Mythologizing the Medieval: Ethnonational symbolism by far-right extremists

Mythologizing the Medieval: Ethnonational symbolism by far-right extremists

In this week’s guest post, Dr. Matthew Godwin, a researcher at the House of Lords, examines far-right extremists’ use of medieval symbolism. 

In September 2019, Neil Basu, the London Metropolitan police’s Assistant Commissioner for counterterrorism reported that the rise of the far-right is the fastest growing terrorist threat in the UK.  Twenty-five percent of all terrorism-related offence arrests were linked with far-right violence, while a third of all plots to kill in Britain were driven by extreme-right causes.  As practitioners and scholars grapple with the increasing threat of far-right extremism, our ongoing research argues that far right extremists are framing their extremist ideologies by appropriating medieval ethnonational symbolism to romanticise a time of perceived ethnonational purity, create a polarising, ‘us-vs.-them’ civilizational battle with roots in the Crusader period and to legitimise violence in a war of ‘defence’.  

In 2019, the Christchurch New Zealand mosque attacker explicitly appropriated symbols and narratives from the medieval period, including references to the Battle of Tours in 734CE and the Crusades.  Following the attack, Austrian Chancellor Sebastien Kurz confirmed a financial and social connection between the attacker and the Austrian branch of the Identitarian movement.  In like manner, the far -right English Defence League (EDL) has appropriated as its principal symbol the crusader Cross of St. George and a range of medieval motifs.  Why are purportedly anti-Globalist movements adopting thoroughly pan-European symbolism so prominently and ubiquitously?  

The unwelcome convergence of far-right extremist movements and medieval period scholarship prompted this investigation.  In an upcoming article, Dr. Matthew Godwin, a researcher at the House of Lords and Elisabeth Trischler, a PhD candidate at Leeds University, discuss the development and ideological underpinnings of two of Europe’s most prominent far-right extremist movements: The Defence Leagues and the Identitarians.  Despite their contrasting demographic origins, with the former being composed often of less well-educated, lower socio-economic activists and the latter composed of younger, middle class adherents, these two movements have similar aims and now have tens of thousands of followers across Europe.  Founded in 2009, the EDL has inspired branches in many European countries and continues to demonstrate in public and organise its members online, principally against the perceived ‘invasion’ of Europe by Muslims from abroad and to reassert nativist, ethnonational narratives.  They argue that the policies of leftists and liberal elites have led to an erosion of nationalistic values and culture.  The Identitarians, founded in France in the 1960s but having gained more recent momentum, are similarly Islamophobic and believe that the Muslim world is attempting to reconquer Europe through immigration rather than by force.  This conspiracy theory is known as the ‘Great Replacement’ – in opposition to this, they advocate ‘remigration’ which is little more than veiled language referring to the forced emigration of Muslims from Europe. 

In addition to their opposition to the immigration of Muslims to Europe, the Identitarians are specifically campaigning against the view that the European Union is attempting to create a pan-European civic nationalism based on a liberal ideology of human rights and cosmopolitanism.  In addition to limiting immigration, they are also working to re-establish communities practising values that assert the ‘native’ cultures of their localities.  Through annual training camps which teach self-defence techniques and organised international campaigns, adherents also engage in a process of world-making where they operationalise their ideologies through common myths and historical memories.  Mythically derived ethno-national symbols are adopted by group members to demonstrate allegiance to their ethnicity as, unlike a solely cultural identity, membership in the group is restricted only to co-ethnics.  Furthermore, ethno-symbolism is employed to resurrect long dormant national identities which are then used to cement us-vs.-them boundaries.  

Many symbols used by far-right extremists are sourced from the medieval period. Both the Identitarians and Defence Leagues have employed symbols from the Crusades to create unifying ethno-symbols.

Photo Credit: Far-right stickers appeared in an Essex town (Newsquest/, 21 May 2019, from the Independent 

The term ‘the Crusades’ is often used to refer to nine expeditions to the East between 1095 to 1271 aimed at obtaining, holding and regaining the Holy Land from Muslim control. The Crusades ended after the fall of Acre (1291) — the final major Christian stronghold — signalling the end of the Kingdom of Jerusalem.  Adopted extensively by the English Defence League, the cross most often portrayed on crusader imagery is that of St. George, a red cross on a white background, which became a prolific aesthetic used within imagery of crusader knights from the late medieval period onwards and EDL members are often heard singing patriotic songs like ‘Keep St. George in my Heart’.  St. George’s role as a military saint stems from a legend in which he aided Godfrey of Bouillon during the siege of Antioch (21 October 1097 to 2 June 1098).

From its earliest legend onwards, many crusaders began to venerate St. George as their warrior saint, among them, Richard the Lionheart who placed himself under St. George’s protection.  The founder of the English Defence League gave himself the epithet ‘Lionheart’, imbuing the EDL with a connection to the Crusades from the moment of its inception.  In like manner, the Knights Templar have also been appropriated by far-right extremists.  Highly romanticized in literature, film and television for decades, the Knights Templar feature prominently in new far-right social movement imagery and narratives.  With close connections to the EDL and Britain First, Knights Templar International (KTI) was founded in 2015 by longtime far-right activist Jim Dowson.  Aimed at allowing far right sympathizers to support anti-Islam, immigrant, and liberal globalist efforts, it is believed to have thousands of paying members globally. 

Despite being vehemently anti-globalist, why are far right extremists demonstrably associating themselves with the transnational crusader movement and other international movements of the medieval period?  Firstly, the adoption of ethno-symbols through medievalism is the mechanism new far-right social movement leaders have employed to vitalize their conception of the way the world should be in opposition to how they view it as being.  They view the medieval period as a time of racial purity, where Europe was inhabited largely or solely by white, ethnic Europeans.  This period is nostalgically mythologized as a ‘golden age’ that has been lost due to decades of liberal immigration policies, implemented largely by leftwing elites and globalists, including neo-conservatives.

Secondly, ethno-national symbols drawn from the medieval period are predominately Christian, as evidenced by the Crusader period.  However, the Identitarian and Defence League use of these symbols is not to convey Christian religiosity.  These symbols have been ‘flattened’ and instead now demarcate a boundary between those ethno-national Europeans who are desirous of a ‘return’ to a racially pure Europe, and those who are oriented toward the EU’s cosmopolitan, liberal Europe.  Indeed, these symbols indicate a desire by adherents to engage in a civilizational battle resulting in the remigration of non-ethno-Europeans.  The use of Crusader symbolism creates an us-vs.-them civilizational dichotomy that also grants their movement a historic legitimacy, as they view their efforts as being directly descended from the Crusades.  As Hobsbawm argues, history becomes a legitimiser of action.

Finally, the more disturbing utility of the adoption of medieval symbolism serves to justify the use of violence.  During the Crusades, the medieval theologian Bernard of Clairveaux drew on the Augustinian ‘just war’ tradition to argue that violence meted out by Crusaders against Muslims was not only permissible, but encouraged, as it was done in the name of Christ and would help to expunge sins.  Furthermore, medieval thinkers bolstered the justification of the Crusades by arguing that knights were engaged in a defensive war, to protect Christian co-religionists from hostile Muslim forces.  Both the EDL and the Identitarians frame their campaigns in a similar manner, arguing that their efforts are in the defence of culture and of the purity of an imagined ethno-European homeland.

Contemporary far-right extremists are of course not the first political movement to adopt medieval symbolism.  German nationalists in the 19th century, as exemplified by Keiser Wilhelm II’s 1898 visit to Jerusalem and Damascus where he was portrayed as a pilgrim and holy warrior, and the Nazi movement in the 1920s to 1940s, drew from this nostalgic tradition to harken back to a time of perceived racial and cultural purity and to create an us-vs.-them binary. 

It is right that UK law enforcement practitioners and a growing body of scholars recognise the threat of far-right extremists and are working to develop a better understanding of their origins, motivations and strategies.  The most prominent symbols adopted by these transnational movements are derived from the medieval period and serve to unify movements, create ethnonational boundaries, justify violence and create an unbroken lineage with an imagined past.  Practitioners and scholars would do well to consider these appropriations with their threatening and xenophobic intentions in mind. 

Dr. Matthew K. Godwin and Elisabeth Trischler, PhD Candidate