were ancient times? When do modern times start? Did the Middle Ages end in 1453 or during the 1300s? Did they start in the 5th century or the 11th century? Not even the OED seems sure.
However, it is quite sure about the meaning of “medieval”. One of its definitions is: “Exhibiting the severity or illiberality ascribed to a former age; cruel, barbarous.” In other words, “medieval” is a term of abuse, and herein lies the problem.
We are now all acutely aware, if we weren’t already, that words matter and that how we describe each other matters. The problem is that we don’t always take that awareness far enough. Too often, Catholic schools accept and promote loaded terms in the classroom. Every time, we use “medieval” or “the Middle Ages”, we reinforce a conception of the past that, in effect, pits Erasmus against St Francis.
So we have a choice: either we rename or reclaim. In Popes, Emperors and Elephants, my recent history book for children and young adults, I chose the first option, arguing that, in order to redeem the Middle Ages from those who would see those wonderful, diverse centuries as “cruel” and “barbarous”, we need to wean ourselves off the term for a while.
But there’s a wider issue here. The very idea of the Middle Ages is built on a set of presumptions that should trouble us all. Pope Benedict XVI once said that: “Today’s culture is in fact permeated by a tension which at times takes the form of a conflict between the present and tradition. The dynamic movement of society gives absolute value to the present, isolating it from the cultural legacy of the past, without attempting to trace a path for the future.”
He was right. At the centre of our faith is a God who acts in history. If we cut ourselves off from the past by using terms like “the Dark Ages” and “the Middle Ages”, we are in danger of cutting ourselves off from him. When stuck in the present, our students are unable to trace a path of the future. CS Lewis warned us of the danger of chronological snobbery. I want to add that we also need to mind our language.
Roy Peachey teaches at Woldingham School and is the author of six books, including Popes, Emperors and Elephants: The First Thousand Years of Christian Culture (Angelico, 2021), and a children’s novel, The Race (Cranachan, 2021)
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