The mob that forced its way into the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6 carried the usual Trump 2020 flags and “Don’t tread on me” banners. But scattered through the crowd were images that caught the eye of medieval historians around the world: symbols associated with the Crusades.
Extremism researchers and medieval scholars tell Teen Vogue the use of this iconography took off in the United States after the September 11 attacks, as far-right protesters styled themselves as modern Christian warriors fighting to preserve the idea of America as a white, Christian nation. Donald Trump’s die-hard fans are just the latest group on the right to adopt these symbols.
According to Mark Pitcavage, senior research fellow with the Center on Extremism and spokesperson for the Anti-Defamation League, “This symbolism largely became popular from an anti-Muslim context and that remains the primary reason [it’s used] today.”
Common symbols used by the far right include the “Deus vult” flag and the “Crusader Cross,” often associated with the Knights Templar, a Catholic military order from the Middle Ages. Their use picked up “after 9/11 and especially after the war in Iraq began,” Pitcavage said. At a press conference five days after the attack on the Twin Towers, President George W. Bush stated that “evil-doers would be punished” and that “this crusade, this war on terrorism will take a while” — irrevocably linking an act of 21st-century terrorism to a 200-year-long “holy war” between Western Europeans and the Muslim Seljuk Empire beginning in the 11th century. This so-called “indelicate gaffe” was met with criticism at the time, yet was followed by years of Islamophobia from the Bush administration — a sentiment that was enthusiastically embraced by far-right extremists and the conservative base.
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During the 2010s, this hatred was fanned globally by European far-right parties and politicians like Donald Trump, who called to ban all Muslims from entering the United States during his 2016 presidential campaign. The anti-Muslim English Defence League (EDL) adopted the Crusader Cross as its principal emblem, according to research by the U.K.’s Partnership for Conflict, Crime, and Security Research. Medieval scholars say they noticed the Crusader rallying cry “Deus vult,” or “God wills it,” popping up on online chat rooms. The red-and-white Deus vult flag was also flown during the deadly 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In 2019, alleged neo-Nazi Eric Lin was arrested by FBI agents on charges of making threatening communications. Per court records obtained by The New York Times, one of the messages sent to the anonymous victim said, “I Thank God [sic] everyday that President Donald John Trump is President and that he will launch a Racial War and Crusade to keep…any dangerous non-White Ethnically or Culturally Foreign group ‘In Line’…they will…be sent to ‘Concentration Camps.’” That same year, the man who murdered more than 50 people at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, appropriated Crusader symbolism in his anti-Muslim manifesto.
But what does history actually tell us about these pivotal events? The First Crusade is generally agreed upon by historians to have originated in 1095, kick-started by an inflammatory speech made by Pope Urban II, in order to aid the Byzantine Empire in its conflict with the Seljuk Empire, a Turkic Sunni Muslim dynasty. In 1096, Crusaders, inspired by the pope’s speech, massacred Jewish residents of the Rhineland on their way to Jerusalem. In 1099, as Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders, almost all inhabitants of the city were executed — men, women, and children alike. These atrocities were not unique; the Crusades are definitive examples of the apocalyptic levels of violence it is possible to incite through the concept of “holy war,” as the pope did through his speech. Even after Jerusalem was captured in 1099 — ostensibly the main aim of the First Crusade — the conflict continued in the Middle East as the Crusaders sought to maintain their foothold in the “Holy Land.”
These days, Trump’s most ardent supporters have framed him as the messianic savior of America. Matt Gabriele, professor of medieval studies at Virginia Tech, tells Teen Vogue that there’s a clear reason why the far right finds it so easy to identify with the Crusaders. “You have scholarly works that are built from an assumption that Europe was ‘under siege’ and needed to defend itself, and that blends with pop-culture fantasy-medieval, like Game of Thrones or Kingdom of Heaven, that portrays these Christian knights as hypermasculine warriors,” he said. Gabriele observes that this patriarchal warrior fantasy is attractive to people who feel that they are “under siege” — and thus easily radicalized. As Gabriele says, these ideals make “it very easy to put a bunch of disconnected historical events — Battle of Tours, [the] Crusades, 9/11, et cetera — next to one another and say they’re all connected.” This perpetuated myth of an ongoing war between civilizations is what Gabriele describes as “bullsh-t history, like a terrible self-published novel, only intended to give a veneer of historical legitimacy to their hate.”
Sierra Lomuto is an assistant professor at Rowan University, whose work “explores the relation between global contact histories and the discursive production of racial ideologies in medieval literature.” Speaking to Teen Vogue, Lomuto said that white supremacists find it so easy to identify with Crusaders because “in modern times, the Crusades have come to represent a narrative of brave martyrdom in the face of dangerous enemies who threaten white, Western exceptionalism.” Lomuto added that this appropriation by the far right also reflects a patriarchal, toxic masculinity: “Think chivalrous knights saving damsels in distress. They imagine themselves as white women’s saviors against hostile outsiders — [i.e.,] anyone who threatens their myth of white supremacy.”
But is this modern misappropriation of Crusader ideology close to the truth? No, Gabriele said flatly. According to Lomuto, “It’s likely that most white supremacists today who wield Crusader imagery don’t know much about the history they are appropriating. They are appropriating the Crusades because of how the Crusades have been represented in Western history books and Western pop culture.”
Nonetheless, the Crusaders, in their “real” context, did in fact enact atrocities upon Muslim and Jewish people, as Lomuto noted. The far right’s “interest in the Crusades as historical events that reflected Islamophobia and hatred against Jewish people is certainly true,” she said. “Crusade ideology was both of these things, just as white supremacist ideology is today.”
For medieval historians, the responsibility is vast. With the rise of the far right a well-documented threat to democracy, they say the need for scholars to continue to provide historical context and accountability is more pressing. Lomuto told Teen Vogue that literature and the humanities “should be valued and funded in our modern society because these are the fields that teach critical reading and thinking skills. We need scholars of the distant medieval past to care about how their work intersects with contemporary politics, even when they think it doesn’t — because it does, whether they like it or not.”
Gabriele agrees, concluding, “We can’t be blind anymore — and never should have been in the past — to how the Middle Ages are being used in the contemporary world.”
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