“Old English,” also termed “Anglo-Saxon,” was and is simply the form of the English language that predates the Norman Conquest of 1066. The first line of the earliest poem in Old English, a prayer called “Cædmon’s Hymn,” largely unfamiliar to modern English speakers, offers a taste of this forgotten language: Nu sculon herigean heofonrices weard (“Now we must praise the guardian of the heaven-kingdom”).
Scattered American antiquarians and scholars, including Thomas Jefferson, investigated Anglo-Saxon in the early years of the American republic. The study of the language became more widespread in the decades following the Civil War, when many of the growing numbers of American universities and colleges added it to their curricula. As with any endeavor in nineteenth-century higher education, many more men than women took part.
The first generations of female students, however, took advantage of the academic respectability provided by Anglo-Saxon, with some leveraging the knowledge to enter the academic profession as faculty. Between the Civil War and World War I, Anglo-Saxon provided upper-middle-class white women with entry into the tiny ranks of female professors—and the much larger corps of female K-12 classroom teachers.
At the same time, however, the study of Anglo-Saxon played a part in the more general cultural belief—prevalent at the time—in the superiority of northern European or “Anglo-Saxon” whiteness. In 2017, as the American neo-Nazi movement that calls itself the “alt-right” is resurrecting medievally tinged celebrations of “European heritage” as part of its racist agenda, twenty-first-century Anglo-Saxonists need to confront the racism inherent in the history of the discipline. The challenge is to communicate Anglo-Saxon history as part of a multicultural and inclusive public discourse.
The Gendered History of Learning Old English
The male professors who led the field of Anglo-Saxon studies in the late nineteenth century emphatically defined English Philology—the study of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English—as a scientific, empirical subject that was also (appropriately) masculine. The study of Anglo-Saxon thus allowed nineteenth-century women to engage in quasi-objective processes of grammatical description and translation, as opposed to more belletristic appreciation of literary texts, a potentially emotional and “feminine” activity considered better suited to the parlor than the library or classroom.
In an 1884 essay in the journal of the newly formed Modern Language Association, H.C.G. Brandt, professor of French and German at Hamilton College, differentiated between “scientific” and “natural” methods of language study, explicitly equating “natural” instruction with “the mother” and “the nursery.” Brandt insisted that he and his colleagues were “modern-language-men” whose scientific methods allowed “our profession [to] gain dignity and weight.” Once they were able to access instruction in these scientific methods, women students of philology entered into and benefitted from this patriarchal culture.
Women’s colleges that sought to prove their academic rigor thus offered Anglo-Saxon. Girls’ academies and seminaries that sought to become full-fledged colleges added Anglo-Saxon to their catalogs. Some of these women’s colleges did “feminize” the Anglo-Saxon class: They included the Anglo-Saxon “women’s poems”—Judith, Juliana, and Elene—in their curricula. (Those texts were not part of the syllabus at the equivalent men’s schools.) Before World War I, at least 32 women’s colleges throughout the United States offered Anglo-Saxon; these range from Smith College in Massachusetts to the Florida State College for Women (now the coeducational Florida State University) to Mills College in California. Many graduates of these colleges became classroom teachers in K-12 schools, providing staffing for the growing numbers of public schools throughout the U.S.