Vikings, Crusaders, Confederates

tags: medieval history, White Supremacy, Capitol Riot, symbolism

Matthew Gabriele is a professor of medieval studies and chair of the Department of Religion & Culture at Virginia Tech. He tweets @prof_gabriele.

A little over two years ago, I wrote for Perspectives about the 2017 white supremacist riot in Charlottesville, Virginia, the Far Right’s appropriation of the European Middle Ages, and how conversations between medievalists and Americanists could help us better understand the moment. The elision of “Crusade” and “Confederacy,” Templar shields and pseudo-medieval armor next to a secessionist battle flag and statue of Robert E. Lee, might have seemed like an odd juxtaposition at the time, but it made sense as a kind of double nostalgia. The throughline was a militant masculinity and religiosity, a glorification of “lost causes” in which white men fought off supposed “barbarians” (be they Black Americans or Muslims).

Those themes have not abated in the intervening years; if anything, they’ve only intensified. And so here we are in January 2021, in the wake of another right-wing riot, this time a direct attack on the United States Capitol in Washington, DC. The connection between Charlottesville and the insurrection at the Capitol, even across the four years in-between, are clear. So too, are the similarities in imagery seen in the crowd—a mixture of fascist authoritarianismnostalgia for the Confederacy, and medievalism

The first two might make the most sense to the casual observer, since this was a pro-Trump rally to try to overturn an election, supporting a leader who has gone out of his way to defend Confederate statues and military bases named after secessionists. But that last category of imagery, appearing to invoke the European Middle Ages but really a mash-up of pop culture and anti-Semitism, makes a lot of sense as well. This imagery, of course, still traffics in the same posturing masculinity that characterizes so much of the Far Right. In addition, the Far Right often plays with the common conception of the “Dark Ages,” the sense that it can be anything because many think we know so little about the period, to install their own version of the past upon it. To do this, they focus on discrete (actual) historical moments and use pop culture in combination with outdated historiography. Most often, those focal points revolve around the Vikings and the so-called “Crusades.” 


One of the most-photographed seditionists from this past week was Jacob Chansley, a.k.a. Jake Angeli, the self-professed “Q Shaman.” A failed actor and devotee of the Q conspiracy, he showed up shirtless, covered with tattoos, and wearing a horned headdress. He participated in the storming of the US Capitol and had his picture taken inside the Senate Chamber on the dais. The outfit is, to say the least, confused. There are appropriations of Native American dress but mixed with Viking allusions—the horned helmet but more importantly tattoos that have long been associated with hate groups, specifically the Tree of Yggdrasil, Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, and interlocking triangles called the Valknot

But as Dorothy Kim has written, the point here isn’t historical accuracy. The bridge between ninth-century raiders and modern racists was built by the 19th century, in mainstream scholarship that sought a pure, Romantic, hypermasculine ancestry for a nascent German nation. This was then picked up by race scientists on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US, early 20th-century racists such as Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard held up the “Nordic race” as the apex of all civilizations. Unsurprisingly, these American developments were heartily endorsed by the Nazis, using explicit imagery such as Norse runes for their military uniforms. 

Read entire article at Perspectives on History

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