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‘It’s all white people’: Allegations of white supremacy are tearing apart a prestigious medieval studies group

Mary Rambaran-Olm speaks at an academic conference in Washington earlier this month, at which she announced her plans to resign as second vice president of the group formerly known as the International Society of Anglo-Saxonists. (Leah Newsom)

Mary Rambaran-Olm hates drama.

So, in one of the most dramatic moments of her life — as she took the podium at an academic conference to resign from a prestigious medieval studies group over its alleged racism, sexism and ties to white supremacy — she kept things simple. She wasn’t nervous, she didn’t tremble; she didn’t even bother to prepare notes.

Facing several hundred people in an auditorium in downtown Washington this month, Rambaran-Olm spoke for less than a minute: The International Society of Anglo-Saxonists (ISAS) was encouraging and emboldening white supremacists, she said, an attitude typified by its refusal to change its name. Rambaran-Olm, a woman of color, was stepping down as the group’s second vice president, effective immediately.

“I just said what I had to say,” Rambaran-Olm, a 41-year-old academic researcher who lives in Ireland, said later. “I didn’t understand at the time what ripple effect it was going to have — I didn’t think it was going to snowball.”

Snowball it did.

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On Tuesday, following multiple resignations and outraged statements from other medieval groups condemning its actions, ISAS formally voted to alter its name, bowing to critics who argue that “Anglo Saxon” is code for whiteness, a phrase that is co-opted today by white supremacists around the world to advance a false version of white-dominated history.

It was a landmark moment for the group and for medieval studies. ISAS, one of the largest and longest-standing scholarly associations in the field, holds a highly regarded conference every two years that attracts scholars across the globe. Presenting at the event as a young scholar is “a huge deal” that can make your career, according to Erik Wade, a visiting lecturer at the University of Bonn who studies Old English literature and history.

But the battle over the term “Anglo Saxon” has implications beyond ISAS: It’s emblematic of broader issues roiling the world of medieval studies, Wade said. Over the past two weeks, Rambaran-Olm’s actions have forced the field into a contentious debate about the ways its past and present scholarship may reinforce white supremacy, a reckoning some are hailing as long overdue.

“The name change encapsulates a much larger issue of how medieval studies must wrestle with its own disciplinary history of racism and its connections to whiteness,” Wade said. “When something as small as changing an organization’s name generates this kind of pushback, that suggests how entrenched these hierarchies are.”

About 75 percent of ISAS’s 582 members participated in the vote to change the group’s name, and the motion passed with a roughly 60 percent majority, according to an email obtained by The Washington Post.

“There will of course follow a process for suggesting, discussing, and selecting a new name,” former ISAS executive director Robin Norris wrote in the email. “We apologize to our colleagues of color who have experienced the name of our society as just one of many microaggressions they have faced in academia.”

The switch came too late for some, and too soon for others. In the wake of Rambaran-Olm’s speech, ISAS suffered a steady drip of resignations from rank-and-file members and top leadership on both sides of the issue. Its advisory board of nine is down to just four.

ISAS President Timothy Graham declined to comment, and Norris did not respond to a request for comment. Rebecca Stephenson, the second Vice President of ISAS, wrote in a “collective statement” on behalf of the advisory board Thursday that the organization is “strongly committed to transparent progress on these important matters.”

The “term ‘Anglo-Saxonist’ is problematic. It has sometimes been used outside the field to describe those holding repugnant and racist views, and has contributed to a lack of diversity among those working on early medieval England and its intellectual and literary culture,” the statement reads in part. “We are grateful for the patience and support of our members as we begin to rebuild bridges between the divisions in the Society.”

In her email to ISAS members, Norris said the board was saddened by all the resignations and admitted: “We made you wait too long for change.”

“Mary’s resignation has raised difficult questions that will require a longer process of self-reckoning and evaluation on the part of the Society … the board pledges to effect changes,” Norris wrote. She concluded the message with the first of those changes: “With that, I resign as your Executive Director.”

Rambaran-Olm said she thinks ISAS is “taking a good first step” by changing its name. But much more must be done — and much more is at stake, she said.

It was never just about a name, said Eileen Fradenburg Joy, a scholar in the field and a former ISAS member.

“The entire field of medieval studies is undergoing massive upheaval because they have not dealt with long-standing issues of racism and sexism,” Joy said. “This name change controversy is sowing the fault lines that still exist between white scholars — because it’s all white people, a bunch of white people arguing over whether they’re racist.”

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The discipline of English medieval studies — which is overwhelmingly white — focuses on literature, art and culture produced between roughly A.D. 500 and 1500 in England. Key texts studied include “Beowulf” and Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales.”

White supremacists have recently sought to revive this period of history as proof of white racial superiority, pointing in part to the era’s literary achievements as evidence that white society was far ahead of other cultures, according to Wade. They also see it as a time “of pure masculinity, some sort of warrior culture where men could be men,” Wade said.

Medieval symbols and references to historians of that era have cropped up at white nationalist and neo-Nazi rallies, including the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. The gunman suspected in the 2019 New Zealand shooting that left 51 dead scrawled 18 references to the Middle Ages on his weaponry, according to medieval historian Paul B. Sturtevant.

The term “Anglo Saxon” has come to symbolize this particular vision of white medieval dominance, Wade said — a vision that is completely wrong for several reasons.

First of all, it was not a “monolithic white period”: People immigrated to England from all over (including places like Greece and North Africa), and would not have described themselves as “Anglo Saxon” at the time, said Wade, who resigned as a member of ISAS this week to show support for Rambaran-Olm.

Second, Wade said, people living in the region were not the insular and self-important bunch that white supremacists want them to be. The English did not “think of themselves as the center of the world,” according to Wade, and in fact looked to other societies for inspiration and education.

Some of the most revered medieval texts draw heavily on literature produced by Spanish monks. Many in England were “totally obsessed” with travelogues about India and Egypt, Wade said. One prominent English king modeled currency on coins produced in Islam and another wrote to people in the Arab Empire asking for medical advice.

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“This idea that they were not influenced by North Africa or the Middle East, all of these places, is just ridiculous,” Wade said. “They’re really, really trying to model themselves on this other part of the world.”

The false historical narrative that white people — in particular, Anglo Saxon people — were the only race to produce worthwhile literature, art and scientific discoveries during the Middle Ages took root when “professional medieval studies” launched in Britain in the late 1700s, according to Wade. At the time, the British Empire wanted to justify its colonization of other countries around the globe, so it was “politically convenient” to develop a view that the English had “always been superior,” Wade said.

That way of thinking became entrenched as the field developed, according to Wade, and still shapes the discipline today — informing who gets hired, who gets published, who gets tenure.

“This field … it’s just incredibly self-satisfied, smug, elitist, white and male,” Joy said.

Rambaran-Olm didn’t know all this when she chose to pursue a career in medieval studies. She just knew she’d fallen in love with the subject.

Her admiration began during childhood in Canada, when her father (a “huge Middle Ages fan”) introduced her to literary figures such as Robin Hood. Her passion was confirmed in college when she discovered “Beowulf.”

“I was just fascinated with Old English, this language that seemed so foreign but it was our language, my language,” Rambaran-Olm said. “I thought that medieval studies was something for me, too — until I found out that clearly it wasn’t.”

Professors and advisers made Rambaran-Olm feel alien and unwelcome countless times over the years, she said. Turning her down for a job, someone told her, “We couldn’t figure out how to justify to our students that you are an Anglo-Saxonist.” Teachers consistently professed amazement that she was interested in the field.

Still, she stuck with it, determined not to become one of the countless “people of color who leave silently,” she said. She joined ISAS in 2005 and, when the opportunity arose in 2017 to serve as second vice president, she jumped at it.

The organization is highly prestigious among medieval scholars (“a huge deal,” Wade said), so it was a possible boon to her career. More than that, Rambaran-Olm thought she could push for change from within, using her position of power for good.

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“I was hoping I could reach not just the organization but work to make changes within our field, because our field is just laden with so many problems,” Rambaran-Olm said. “Too many people have left because of racism and sexism. … I’m one of the only people of color in the field.”

In her new role, she immediately began seeking to reform ISAS. She fought to introduce a sexual harassment policy and to “dismantle racism within the organization” by making it more inclusive of people of color, she said.

Of course, she also pushed for a name change — an idea first proposed by Adam Miyashiro, an associate professor of literature at Stockton University who wrote an open letter to ISAS in 2017 in part outlining the “racist understanding” of the term Anglo-Saxon. Miyashiro again made the case for changing the name at ISAS’s conference this year in Albuquerque.

“My argument was that we need to at least seriously consider the racist and white supremacist history about how that term has been used,” Miyashiro said in an interview. “This is not something we can run away from."

For two years, every change Rambaran-Olm proposed met with “endless and total stonewalling” from ISAS’s board, she said. This month, following yet another disappointing board meeting, she decided she’d had enough.

In the hours before the Washington conference on Sept. 7, she called her mother and various academic advisers to talk through her plans to quit. Everyone agreed: It simply “wasn’t worth it” anymore. She did not want to do hard, lonely and pointless battle with the board for years to come.

ISAS’s vote this week hasn’t changed Rambaran-Olm’s mind. She has no wish to rejoin the group, she said, no matter what it’s called.

But she’s not giving up on medieval studies.

“I have a number of articles and two books in the works,” Rambaran-Olm said. “I just think — well, there are things to say, and if people are willing to publish it, I’m going to say them.”