Published online by Cambridge University Press: 19 August 2020
When I wrote about the political weaponizing of the medieval, I meant for the concept to be a colorful metaphor. But in March 2019, the Middle Ages were quite literally weaponized by the white supremacist Australian terrorist who murdered fifty-one civilians in horrifying attacks on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Scrawled across his rifles were words of hate scribbled alongside numerous references to the Middle Ages: to battles between Christian and Muslim forces across medieval and early modern centuries and to medieval European military leaders who are lionized by the far right for their “defense” of Europe against Islamic enemies. The scrawled notes on these rifles will surely outrage and disgust every medievalist scholar. Yet what makes the revelations of these scribblings on weapons of terror so frightening is that they are hardly unexpected. We have been here before.
On his rifle were the words “Tours 732.” This phrase is a reference to the Battle of Tours (also known as the Battle of Poitiers) which has a long history of being cheered, in the West, as a decisive historical event that “saved” Europe and Christendom from destruction by Muslim invaders. Since the eighteenth century, some historians and poets have celebrated Tours. The battle and 732 are commonly mustered as crucial pivot points for European and Christian identity and have taken hold among the far right in North America, Europe, and Australia as memes and models. Despite the reservations and doubts a number of contemporary historians hold about the degree to which Tours had an effect on religious and political affairs beyond Francia, the notion of the single world-changing battle – the idea of Tours as a decisive, world-changing showdown between Christianity and Islam – proliferates in both mainstream right-wing thought and on its farther reaches. The Battle of Tours is regularly deployed as an example of how Muslims must be confronted in the West today and what the fallout would be should they be permitted to settle and thrive in majority-Christian regions. For some on the right, often but not always on its far fringes, Tours reveals the underpinnings of a timeless and insatiable desire for Islamic missionizing expansionism, and Tours continues to serve, whether as exemplar or meme, as a model for an appropriate and necessary militaristic response to Islam.