The crowd that stormed the Capitol on January 6 carried with them a panoply of flags. Some were to be expected: Trump 2020, Blue Lives Matter (ironically), the Gadsden Flag used by the Tea Party movement, etc. Among them, however, captured by Andrew Beaujon of The Washingtonian Magazine flew a white flag with Greek Cross in red and gothic lettering beneath, saying “Deus Vult.” The flag wasn’t the only instance of this imagery; the red cross on a white field seen on t-shirts, and the phrase “Deus Vult” appeared on other insurrectionists’ clothing.
The phrase and associated imagery are a nostalgic reflection of medieval Europe. The phrase “Deus Vult” (Latin for “God wills it”) was supposedly uttered first in response to Pope Urban II’s call for holy war in 1095 CE. The red cross on a white field was supposedly the uniform of the medieval Christian crusaders, exemplified perhaps best in the military religious order of the Knights Templar - a group founded in the early 12th century as a kind of permanent warrior class to defend the frontiers of Christendom against its perceived enemies. But the fact that this phrase and this symbol are found in combination in the nation’s capital, at an event that became an attempt to overthrow American democracy, should give us pause. It alerts us to the fact that the actual past is secondary in meaning to a nostalgic reflection upon it, how it weaves together modern politics, religion, and culture to convey a particular meaning much divorced from medieval Europe.It’s certainly not a revelation to note that the American right relies heavily upon historical nostalgia to justify its current politics and policy goals. One might, for example, think of a precursor to the events of January 6, 2021 as being the white supremacist riot of August 11-12, 2017 in Charlottesville, Virginia. The symbols wielded by the white nationalist attendees elided the 12th century with the 19th and 20th. Indeed, that event certainly contained explicit evocations of medievalism that merged apparently seamlessly with Confederate nostalgia and modern Nazi imagery.
But it is often forgotten that the American right had been defending (indeed lionizing) the Crusades for more than a year beforehand. In 2016, President Obama mentioned the Crusades as an act of religious intolerance and violence (it was) at the National Prayer Breakfast but this led to a full-throated defense of the phenomenon as a necessary war against Islamic aggression - one that can’t be forgotten or disparaged, even after 800 years, because that war is still ongoing. In other words, it was for them a way to showcase their Islamophobic bigotry, a historical “justification” for what they saw to be an ongoing, existential religious war in which “the West” faces off against its “enemies.”
The Deus Vult flag (and other apparel) that appeared on January 6, 2021 matters because it demonstrates the terms of the bearers’ engagement. The phrase and symbol serve as convenient shorthand for a wider Manichean war, whose roots seem to reach back into the Middle Ages and whose branches canopy “the West” to this day. As I’ve written about elsewhere, “Deus Vult” has been hurled by supporters of Bolsonaro at leftists in Brazil, by anti-abortion activists in the United States at Planned Parenthood clinics, and then of course by Trump supporters against Democrats in the nation’s capital. These are ideas and language, we should note, that have been lifted almost verbatim from the 2011 screed of the neo-Nazi mass murderer Anders Breivik.
“Deus Vult” and the cross are a minor but still noticeable all-purpose symbol used by elements of the political right to define itself from what they see to be an unholy alliance of Jews, Muslims, and secularists. It’s a combination that signposts a particular type of apocalyptic, militant Christianity, one that echoes throughout the international Christian-political right. And the one thing, historically, it gets right is that violence almost always follows that flag in its wake.
Matthew Gabriele is a professor of medieval studies and chair of the Department of Religion & Culture at Virginia Tech. His research and teaching touches on the dichotomies of religion/ violence, nostalgia/ apocalypse, and medieval/ modern. His most recent book, with David M. Perry, is The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe (Harper Books, 2021).