Told  /  Q&A

What the 'America First Caucus' Gets Wrong on Anglo-Saxon History

"Everything's sort of layered on a false understanding of history."

TIME spoke to medievalist Mary Rambaran-Olm, an expert on race in early England and Provost Research Fellow at the University of Toronto, who has written about the loaded racist connotations behind the term “Anglo-Saxon.” Here, she talks about her research on the real origins of the term and where the latest controversy over its use—and misuse—fits in its history.

TIME: What does “Anglo-Saxon” mean? Where does it come from? What’s the real origin of this term?

RAMBARAN-OLM: Basically it was an Anglo-Latin term that King Alfred used to describe how he was king over the Angles, which is the English, and the Saxons, two of the main tribes that had migrated to Britain. [Use of the term] has only been recorded three times in the entire corpus of Old English—apart from a handful of charters where kings referred to themselves as such and that was used for propaganda to try and unite the kingdoms. The early English weren’t calling themselves Anglo-Saxons. Once we look at the manuscript evidence, we see that there isn’t really a basis—especially now—for people to be calling themselves Anglo-Saxons. The terms that people used during the period to describe themselves in the vernacular were most commonly “englisc” or “angelcynn.” There’s no record of it in English manuscripts from shortly after the Norman Conquest in 1066 until the 1600s.

What changed at the time it started to be used more frequently?

It was tied to colonization. Back in the 17th century, Empire was starting to manifest…and a nationalist tone. They started to look back at the centuries before, and they wanted an origin story. So instead of referring to themselves as English, they wanted to be “pure Anglo-Saxons”—so there was this purity attached to it, and that was for colonization. And so in Britain that term started to seep into academic circles and then into the public. In the 19th and 18th centuries, there was something called medievalism where writers and politicians were really reflecting on an imagined past, and that’s when the term really took off. It did mean almost exclusively white, and so it became a dog whistle, and it carried forward into American politics. So this isn’t something that’s exclusively an American problem, but for the America First Caucus to use that, it stood out right away because it’s all mythology that they’re using, and they’re advancing a white-supremacist narrative. And it’s very dangerous. Everything’s sort of layered on a false understanding of history.