The far-right have a long history of co-opting medieval imagery.
British Medieval Re-enactment has, in recent years, become a tricky subject. Thanks to the seeming rise in white supremacy and the long history of the far-right co-opting medieval imagery to further their cause, the misconceptions about those of us who readily don armour to hit each other with swords seem to be growing.
This is especially apt in the wake of the far-right protests of the 14th of July, in which a protester dressed as a crusading templar ‘keeping the Muslims at bay’.
But this debate is not new. In fact, a few weeks ago, a member of the 12th century society that I belong to shared in confusion a screenshot of an advert that had popped up on his timeline: for a white supremacy group. The group called themselves ‘The Templars’ and used a picture of a knight, so perhaps that’s why Facebook’s algorithm got confused. But the simple sharing prompted an outpouring of stories of misunderstandings, including, at a recent show, a man in a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, congratulating us on ‘Driving the Muslims out of the country’.
Obviously, World War Two is the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of far-right and re-enacting. But actually, especially in the UK, an awful lot of the far-right extremists tend to lurk further back in history.
In some ways, it’s unsurprising. To many in the far-right, the medieval era offers a time when ‘men were men and Europe was ‘pure’’.
Barnie Matthews, a member of 12th century re-enactment group Historia Normannis, thinks many of the medieval misconceptions exist due to far-right interpretations of fantasy.
“The Lord of The Rings is a particularly prominent example – it’s hugely popular amongst certain sectors of the far-right because most of the protagonists are pale-skinned and “fair” and the bad guys (orcs, Gollum etc.) are described as dark-skinned,” Matthews said.
One could argue that Tolkien was never consciously racist, but nevertheless, the attitudes of his time pervade his narratives, as Matthews elaborated:
“If you can self-insert a narrative about fighting off the rapacious hordes of dark-skinned filth invading your otherwise fair and just nation, it goes a great way to justifying an extreme set of opinions”.
But how does that translate to re-enactment?
“I would argue that the racist element of modern re-enacting is certainly present but is small and not distributed evenly. That said, Normannis also does a pretty good job of encouraging a very inclusive environment, which probably makes my perspective a bit skewed”. Said Matthews
Dan FitzEdward, a founding member of Historia Normannis, had this to say:
“I’ve been an advocate of “warts and all” response to history for a long while, and have spoken about this with members of the [National Association of Re-enactment Societies] when discussing responses to things like the 90s issue with various Anglo-Saxon groups using “Ut!” [Out] as a chant during rallies”.
However, many events are growing opposed to the idea of ‘warts and all’ history. The North York Moors Railway drew criticism in April for banning German re-enactments at its 1940s weekend. Many people supported this decision, claiming that the German presence at previous weekends were not true re-enactments.
However, many historians criticised the decision, as the removal of Germans also meant the loss of an educational experience, and the opportunity to understand a little of what went on in occupied Europe.
FitzEdward falls firmly in the latter category.
“Redaction is the biggest mistake. The example I always use is the Takbir: “Alluhah Akbar”; It’s an ISIS war cry, but also a Muslim prayer. Ask people if they’d be happy telling an Imam not to say it anymore because it’s now gained connotations”.
Which brings us back to the Templars. Of late, far-right supporters have co-opted the crusaders’ rallying cry of ‘Deus Vult’: literally ‘God wills it’.
“[The same applies to] Deus Vult.” Fitzedward said. “It’s the modern obsession with removing context: Standing in a town centre with a white power flag is different than recreating history, giving a peaceful service in a mosque is not the same as a jihadi attack.
“The words being the same does not actually have as much significance as the context”.
But while there are some overtly far-right members lurking in the 12th century, and co-opting that image of the Templars, Viking history arguably bears the brunt of the neo-nazi obsession.
Law Parkin is a re-enactor with a master’s degree in Medieval Studies (specialist Old Norse and Viking Studies). She previously worked at a museum specialising in the early medieval period, where she definitely noticed a prevalence of far-right co-opting of medieval imagery:
“Unfortunately, there is still a neo-nazi culture surrounding Viking discourse which I’ve come across in my academic work, my career and even a little in my time as a re-enactor.” She said.
“I have had a few encounters at work with members of the public who have tried to lead me into a conversation about white supremacy, to which I would usually change the subject or try to avoid the conversation”.
It can also be difficult to counter these views, as Parkin explained.
“I did not feel comfortable challenging them at work although I would have done in my regular life”.
One of the Viking individuals (skeletons) on display at [Viking museum] Jorvik is a male of African descent.
And for those who work around these periods, this far-right obsession can be immensely frustrating:
“As a medievalist I am extremely aggravated by the use of Medieval imagery, especially Viking- because it clouds so much of our research,” Parkin expanded.
Much of this is due to the European Fascists co-opting the medieval imagery back in the 1940s, in part due to anti-Semitic German composer Wagner’s musical imagery.
“There is absolutely no evidence that Vikings themselves would have been picky about the colour of someone’s skin, since we know they were a multicultural society. One of the Viking individuals (skeletons) on display at [Viking museum] Jorvik is a male of African descent.” Parkin pointed out.
The internet has only made the co-opting of medieval imagery by the far-right easier, however, due to the rise of memes, especially when shared by re-enactors who pay little attention to their source.
“I am also unhappy about the recent trend of memes focusing on the crusades,” Parkin said. “[They] aren’t always specifically white supremacist but are clear dog whistles and when they’re seen in places like 4chan etc. their purpose is clear. Unfortunately, I’ve seen fellow re-enactors excitedly sharing these even when it’s clear they came from far-right sources”.
So, what can re-enactors and medievalists do to counter this misuse of the past? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer – after all, we can’t wave a magic wand and get rid of all the racist idiots in the world.
FitzEdward thinks that it is in part the role of re-enactment societies to vet their members, as he explained:
“[Racists and far-right extremists] are everywhere. In all walks of life. The modern attitude is a belief that you can become accidentally dirty by association. It’s kind of a ‘tend your own garden’ situation – if you’re in a group with people with genuine extreme views, the society should vet that – most I know do”.
However, he thinks the situation is not so black and white as some make it out to be.
“People are now equating to ‘Tom in his 50s votes UKIP. Our group is overrun with Nazis”. He said
“Having done extremism awareness training for schools, the sheer number of symbols that are related to the far right are huge. But that doesn’t mean everyone wearing Helly Hansen is a Nazi.
“Having been asked if I was not worried if people thought I was organising something racist with [Crusade] events my simple answer is: ‘Anyone who listens or interacts will know the score. Anyone who doesn’t… and forms a judgement is ignorant’ – just like a skinhead would be for presuming someone reciting the Takbir must be a terrorist”.
Ultimately, medievalists and those involved in re-enactment need to reclaim the imagery around the middle ages, and to control the narrative in order that history as it truly was gets portrayed.
“The method through which we as re-enactors engage with our audience has a huge part to play in the narrative that each audience member goes away with.” said Matthews.
“If we are merely a static display for people to gawk at like zoo animals, people can essentially make up their own minds based on what they see.
“With that in mind, I think there is certainly a place for more ‘myth busting’ of the more… political stereotypes of what we do, particularly at shows concerning the crusades”.
While modern attitudes will never truly mesh with all of those held by our predecessors, this isn’t an excuse to be lax with our depictions, as Parkin said.
“We have to be careful to display and interpret our period while keeping both modern sensitivity and authentic attitudes in mind, especially if we want re-enactment to be inclusive. Racist medieval re-enactment isn’t just unpleasant, it’s ahistorical”.
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