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

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 name ASNC or ASNaC is pronounced /'æznæk/, and originally denoted members of the ASNC Society rather than of the Department. It was coined as a pun on an early poster for the ASNC Society Lunches: 'A Snack for ASNACs'.[9] Students in the department were referred to in English as Asnackers, in French as Asnaciennes or Asnaques, and in German as Asnäckische.[10] Later the simpler term 'Asnacs' came into common use.

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).

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*). 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, since 2005 the department has developed and organised the free-access Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England.[11]

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.[12]


The following table lists lecturers in the department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic and its forerunner institutions, up to the end of the second millennium CE.[13]

Staff member Term Date of matriculation

if former ASNaC


Faculties of English and Modern and Medieval Languages 1978-1927
W. W. Skeat 1878-1912
Eiríkur Magnússon 1894-98
Hector Munro Chadwick 1895-1941
Edmund Crosby Quiggin 1895-1920
José Maria de Navarro 1926-56
Maureen M. O'Reilly 1926-48
Bertha Surtees Phillpotts 1926-32 1898
Department of Anglo-Saxon and Kindred Studies 1927-67

(Faculty of Archaeology and Anthropology)

T. C. Lethbridge 1932-?
Dorothy M. Hoare de Navarro 1932-56
Agnes Jane Robertson 1932-35 c. 1918
Kenneth Hurlstone Jackson 1934-39 1928
Peter Hunter Blair 1937-78
Rachel Bromwich 1945-76 1934
Bruce Dickins 1946-57
G. E. Daniel 1947-?
Nora Kershaw Chadwick 1950-58
Frank J. Bullivant 1956-61
Audrey E. Ozanne 1956-61
Dorothy Whitelock 1957-69 1921
Kathleen Hughes 1958-77
Peter Clemoes 1961-82 graduated 1956
R. I. Page 1961-91
Department of Anglo-Saxon and Kindred Studies 1967-71

(Faculty of English)

Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic 1971-

(Faculty of English)

Michael Lapidge 1974-98
Patrick Sims-Williams 1977-93 c. 1970
David N. Dumville 1977-2005[14] c. 1970
Simon Keynes 1978- c. 1970
Paul Bibire 1985-99
Andy Orchard 1991-2000[15] 1983
Erich Poppe 1991-95
Lesley Abrams 1991-95
Oliver Padel 1994-? c. 1968
Máire Ní Mhaonaigh 1995-
Martin Syrett 1996-2000 1986


Applications and admissions

Between 1900 and 1999, around 860 students studied in the Department or its precursor institutions. Between 1900 and 1946, 68% were women; thereafter there was a slight majority of men until 1980; and rough gender parity 1980-1999.[16]

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.[17] 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).[18]

ASNaC Society

The department has an affiliated student society, the ASNaC Society. It is recorded as hosting academic papers as early as 1971.[19][20][21] According to Michael Lapidge,

From the mid-1980s onward, the combined number of undergraduate nd graduate students reached (which might be described as) a critical mass, with the result that there was a very palpable surge in corporate spirit and concomitant pride in being an 'ASNaC', a member of a small but elite group of students distinguished throughout the University for its academic attainments.

The Society organises a weekly 'ASNaC Lunch', field trips, punting expeditions, dinners, and ASNaC mugs and sweatshirts.[22] The Society is also 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.[23] 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.


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 who are not listed above as staff include:

Other noted alumni include:

Maria, the protagonist of Thomas Thurman's children's 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').[24]

  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. Anthony Harvey, The Origin of ASNaC, Chadwick Lecture Addendum 1, 2017.
  10. ibid.
  11. 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.
  13. Unless otherwise stated, information is from 'Appendix VIII', in H. M. Chadwick and the Study of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic in Cambridge, ed. by Michael Lapidge (Aberystwyth: Department of Welsh, Abersytwyth University, 2015), ISBN 9780955718298 [=Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 69/70], pp. 272-78.
  14. "Professor David Dumville". Staff profile. University of Aberdeen.
  15. "Professor Andrew Orchard". Institute of Continuing Education. Retrieved 22 January 2014.
  16. Michel Lapidge, 'Introduction: The Study of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic in Cambridge, 1878-1999', in H. M. Chadwick and the Study of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic in Cambridge, ed. by Michael Lapidge (Aberystwyth: Department of Welsh, Abersytwyth University, 2015), pp. 1-58 ISBN 9780955718298 [=Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 69/70], pp. 1-58 (p. 41).
  17. "Undergraduate Study". Retrieved 2014-09-20.
  18., pp. 12, 15.
  19. M. C. W. Hunter, 'The Study of Anglo-Saxon Architecture Since 1770: An Evaluation', Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society, 66 (1975-76), 129-39 (p. 129).
  20. R. W. Clement, 'University of Cambridge Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic Society', Old English Newsletter, 13.1 (Fall 1979), 8.
  21. D. W. Rollason, 'The Cults of Murdered Royal Saints in Anglo-Saxon England', Anglo-Saxon England, 11 (1982), 1-22 (p. 1 fn 1), doi:10.1017/S0263675100002544.
  22. Michel Lapidge, 'Introduction: The Study of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic in Cambridge, 1878-1999', in H. M. Chadwick and the Study of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic in Cambridge, ed. by Michael Lapidge (Aberystwyth: Department of Welsh, Abersytwyth University, 2015), pp. 1-58 ISBN 9780955718298 [=Cambrian Medieval Celtic Studies, 69/70], pp. 1-58 (pp. 44-45, quoting p. 44).
  23. 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;
  24. Thomas Thurman, Not Ordinarily Borrowable; or, Unwelcome Advice ([n.p.]: CreateSpace, 2009), p. 10.
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