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The accused New Zealand shooter and an all-white Europe that never existed

Brenton Tarrant covered his arsenal with symbols and names that medieval historians say are being misused by white supremacists

Symbols and writing cover a bulletproof vest and protective gear in a photo posted on Twitter on Tuesday by the accused gunman who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. (Twitter/Reuters)

The arsenal and clothing of the man accused of killing 50 people in attacks on two New Zealand mosques was covered in symbols and writing. Some were references to Adolf Hitler; elsewhere, he invoked the names of other mass shooters.

But many of the more obscure references were clear to medieval historians. It’s a pattern they have seen repeated by white supremacists, white nationalists and neo-Nazis again and again in recent years — at Charlottesville’s deadly Unite the Right rally, at a conference sponsored by alt-right leader Richard Spencer, and by the man in Portland, Ore., who allegedly killed two people after harassing a woman wearing hijab.

“They’re using their messed-up concept of the Middle Ages as a recruitment tool, and that’s a huge problem,” says Paul B. Sturtevant, author of “The Middle Ages in Popular Imagination” and editor in chief of the Public Medievalist.

Sturtevant counted 18 references to the Middle Ages in the markings and writing on the arsenal that belonged to Brenton Harrison Tarrant, the 28-year-old Australian charged in Friday’s New Zealand rampage.

There is, of course, the sun wheel, or black sun, symbols seen in photos Tarrant allegedly posted to the Internet before the shooting. The symbol became associated with the Third Reich after Heinrich Himmler decorated a castle with it. But in his 2002 book “Black Sun: Aryan Cults, Esoteric Nazism, and the Politics of Identity,” historian Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke links the symbol to decorative Merovingian discs in the early medieval period.

“As far as we know, it was just an artistic design,” Sturtevant says. “It had nothing to do with a pan-Germanic identity any more than a paisley pattern or a Nike swoosh.”

This 1990 massacre was New Zealand's worst before the mosque attacks

There were also numerous references on the suspected shooter’s weapons to medieval battles and figures, including four names of medieval Serbs who fought against the Muslim Ottomans, two Hungarian military leaders who fought the Ottomans, and numerous references to the Crusades, when Christian armies from Europe tried to seize the Holy Land from Muslims during the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries.

One name in particular stood out to Sturtevant: Charles Martel. Martel was a real person in history, credited with defeating the last organized army headed by a Muslim ruler to attempt to invade what is now France at the Battle of Tours in 732. But legends about Martel, among contemporary hate groups and medieval people, reach mythic proportions.

And when it comes to white supremacists’ understanding of the Middle Ages, “myth” is the right word, he said.

“White supremacists imagine the Middle Ages as a time when Europe was all white, separated from its neighbors and in constant conflict with those that it deemed to be outsiders,” Sturtevant said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

In medieval Sicily, Christians, Muslims and Jews were “living and working together side by side,” Sturtevant said. In 7th-century England, the well-respected archbishop of Canterbury was from Turkey, and his favorite abbot was from North Africa. There were Ethiopian embassies across southern Europe, including Rome. Pilgrimage books listed travelers as hailing from “India” — though this was probably just a fill-in for anywhere in the Middle East.

Medieval European artists also accurately depicted black people (read: not like blackface caricatures), indicating it wasn’t uncommon to see them. (Check out the Twitter account @medievalPOC for numerous examples.)

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Which is not to say it was all sunshine and multiculti roses, Sturtevant stresses. There was religious strife as well as religious pluralism.

“Definitely racism did exist, but it was a lot weirder” — more geography-based than skin-colored-based, he said. “It was more about being racist against the people over the river.”

Medieval historians like Dorothy Kim, David M. Perry, Sierra Lomuto and Sturtevant are part of a growing movement in the field to actively counter false histories of the Middle Ages spread by and to people like the alleged mosque shooter.

“The idea that [medieval societies] are this paragon of unblemished whiteness is just ridiculous,” Sturtevant said. “It would be hilarious if it weren’t so awful.”

Police said they will provide “a highly visible” presence when New Zealanders return to daily life three days after an attack on two mosques killed 50 people. (Video: Monica Akhtar, Allie Caren, Drea Cornejo, Sarah Parnass, Taylor Turner/The Washington Post)

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