James Earl

title.none: Harris, Race and Ethnicity (James Earl)

identifier.other: baj9928.0410.015 04.10.15

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: James Earl, University of Oregon,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Harris, Stephen J. Race and Ethnicity in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Series: Studies in Medieval History and Culture, vol. 24. New York: Routledge, 2003. Pp. xvii, 297. $90.00 0-415-96872-0. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.10.15

Harris, Stephen J. Race and Ethnicity in Anglo-Saxon Literature. Series: Studies in Medieval History and Culture, vol. 24. New York: Routledge, 2003. Pp. xvii, 297. $90.00 0-415-96872-0. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

James Earl
University of Oregon

There are few higher pleasures in this profession than mentoring a prodigious dissertation, and few more impressive achievements than writing one. Stephen Harris's book is one of these, a work of enormous promise. It displays a tremendous range of reading; each of its chapters pursues a highly original, counter-intuitive argument; and the whole adds up to a timely revaluation of much-studied texts in light of an urgent issue of our day, race and ethnicity. He certainly makes good on his claim that "constructions of race have influenced the form, division, and reception of Anglo-Saxon literature since at least the eighth century" (5).

His point is that racial and ethnic constructions evolved during the Anglo-Saxon period, as the Anglo-Saxons' "myth of migration" was reinterpreted to account for the changing ethnic make-up of the population that came to call itself English. Harris examines narratives of ethnogenesis ("where we came from and how we became a people") in Bede, Alfred, Wulfstan, and the Norman historians--i.e., from a multiplicity of immigrant tribes, to a unified Germanic nation, to a legal state incorporating diverse peoples, to a Danish people descended from the Trojans (adding for dessert an analysis of ethnicity in "The Battle of Maldon"). Our tendency to ignore the complexities of these narratives in Old English literature amounts to a racialization on our part: "Textual culture is racialized insofar as we read it as a single, unified body through a filter of a single, unified people" (36). We say "Anglo-Saxons," but that term hides a lot of ethnic and ideological diversity.

The title of the chapter on Bede, "The Election of the Angles," announces Harris's bold claim about the Historia Ecclesiastica: when Bede calls his book the history of the gens anglorum, he really means the Angles, his own tribe, not the Saxons or Jutes. This argument depends on the meaning of the word gens, the closest term Latin provides to our word race. "The Angles speak their own language and have left no portion of their gens waiting on the continent--while the Saxons and the Iutae have. This suggests that the Angles have moved as an entire people, as gens, as the Israelites did during the Exodus, not as a group of marauders, exiles, adventurers, or scouts, that is, as nationes. Unlike the Irish, Picts, Jutes or Saxons, the Angles have a rightful and consistent claim as an originary British gens" (74). The case for this surprising claim is complex, and will require close attention by Bede scholars to assess. In continental usage, gens anglorum often means all the inhabitants of Britain, but Harris argues that Bede's usage is more restrictive. By the time the History is translated into OE, however, the racial categories have already shifted, and Bede's distinction is lost in an emerging nationalism.

Alfred's take on ethnogenesis is dissected in the OE Orosius. Changes made to the Latin original reveal a Germanic race instrumental in the formation of Christendom, thus yielding a doubly-strong Anglo-Saxon identity. This argument depends on the definition of the term Christendom, which Harris argues was a Carolingian concept with a distinct Germanic aspect. "Unique portions of the [OE] World History, especially with respect to the sacking of Rome, can be explained as an ethnic (especially Anglo-Saxon) response to Christian history; that is, a sense of Germanic community shapes the Latin into a story of the origins of Christendom. . . . The World History shifts the focus of the work from a Roman Christ to a Germanic Christendom. In doing so, it registers a pronounced shift in identity, an identity not only distinct from the Roman context of the original, but also an identity arguably distinct from those prevalent in seventh- and eighth-century Anglo-Saxon England" (91). The case is supported by West Saxon genealogies, in which "all Angles and Saxons, distinct races by Bede's reckoning, were . . . presented as related through both Adam and Scef (Scyf)--through both Christian and Germanic lines. . . . These genealogies seem to say that all British Angles and British Saxons are literally related through Christianity" (87).

The chapter on Wulfstan concentrates on the Sermo Lupi. The ethnic diversity of England had changed dramatically with the settlement of Danes in the Danelaw. There is no doubt they were seen as a distinct ethnic group: there is the St. Brice's Day massacre, for example, when Ethelred resorted to what we now call ethnic cleansing; and there is Aelfric's notorious "Toilet Letter," in which he chastises "brother Edward" for moving north and adopting Danish habits (capturing their immorality in the memorable image of Danish women eating on the "gangsetl"). In spite of such counterexamples, however, Harris argues that Wulfstan saw the Anglo-Saxons and the Anglo-Danes as a single group. The key concept in his argument is the "Old Testament logic" by which God punishes a whole people for the sins of its members. "If the immorality of some will produce general despair for all, then the fate of one Englishman depends on the morality of another, be he Angle, Saxon, or Dane. The binding force of this ethnically diverse community is a common subjection to the law of God and man. . . . To him ethnic identity is secondary to a legal and moral identity. Unlike Bede, who had articulated an ethnic foundation to an inclusive religious identity, and unlike Alfred who had articulated an ethnic foundation to a religio-political identity, Wulfstan seems to be articulating a legal and moral foundation to an inclusive national identity" (122, 124).

This claim depends on understanding Wulfstan's "we" as including Anglo-Saxons and Anglo-Danes both--and perhaps it must be so, though Wulfstan does not mention the Anglo-Danes explicitly. Here and elsewhere in the book, one cannot help but think of American discourses of race and ethnicity--especially in an election year. A politician may say, "America is a nation of immigrants; after all, our ancestors arrived on the Mayflower," simultaneously including and excluding most ethnic groups from his definition of America. Perhaps Harris is right that Wulfstan was more enlightened than that in his sermon, but I am not so certain.

The Norman conquest made for an extremely complex ethnic situation. How will a nation now composed of Anglo-Saxons, Anglo-Danes and Anglo-Normans forge a single identity? Harris's answer is too complex to summarize here, except to say that by euhemerizing the Scandinavian gods and borrowing the idea of a Trojan ancestor from the French, the Normans managed to justify the conquest of Britain as a final translatio imperii (from Greece to Rome to France to Britain), and a unification of related peoples. The lines of argument are necessarily tangled, given the number and the originality of Norman histories. Every reader will learn much from this chapter, and will also find much to disagree with--but I will save my disagreements for the last chapter.

That "The Battle of Maldon" is treated after the Normans is a clue that something is wrong. In his final chapter Harris's fondness for the counter-intuitive veers toward the shocking. Claiming by Old Testament logic that Olaf's raid must be a response to the sins of the English, and building on a reference to Jeremiah in the Vita Oswaldi, Harris constructs a typological parallel between the Vikings crossing the bridge and the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. "Byrhtnoth has presumed to challenge God's role in the affair--to set himself against God, in the words of Leviticus--by disloyally dismissing the tactical gift God had given his people, a causeway on which to sustain the fierce Viking attack. Byrhtnoth and his people have turned against God and will suffer for it, but it takes the Scriptural parallel, the Anglo-Saxon migration myth and Old Testament logic to make this point" (183). Twenty-five dense pages and eighty weighty footnotes notwithstanding, I find this conclusion wildly improbable. There is scholarly virtuosity in the discussion of historical issues, but the reading of the poem is not as sure. The dissertation process has produced its inevitable strain, and the author is racing to the end. I wish he had waited for the ink to dry before publishing.

I mentored a prodigious dissertation myself recently. After all the congratulations, I added a sobering parting word, that the profession expects several years will be needed to convert it into a book. Dissertations tend to be overloaded with footnotes and long digressions, which, no matter how impressive and interesting in themselves, can obscure the clarity of the main argument and diminish its force. Harris was seduced into quick publication by a Routledge series called Studies in Medieval History and Culture: Outstanding Dissertations. It is a seduction almost impossible to refuse in today's professional whirlwind. One cannot blame him--but still, dissertations this outstanding deserve more patient nurturing into book form.