James Gulick, 18, has been accused by federal prosecutors of throwing a firebomb and damaging the facilities of a Delaware Planned Parenthood building.
Gulick is accused of spray-painting the facility with the words “Deus Vult,” a medieval Crusader battle cry that has recently been appropriated by far-right groups.
Medieval experts say the appropriation of “imagined medieval symbols” is wrong and dangerous.
Early last Friday, a young man arrived outside a Planned Parenthood facility in Newark, Delaware, intending to vandalise it. According to court documents and video surveillance, the person spray-painted the front porch of the health clinic with the words of a medieval battle cry and threw an incendiary device through the window of the building.
While the Molotov cocktail exploded in the building, it soon self-extinguished. But the remnants of the man’s vandalism remained – the Latin phrase “Deus vult,” which translates to “God wills it,” was left scrawled on the clinic’s facade.
FBI agents quickly identified an 18-year-old suspect, James Gulick, by the car used to flee the scene and Gulick’s social-media posts expressing far-right extremist vernacular and antiabortion sentiment, according to a press release from the US Attorney’s Office for the District of Delaware. Federal prosecutors charged Gulick on Monday with three criminal complaints related to arson, vandalism, and possession of an unregistered destructive device.
If you’ve never heard the phrase “Deus vult,” that’s not surprising. It originated as a medieval battle cry and was used in the First Crusade, one of a series of religious wars between Christians and Muslims in western Asia and Europe. While it gained popularity among fans of a video game called “Crusader Kings,” it has also become a rallying cry for far-right extremism, and can often be found in the chat rooms of Reddit and 4Chan – both online hotbeds for white supremacist views.
Memes using the Latin phrase were tossed around in Reddit threads and quoted on posters at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, along with other Crusader and medieval symbols and imagery. (Donald Trump Jr. recently posted a photo on Instagram brandishing an AR-15-style rifle emblazoned with a Crusader cross, The Washington Post reported.)
The Anti-Defamation League, an advocacy group combating anti-Semitism and other hate speech, has tracked various medieval symbols and phrases used by hate groups both online and offline. Vegas Tenold, an investigative researcher at the Centre on Extremism with the ADL, says the use of “Deus vult” and other medieval appropriation is “terrifying.”
“We’ve seen this kind of language the kind of rhetoric of religion used in targeting reproductive health services for a long time – one of the most militant and deadly organisations behind attacking these kinds of facilities has been the Army of God,” Tenold told Insider. The Army of God is a Christian antiabortion group that’s been designated as a terrorist organisation by the US Department of Justice.
“It’s incredibly alarming,” Tenold continued, adding: “Especially seeing relatively young people get indoctrinated with this.”
Medieval scholars have widely condemned the use of medieval history and symbols to promote white supremacist and far-right propaganda. Following the “Unite the Right” rally, the Medieval and Renaissance Drama Society released a statement saying it was “disturbed by the use of a nostalgic but inaccurate myth of the Middle Ages by racist movements in the United States.”
“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,” the statement said.
The medieval historian and journalist David Perry told Insider that medievalism had gone viral in white supremacist groups because, as the medieval historian Sierra Lomuto notes, the Middle Ages provide an “origin myth for whiteness.”
“What that means is that they have this idea of the Middle Ages as isolated and pure and white and patriarchal with manly Christian men organised in defending society from the nonwhite other,” Perry said.
The use of medievalism in far-right propaganda has spread like wildfire, manifesting in memes, jokes in chat rooms like 8Chan, and occasionally violence. According to Perry, the manifesto released by the Christchurch mosque suspect quoted a version of Pope Urban II’s sermon from the First Crusade, which culminated in the battle cries of “Deus vult.”
Perry says the difficult part of fighting the appropriation of medieval imagery by white supremacists is knowing exactly when a trivial meme will turn violent – as it did in the recent Planned Parenthood incident. He believes historians and teachers should be aware of how their words might be harnessed. “I don’t know if teaching a better and more intentional history will stop acts of violence or just change the symbols used by violent actors,” he said. “But I’m willing to find out.”
- Read more:
- Trump said he’s concerned about ‘white supremacy’ or ‘any other kind of supremacy’
- Fox News host Tucker Carlson claimed white supremacy is ‘not a real problem in America.’ This CNN host couldn’t even.
- Joe Biden accused Trump of ‘fanning the flames of white supremacy’ in a blistering speech
- Rep. Steve King says he supports the congressional resolution condemning his own words on ‘white supremacy’
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