‘The people of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms tell their story, in their own words. Explore the beginnings of the English language and English literature.’
Those were some of the words used to describe the British Library’s new Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms exhibition, a ‘once-in-a-generation’ collection of illuminated manuscripts, illustrious scrolls and treasures extending through 600 years. As a previous student of Anglo-Saxon literature, and a once aspiring medievalist, seeing all these texts together was a wonderful moment; a time to see all the texts I had studied in the flesh (or parchment), right there before me. So full of dragons, warriors and magical deeds was the Saxon realm that to me it was all but another world; and yet, as the exhibition reminds you, these tales and gospels are the foundation of the culture we take part in today. But if that is so, why is it that so little of us talk about it? Why is it that people consistently confuse Middle and Old English? Why is it that we do not see figures such as Alfred the Great as a part of a historical legacy?
These questions can be answered mostly by the understandable sensitivities that come with English patriotism and pride, as is often the case in western nations, but it isn’t enough to answer why it isn’t considered that way at all. Perhaps we are trying to avoid the example of Hitler, and the National Socialists, who attempted to revive Germanic tradition in the name of national solidarity and ethnic purity. To use the words of Christa Kamenetsky, who quotes the German folklorist Otto Schmidt:
‘For Germany, a country of “instability, mobility, and diversity,” he (Schmidt) hoped that folklore would once again become a uniting force, a welding power that might bring permanence to the Volk.’
It is the same Otto Schmidt who uses the words ‘blood and soil’ to refer to the connection between language, Germanic folklore, and the people of Nazi Germany; a phrase you might remember from the recent Neo-Fascist marches in the US. In fact, it is only those fascists and nationalists who are still interested in the folklore of northern Europe. Below you will see a picture of the Nordic Resistance Movement, a pan-Scandinavian fascist alliance who make great use the Germanic runic alphabet, which was the predominant writing system of the Saxons before the introduction of its Latin counterpart. On their flags can be seen the Týr rune, one of many symbols that supposedly connect them to their native roots.
As opposed to these groups, English far-right organisations tend to adopt the images and terminology of Christianity and empire over that of the country’s Saxon past. The English Defence League, for example, use the motto In Hoc Signo Vinces(in this sign you will conquer), whilst sporting a flag with the Christian cross. They are proud of a post-Germanic England associated with the use of Latin and the popularity of Christianity. And yes, you would be right in saying that many of the Saxon kingdoms wrote extensively in Latin and prayed to a Christian god, but that would ignore the fact that Old English and Germanic pagan mythology are tied in with the local culture of the Saxon people. What EDL represent, more than anything, is a Christian crusade culture against a supposed Islamic invasion.
The same trend can be found within the British National Party, who grew out of the National Front (as seen below) in the 80s. Though being another far-right, fascist enterprise, the party ignores elements of English Nationalism in favour of British Nationalism, plastering their campaign propaganda and marches with the Union Jack. So despite having once believed in the superiority of the Nordic Race, you will be pressed to find any reference to the Anglo-Saxons or their runes; the patriotism of the BNP is tied up in ideas of colonialism and the lost greatness of an empire.
So what is it about English, or British far-right ideology which differs from others in Northern Europe? Maybe it is the invasion of William the Great and the influence of the Latin world that separated the land from its more Germanic roots, leaving the Saxon past distant from its more modern, multicultural future. Or perhaps it is also the fact that Empire was seen as the isle’s historical height, whereas for the Germans, or the Scandinavians, their Germanic past is much easier to glorify.
Either way the history of England and the British Isles sit in a tenuous position, barely known and forgotten by the majority of the public. Could it be taken on by proprietors of right-wing rhetoric, and if so should we adopt it and connect to it ourselves? I would love to hear the way you view the world of the Anglo-Saxons, but for now I will continue to do as I have always done; read it, enjoy it, and share it with others.
If you get time to visit the British Museum and this exhibition, tickets are just £8 for students and it is definitely worth the trip.