Mark G. Thomas, Michael P.H. Stumpf, and Heinrich Harke, "Evidence for an Apartheid-Like Social Structure in Early Anglo-Saxon England," Proceedings of the Royal Society B 2006 [online publication]
The Life Style Extra piece has been creating a bit of a stir on ANSAXNET [the Anglo-Saxon discussion list-serv, of which some of the readers here may be aware], where many are expressing dismay that, in the words of one discussant, "Not only does it misrepresent the Anglo-Saxon situation, it also threatens to cheapen the *real* experience of apartheid suffered by Africans, Indians, and people of mixed race in South Africa--and I find that "repulsive" indeed." Another discussant expressed doubt that such knowledge could be deduced from genetic research [guess what? you'd be amazed] and also wrote, "As for the use of the term apartheid, I too find it misused in this context (unless it is a technical term geneticists use). Perhaps the authors should have used something like 'disadvantaged' or 'deprived' ?" Another discussant wrote, and I quote at length in this case:
. . . . the term is not only repulsive it is foolish. Whoever the invading or invited or opportunistic Germanic tribes were, they were not interested in setting up racially sensitive administrations. They were users, conquerors, exploiters. If historical genetics tells us something solid, it tells us that they managed to occupy territory within which they maximized their own population. Now I don't know to what extent genetic markers can tell us how much or how well they assimilated "native" Britons or Celts. I wonder about the claims. Those Britons may not have been as Celtic as one might imagine, given the Roman emphasis on mixed populations drawn from various sources for their military and economic expertise, perhaps people who were largely Germanic already. After Boadica's defeat, perhaps "pure" Celts in fact melted away into the hinterlands. Just a thought.Finally, one discussant raised what I think are some of the larger issues, and I quote here, again at length:
Using the term "apartheid" to describe Anglo-Saxon England, even if the OED definintion allows for some flexibility of meaning, seems, unavoidably, to invite obvious anachronism, to me anyway...But is this gesture really surprising? 21st century notions of race, class, and gender have become central to modern scholarship, and are at times used to assess historical trends to which they relate only as loose analogues, at best. The big question here, it seems to me, is one of historical methodology: is it useful to try and compare historical periods to one another (e.g., Anglo-Saxon England to apartheid-era South Africa) or attempt to understand these periods independently on their own terms? I must admit, I am biased to the history-on-its-own-terms approach, though I realize it is a much more difficult affair. Yet, it seems to me the real work of a scholar. Perhaps (or perhaps not) it is useful to invite undergraduate students, in the intial stages of historical study, to make such comparisons...I don't know...but (though I remain open-minded) it seems like it ought to be our responsibility to problemtize such simple equations?
To the above post, I responded:
"History on its own terms" is impossible and there is no such thing as historical "periods" that are completely [100%, let's say] separate and discrete from each other, unless we are talking physics and the arrow of time [which even some physicists dispute]. First, historians invent "periods" as useful methodlogical frameworks for analyzing specific "cultures," "nations,""reigns," etc., and while these periods help classify and point to particular times/moments in human history, which are indeed unique in certain ways [and it helps us to understand that uniqueness, certainly], to say that it is not useful to compare seemingly disparate periods in history, such as Anglo-Saxon England and apartheid-era South Africa, is tantamount to saying that we cannot know anything about our present by looking at the past, and vice versa. Along with the Annalistes, I believe that the present has a *need* of history and that the questions we bring to our historical studies must, of some social necessity, be framed by present concerns. There is no "history for history's sake," or if there is, it is not worth pursuing. In the end, history is a form of art--as to how ethical or present-minded or past-minded or positivist or postmodern we want it to be, that is up to us. But every moment in time [as physics, but also evolutionary biology tells us] penetrates, in some fashion, every other moment in time. We should strive more for "whole" histories that seek to understand more how this is so, and what we can learn from that fact, because history, like poetry, in the words of Borges, is always "passing, yet remaining, a mirror to the same inconstant Heraclitus, who is the same and yet another, like the river flowing."
There then followed some back-and-forth as to whether or not Germanic tribes that migrated to "England" really set about "oppressing," "racializing" [what-have-you] the Welsh. It would seem that there is quite a bit of discomfiture among scholars of Anglo-Saxon studies that such could have been the case. Since I spent a good part of May and June at Cambridge University Library poring over Anglo-Saxon law codes, it is clear to me that various A-S polities were definitely intent on schemes of social classification, and "wealh" [Welsh, but also a stand-in, in some cases, for "slave," or "worse-than-a-slave" or "dark-complected," etc.] was one of those classifications. I know quite a few readers of this blog are working on Welsh subjects and much of JJC's work, as we all know, is concerned with early English "identity"--personal, national, and otherwise. I would recommend reading the Thomas, Stumpf, and Harke article--it's bracing reading and shows how science can, indeed, aid the humanists! What does everyone think?