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Deus Vult: The Far-Right's Demented Obsession with the Middle Ages

I am a college-aged, white male interested in the history of the crusades. There was a time when this was not a dangerous demographic, but this has changed, and I dearly wish that it had not. Alt-right, white-supremacist, ultra-conservative movements now wish to claim the Middle Ages, and especially the crusades, as part of their "cultural heritage." A racially twisted version of crusade ideology has resurfaced in far-right circles on websites like 4Chan and Reddit [1]. These connections do not exist only in the United States and Europe, as Brazilian fascists in support of Bolsonaro have also appropriated the crusader war cry of “Deus Vult,” meaning “God Wills It” in Latin [2]. To be fair, I should also mention that similarly twisted versions of Islamic jihadist ideology, championed in the Middle Ages by figures such as Zengi, Saladin, and Baibars, also drive organizations like the Islamic State, but I am going to focus on white supremacists and white nationalists here [3]. Examining Islamic fundamentalism’s own obsession with the Middle Ages would require its own article and training that I probably do not possess. It should go without saying that these people are incorrect in their assertions, but I will say it anyway: these people have a distinctly incorrect, skewed, and politicized portrait of the Middle Ages in their minds, and I mean to prove how and why this is the case. Before that, however, I think we ought to consider the basis of the connection between the far-right and the Middle Ages in more depth. All of this, to many people, seems like a rather sudden development, as if this obsession with the Middle Ages simply appeared out of nowhere. Though it may seem that way, as before 2001 this sort of rhetoric existed only on the vary fringes of world politics, in fact nothing could be further from the truth.

Europe and America began their love affair with the Middle Ages in the 19th century, starting with the Romantic movement. Before this period, the Middle Ages were viewed with almost universal scorn. Renaissance humanists saw Medieval scholastics as a collection of backwards, uneducated rabble who wrote in bad Latin and did not even know Greek. Protestant Reformers decried the many abuses of the Medieval Church, some more real than others. Enlightenment thinkers viewed the period as a time of base emotion, barbarism, and religious dominance. The Romantics broke from what some have called “the cult of progress,” composing a Middle Ages that was supernatural, artistic, and steeped in escapism [4]. In short, it was, unsurprisingly, romanticized. The Romantics, however, were revolutionary, not reactionary, for their time, at least in the early parts of their lives. The connection between the Middle Ages, Romanticism, and nationalism began in places like Germany and Poland, which were either fractured, in Germany’s case, or subjugated, in Poland’s. From there, it spread across Europe like a wildfire, especially in the wake of the French Revolution. As this nationalism transitioned from the feeling that a nation ought to be united or free to the supremacy of one’s own nation above others, this romanticized view of the Middle Ages went with it.

In the latter half of the 19th century, as European nations began the scramble for Africa and imperialism in the Middle East, Medievalism was invoked again. In the crumbling Ottoman Empire, France and Russia competed over which had the official role of “protector” of the Christians in the Middle East. The Russian Empire invoked its legacy as the supposed “Third Rome” and its Orthodox religion, the same as many Christians in the Middle East. France invoked the crusades. During the 1860 Mount Lebanon Civil War, a conflict between Christians and a small religio-ethnic group called the Druze fought in Lebanon and Syria, France intervened to support Christian forces in a “humanitarian” mission. The fact that this civil war happened in the same place as the Medieval Crusader States gave them the perfect justification. The Crusades quickly became central to both British and French nationalism. When British troops entered Jerusalem in the Great War, Punch magazine published a cartoon of Richard the Lionheart overlooking the city, connecting the modern war with the Medieval past.

These connections took an even darker turn with the rise of fascism. Hitler invoked the Teutonic Order, pre-Christian Germanic mythology, and other Medieval concepts to promote his ideal of a racially pure, nostalgic version of Europe [5]. The Ku Klux Klan similarly refer to themselves as knights and use strange, fantastical titles within their organization. The modern alt-right and far-right draw mainly from these sources in their own ideology and presentation. The Middle Ages, for these groups, came to be a supposedly Edenic time of racial purity, Christian unity, and chivalric virtue. The crusades, specifically, became the lynchpin of this growing viewpoint. They, to this burgeoning far-right, represented a time in which white, Christian Europe united against the outside world. Of course, Medieval Europe included people of color. One should not forget that the period directly proceeding the Middle Ages, the Classical period, saw the entirety of the Mediterranean united under the Roman Empire. People from across the Roman Empire, including Africa and the Middle East, moved into Western Europe, and people from Western Europe moved there as well. These people would not have simply disappeared because the empire that brought them to their new homes disappeared, rather, the breakdown of Roman trade and society would have made it rather more likely that they remained wherever they ended up. Secondly, after the crusades, trade between Europe and the Middle East moved plenty more non-white people into Europe, and white people in the Middle East and Africa. The view of the European Middle Ages as racially and ethnically homogeneous is nothing more than a fantasy, but it is a very dangerous fantasy.

I will focus on the crusades, because that is where most of my personal experience lays and because I believe that it is integral to white supremacist ideology. I will begin with a fact, one that I should not have to state: Crusade ideology never was, and never has been, racially motivated in any way. To claim that crusaders were in some way champions of the white race, or some other such nonsense is, frankly, absolute bullshit. I’ll start with etymology. The Latin word generally translated as race is gens, and this is the word that tends to be used within crusade chronicles as well. I will not decline it within English sentences for the purpose of preserving my own sanity and making this article easier to read for those who don’t know Latin. If its meaning has not changed much since classical times—and from its usage I would wager that it has not—it does not mean race in the way that we mean it today. A gens can be as small as a clan or family unit; the Julii were at times considered a gens, as were other important families. It can also be used to refer to tribes of people, for instance each Gallic tribe conquered by Caesar was its own gens. On occasion, the whole ethnic or cultural groups are gens, but even then, it does not carry the same dimension that the word “race” means today. When we read Fulcher of Chartres, Peter Tudebode, Raymond d’Aguilers, or any of the other important crusade chroniclers use this term, we should be careful how we translate it. The crusade army itself, a conglomerate of different groups from across Europe, Anatolia, and the Levant is together a gens. The chroniclers in no way meant to suggest that these peoples were all the same race in the modern sense, even if they knew what that was. The army was a gens not because of any racial, ethnic, or cultural similarity, they were a gens because of their shared goal: reaching and conquering Jerusalem. There may be no easier way to place this into our writings than by using the word “race” or “people” once translated into English, but it should come with a footnote. Gens was not necessarily a dangerous word for the writers of these chronicles, but today, the word “race” is. I have seen too many racist, crusade-based, borderline genocidal memes about removing the Turks from Istanbul for us to continue using this term in a way that invites this comparison.

Though the writers of crusade chronicles often use the terms “Turk,” “Moor,” or “Arab” to refer to their enemies, they do not understand these as racial groups in the way that we do today. Muslims, to them, are Turks and Moors, no matter the color of their skin. The man who let the crusaders into Antioch during the first crusade was called a Turk in their chronicles, but Muslims refer to him as an Armenian. For all we know, he could have been either of these two, or neither. The crusaders most likely referred to him as a Turk because he served in the army defending Antioch, but even by their admission it also included “Paulicians, Agulani, Azymites, and many other peoples” [6]. The Muslim chroniclers most likely called him an Armenian due to the fact that many Armenians were, and remain, Christian, and would not have wished to admit that a Muslim betrayed their religion to aid the crusaders. Another crusade chronicle depicts the diversity of the army itself, including, “French, Flemish, Frisians, Gauls, Allobroges, Lotharingians, Allemani, Bavarians, Normans, English, Scots, Aquitanians, Italians, Dacians, Apulians, Iberians, Bretons, Greeks, and Armenians,” going on to state, ‘If some Briton or Teuton wanted to question me, I could neither understand nor respond” [7]. The fact that Fulcher of Chartres, the writer of this chronicle, does not mention Teutons in his list but speaks about them later implies that his list of languages is in no way comprehensive. Though most of these groups today mean European, Christians from Iberia could have easily been of Berber or other North African descent, and Southern Italy had been conquered from the Muslim Emirate of Sicily within the decade of the First Crusade, meaning that many North Africans and Arabs still lived throughout the southern part of the peninsula. Similarly, he refers only to the languages that these people speak, not their physical characteristics, as vernacular language was far more important than physical appearance in determining where a person was from in the Middle Ages. People could move, but languages often did not. In fact, Bohemond of Taranto, one of the leaders of the First Crusade, commanded an army with Muslims in it against the Byzantine Empire before leaving for the crusade. Crusade ideology was only religious, it had no racial context. Anyone who converted to Latin Christianity [8] could be a part of the growing, though exclusive, identity.

Before I continue, I feel as though it is important to mention something. Crusade ideology, though not racially-motivated in the way that we understand it in the modern age, was deeply violent and religiously motivated. Many medievalists, including myself, argue that the 11th and 12th centuries, which include the formulation of crusade ideology, represent the turning point in transforming Europe into what they describe as a “Persecuting Society,” and I believe especially it is within this context that Europe’s long affair with anti-Semitism and Islamophobia began in earnest [9]. The Rhineland Pogroms, the wholesale murder of thousands of people in the cities of Antioch and Jerusalem, and the many other atrocities committed throughout the crusades and the Iberian Reconquista (ideologically the two were strongly connected) represent, I think, at least borderline genocidal intent. Religious minorities within Europe became threats to unity, and those outside of it became evil hordes who wished to destroy Christendom in the minds of many Medieval people.

The fact that much of this medieval language mirrors how modern-day white supremacists talk about Latinx immigrants, Jewish people, Muslims, and other minorities is not something that we should overlook. We, as medievalists, should not simply dismiss these similarities because they are uncomfortable. I have read the work of many intelligent, learned medievalists arguing against the influence of white supremacists in the field, and I agreed with them on every point. But there are things they have not said that I feel should be, and maybe this is just because I study the crusades. Though the supposed religious homogeneity that white supremacists call back to did not exist in the Middle Ages, this was not for lack of trying amongst the religious and cultural elite. During the four or five centuries between the First Crusade and the Renaissance (and into the Renaissance as well, but that is not the topic of this article), the Latin Church and many medieval monarchs targeted Jews, Christian heretics, and other religious minorities within Latin Europe with lethal force. Some, like the Cathars, essentially disappeared because of this persecution, wiped out by the Papal Inquisition and other forces. We study these events so that we can understand them, and hopefully, work to prevent similar events from occurring again. Crusade Ideology, and many other late medieval belief systems, were intrinsically genocidal. The fact is not that white supremacists do not know this; the fact is that they do not see it as a bad thing.

We have to change about how we talk about, understand, and interact with medieval history. I wish that it were not true, I wish that we could simply all enjoy this thing that we are all so deeply interested in the same way that a middle schooler enjoys playing Dungeons and Dragons for the first time, or a downloading a video game set in the Middle Ages, or reading The Lord of the Rings, or whatever path led us to devote our lives to studying long-dead people who wore chainmail and silly hats, but we have been robbed of this luxury. To claim that our discipline is not politicized, or even that it can be removed from politics by restraining ourselves from launching into the no-holds-barred, gloveless boxing match of modern political life, is to lie to ourselves. Our discipline was politicized for us long ago, when the first Romantic decided to set his (because they were mostly written by a he) story in the fantastical, supernatural, romanticized Middle Ages of chivalric knights and distressed damsels, both of which were always white, despite the fact that, in reality, Medieval Europe was anything but racially homogenous. We can have an effect on people if we start talking about our passions in the right way. The son of Don Black, the founder of the Neo-Nazi website Stormfront, Derek Black, renounced his white supremacist viewpoints after taking courses on medieval history at a small, liberal-arts university, and he had been steeped in these views essentially from his birth [10]. Most people who are drawn to these beliefs do not come from families with such a history of white nationalism, they come across it in high school or in college. By providing a version of Medieval history that includes the viewpoint of the marginalized and the forgotten, perhaps we can catch them before it is too late. We can at least refuse to give them any ammunition to fuel their ideologies. I would much prefer it if we could reach a time where being a college-aged, white male interested in the crusades does not make me part of a dangerous demographic.

[1] https://www.economist.com/democracy-in-america/2017/01/02/the-far-rights-new-fascination-with-the-middle-ages

[2] https://psmag.com/ideas/why-the-brazilian-far-right-is-obsessed-with-the-crusades

[3] https://www.economist.com/democracy-in-america/2017/01/02/the-far-rights-new-fascination-with-the-middle-ages

[4] https://neoenglish.wordpress.com/2010/12/27/medievalism-in-romantic-poetry/

[5] https://www.publicmedievalist.com/vile-love-affair/

[6] Gesta Francorum et aliorum Hierosolimitanorum, ed. Rosalind Hill (London: Oxford University Press, 1962), 45. The translation is my own.

[7] Fulcher Carnotensis, Historia Hierosolymitana, ed. Heinrich Hagenmeyer (Heidelburg: Carl Winters University Press, 1913), 202-203. The translation is my own.

[8] I use the term Latin Christianity rather than Catholicism for the Medieval church, as the modern Catholic Church and the Medieval Church hold a number of differing opinions. It is only in the Renaissance and into the Catholic Counter-Reformation that I believe that Latin Church begins to truly resemble our modern Catholic Church.

[9] R. I. Moore, Formation of a Persecuting Society (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007), 5.

[10] https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/the-white-flight-of-derek-black/2016/10/15/ed5f906a-8f3b-11e6-a6a3-d50061aa9fae_story.html