Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, University of Cambridge

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Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic
Established 1928
Location Cambridge, United Kingdom
Faculty of English at 9 West Road

The Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic (ASNC or, informally, ASNaC) is one of the constituent departments of the University of Cambridge, and focuses on the history, material culture, languages and literatures of the various peoples who inhabited Britain, Ireland and the extended Scandinavian world in the early Middle Ages (5th century to 12th century). It is based on the second floor of the Faculty of English at 9 West Road. In Cambridge University jargon, its students are called ASNaCs.[1]

It remains the only university faculty or department in the world to focus entirely on the early Middle Ages.[2]


The study of Anglo-Saxon England and its neighbouring regions has deep roots at Cambridge, beginning with the sixteenth-century Archbishop Matthew Parker. The first half of the seventeenth century saw Abraham Wheelocke hold a readership in Anglo-Saxon, and in 1657 John Spelman bestowed on William Somner the annual stipend of the Anglo-Saxon lecture founded by his father, Sir Henry Spelman, at Cambridge, enabling him to complete the first Old English dictionary.[3] After a lull in interest in Old English, in the nineteenth century, John Mitchell Kemble developed the study of Old English and Anglo-Saxon archaeology at Trinity College, and Joseph Bosworth, another Anglo-Saxonist who was associated with Trinity, endowed the Elrington and Bosworth Chair in Anglo-Saxon, established in 1878, and first held by Walter William Skeat. Strengths at Cambridge in Old Norse were built up by Eiríkur Magnússon (1833–1913) and in Celtic studies by Edmund Crosby Quiggin (1875–1920).

The ASNaC Department as such has its origins in the work and ideas of Skeat's successor as Elrington and Bosworth Professor, Hector Munro Chadwick, of Clare College. Chadwick took a leading role in integrating the philological study of Old English with archaeology and history and, by bringing the study of Old English from the Faculty of English to Archaeology and Anthropology in 1928, founded what was to become the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic:[4] 'Chadwick's aim ... was to keep Old English studies free from philology (as it was then practised), but also from the dominance of English Literature'.[5] However, 'the alliance of Anglo-Saxon and archaeology suited the professor and not the students; and in the 1960s Professor Dorothy Whitelock led the Saxon flock back into the English fold'--specifically in 1967, though the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology continues to sustain strengths in Anglo-Saxon and early medieval archaeology, with relevant archaeology papers being available to ASNaCs.[6] The Anglo-Saxon and Kindred Studies Tripos was introduced as a single-part (two-year) Tripos in 1957, the class list being published under the title 'Anglo-Saxon'; in 1971 this was relabelled 'Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic' under Peter Clemoes.[7] In 1992, under the leadership of Michael Lapidge, ASNC became a two-part (three-year) Tripos.[8] The Elrington and Bosworth Professor was customarily the head of the ASNaC Department, until a rotating headship system was introduced during the professorship of Simon Keynes in the early twenty-first century.

The department has an affiliated student society, the ASNaC Society. Amongst other things, it is noted for producing the (mostly) twice yearly Gesta Asnacorum, founded by Tom Shakespeare, which satirises the life of the Department and the medieval texts and modern scholarship it studies.[9] Though the Gesta Asnacorum is merely a scurrilous student rag, it does feature the juvenilia of many alumni of the department who have gone on to become prominent historians.

In 2015 the department was the subject of the scholarly article collection H M Chadwick and the Study of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic in Cambridge, edited by Michael Lapidge (CMCS Publications).

Applications and admissions

From 2009 to 2012, between 50 and 60 applicants applied for the ASNC BA per year; about 53% were offered places; and about 43% (20-25 students) accepted their offers.[10] The undergraduate student body is majority female (⅔ for the 2011 admissions cycle) and has a strong preponderance of state-school leavers (84% of home students for the 2011 admissions cycle).[11]

Major research projects

In the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise the department was rated as the top Celtic Studies department in the UK, and one of the top Departments and Faculties within the University of Cambridge, with 75% of its submitted research rated internationally excellent (3*) or world-leading (4*).[citation needed] Because of its strongly interdisciplinary nature, elements of the Department's research were considered by the panels for History, English and Classics as well as Celtic Studies.

In collaboration with King's College London, the department since 2005 has developed and curated the free-access Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England.[12]

Languages taught

Language-study is central to ASNaC degree programmes, and the Department is a major training ground in these skills for researchers in early medieval history. The Department provides ab initio tuition in Old English, Old Norse, Old Irish, Middle Welsh, and Latin.

Despite the Department's medieval focus, its pre-eminence as a UK centre of Scandinavian and Celtic studies has led both the Irish and Icelandic governments to provide grants for the teaching of Modern Irish and Icelandic (respectively) to members of Cambridge University.[13]

Alumni and emeriti

ASNaCs have gone into many walks of life, but a significant proportion of academics in the fields of early medieval European literature and history, particularly in Celtic studies, have studied or taught at the department, making it a historically highly influential institution in its field. Academically prominent alumni of the department or its forerunner institutions include:

Other noted alumni include:

Many of the Department's staff were also students in the Department or its forerunner institutions. Other noted emeriti include:

Appearances in popular culture

Maria, the protagonist of Thomas Thurman's childrens' book Not Ordinarily Borrowable; or, Unwelcome Advice, is an Asnac (there characterised as 'a person who studies the way people lived a long, long time ago, far longer ago than the time when Maria lived, and looks at the things they made and the writings they left behind').[14]

References and external links

  1. Tom Shakespeare, 'A Point of View: Taking England back to the Dark Ages', BBC News Magazine, 6 June 2014,,
  2. Cf. Hugh Magennis, The Cambridge Introduction to Anglo-Saxon Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 35.
  3. Dictionarium Saxonico-Latino-Anglicum, voces, phrasesque praecipuas Anglo-Saxonicas. . . cum Latina et Anglica vocum interpretatione complectens. . . Aecesserunt Aelfrici Abbatis Grammatica Latino-Saxonica cum glossario suo ejusdem generis,' 2 pts, Oxford, 1659; 2nd edit, with additions by Thomas Benson, 1701.
  4. A History of the University of Cambridge, ed. by Christopher Brooke, 4 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988–2004), IV (Peter Searby, 1890–1990), 445. See further Allen Frantzen, 'By the Numbers: Anglo-Saxon Scholarship at the Century's End', in A Companion to Anglo-Saxon Literature, ed. by Phillip Pulsiano and Elaine Treharne (Oxford: Blackwell, 2001), DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631209041.2001.00030.x (pp. 478-80).
  5. John Walmesley, ' "A Term of Opprobrium": Twentieth Century Linguistics and English Philology', in History of Linguistics 2008, ed. by Gerda Hassler, Studies in the History of the Language Sciences, 115 (Amsterdam: Benjamins, 2008), pp. 35-47 (at p. 39).
  6. A History of the University of Cambridge, ed. by Christopher Brooke, 4 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988–2004), IV (Peter Searby, 1890–1990), 445, 202; Jana K. Schulman, 'An Anglo-Saxonist at Oxford and Cambridge: Dorothy Whitelock (1901–1982)', in Women Medievalists and the Academy, ed. by Jane Chance (Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005), pp. 553-62 (at pp. 559-60).
  7. E. S. Leedham-Green, A Concise History of the University of Cambridge (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 226-27.
  8. Departmental History, Department of ASNC
  9. Historia Asnacorum. 'Gesta Asnacorum', 1985–1995: The First Ten Years, ed. by Richard Fairhurst (Cambridge: The Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic, 1997), p. 7;
  10. "Undergraduate Study". Retrieved 2014-09-20.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11., pp. 12, 15.
  12. Janet L. Nelson, 'From Building Site to Building: The Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE) Project', in Collaborative Research in the Digital Humanities, ed. by Marilyn Deegan, Willard McCarty (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012), pp. 123-34.
  14. Thomas Thurman, Not Ordinarily Borrowable; or, Unwelcome Advice ([n.p.]: CreateSpace, 2009), p. 10.