THR Web Features   /   November 30, 2021

Athelstan the Woke

On the failure of a term.

Alan Jacobs

( Frontispiece of Bede's Life of St Cuthbert, showing King Æthelstan [924–39]. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

My favorite podcast is “The Rest is History”, and recently its hosts, Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland, took to the podcast’s official Twitter account to stage one of their occasional World Cups. (Previous examples include the World Cup of Gods and the World Cup of British Prime Ministers.) Such competitions begin with the creation of a bracket with seeded and unseeded competitors, which is followed by the solicitation of votes via Twitter polls. This new tournament was the World Cup of English Monarchs, and its winner—Athelstan, the first king of the English people—was so surprising that the news made its way into the London newspapers and received comment on some breakfast television shows. 

It seems to have been the report in the Daily Mail that generated the most vigorous responses. Athelstan’s surprise victory in the Cup Final over the heavily favorite, Elizabeth I, made many of the Mail’s readers angry, and angry in a curious way: As Sandbrook and Holland report on a recent episode of the podcast, a number of those readers wrote to denounce the “woke nonsense” by “lefty historians” that produced this offensively “woke tosh.” 

We need not spend much time noting that Sandbrook and Holland did not choose Athelstan—84,000 Twitter users did—or that Sandbrook is himself Daily Mail columnist. What’s much more interesting is the use of the word “woke.” 

I myself stopped using the term a while back—though not before publishing this essay—because it seems to me that it has degenerated into an almost content-free term of abuse. People on the right side of the political spectrum call anyone to the left of them “woke,” and any large-scale dissent from their preferred politics a “woke mob.” (Something similar has happened more recently to “critical race theory” or CRT, which is deployed by many to describe any attempt, however mild and fair-minded, to reckon in history classes with the legacies of slavery.) 

But the Daily Mail readers responding to the World Cup of English Monarchs are using the word in a very peculiar way. If “wokeness” refers to anything at all—John McWhorter provides a capsule history here that neatly explains the gradual pejoration of the term—it is awareness of injustices committed against persons of color. So it is rather difficult to understand how the celebration of a Dead White Anglo-Saxon King could possibly be “woke tosh.” 

But a moment’s reflection will make it all clear: For these angry readers, “woke” simply means “revisionist”—a view of history different from what they were taught at school. Everyone knows that Queen Elizabeth I is among the very greatest of English monarchs, that as the Virgin Queen she reigned over a Golden Age, and therefore any alternative reading must ipso facto be … you know. 

It will be interesting to see if this development becomes more generalized. I envision a moment, decades from now, when a soapbox orator in the Metaverse proclaims that the greatest American president was Ronald Reagan, only to have a social justice warrior of the time pop up—using an avatar that looks remarkably like Harriet Tubman—to retort, “What a bunch of woke nonsense!”