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Scholars Say White Supremacists Chanting 'Deus Vult' Got History Wrong

Sep 4, 2017
Originally published on September 4, 2017 5:50 pm
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If you've watched videos of white supremacist rallies and marches across the U.S., you may have noticed people dressed up as crusaders from the Middle Ages or waving banners with medieval insignias. Professional historians have noticed this, too. And as NPR's Neda Ulaby reports, those historians are angry.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The head of the Medieval Academy of America was horrified when she saw dozens of Charlottesville demonstrators brandishing white shields with crosses that looked a lot like crusader flags.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey.

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ULABY: On so many levels, says Lisa Fagin Davis, the white supremacists recorded in this video have gotten history completely wrong.

LISA FAGIN DAVIS: There was one young man who was carrying a shield with a black spread eagle that was clearly co-opted from either the Holy Roman Empire or - there's actually a saint. And it's kind of ironic. He's an African saint who carries that standard. And I suspect the gentleman carrying the shield didn't realize that.

ULABY: That was St. Maurice, revered during the medieval period. He came from Egypt. After Charlottesville, Davis and her colleagues published a statement on the Medieval Academy blog.

DAVIS: (Reading) As scholars of the medieval world, we're disturbed by the use of a nostalgic but inaccurate myth of the Middle Ages by racist movements in the United States.

ULABY: The statement was signed by more than 24 organizations representing over 5,000 people. It says the Middle Ages were complicated and diverse.

DAVIS: (Reading) By using imagined medieval symbols or names drawn from medieval terminology, they create a fantasy of a pure white Europe that bears no relationship to reality. This fantasy not only hurts people in the present, it also distorts the past.

ULABY: Social media teems with homemade videos glorifying a time when heavily armored Christians fought for Europe against swarthy infidels. Racists online have adopted a crusader rallying cry, deus vult. Reductive medieval imagery and language shows up in posts by contemporary Islamophobes.

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WILLIAM FINLAY: This is Wild Bill for America wearing the cross and shield of the New Crusaders. I stand with God against the most violent false religion in the world.

ULABY: These sentiments, says medieval scholar David Perry, are not without precedent.

DAVID PERRY: There were people in the Middle Ages who identified themselves in opposition to Muslims and in opposition to other people.

ULABY: Other people, for example, like Jews.

PERRY: But there were lots of Muslims throughout Europe. There were Jews throughout Europe. There was communication across culture. There was absolutely violence and often violence framed around religion. There are moments in the Crusades in which religious violence was intense. The Crusades are not the dominant event of medieval history, and the violence of the Crusades is not the only story that we can tell.

ULABY: Perry monitors right-wing websites, and he says people commonly cite the Crusades' knights templar and vikings to protest the influx of Muslim refugees in Europe as well as to stir up anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic hate here.

PERRY: They all depend on this idea that once upon a time there was a pure white Europe building civilization in opposition to the other. And that's not something that as historians we can just let pass.

ULABY: And the head of the Medieval Academy of America, Lisa Fagin Davis, hopes she and her fellow scholars can reach beyond academe to those whose grasp of medieval history may be rooted in bigotry rather than facts.

DAVIS: We want to get the real story out. That's our job as historians.

ULABY: That and to remind people that past does not have to be prologue. Neda Ulaby, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.