Why the Brazilian Far Right Loves the European Middle Ages

In Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil, the new government and far-right groups are propagandizing a fictional version of the European Middle Ages to legitimize their reactionary agenda.
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The First Mass in Brazil, by Victor Meirelles, oil on canvas, 1860.

The First Mass in Brazil, by Victor Meirelles, oil on canvas, 1860.

On the day of Jair Bolsonaro's inauguration as president of Brazil, Filipe Martins, a political blogger close to the Bolsonaro family, tweeted his personal celebration of Bolsonaro's victory: "The New Order is here. Everything is ours! Deus vult!"

Observers would be forgiven for wondering why "Deus vult"—Latin for "God wills it," a medieval battle cry associated with the First Crusade—is reappearing in 21st-century Brazil. In recent years, the "Deus vult" line has been appropriated by the far right in Europe and the United States, and has now become a slogan for the far right in Brazil. Indeed, Martins had already explicitly linked this battle cry to the Crusades when he tweeted on the day of the second round of elections, "The new Crusade is decreed. Deus vult!" On January 3rd, Bolsonaro named Martins as presidential special adviser for international affairs.

In Bolsonaro's Brazil, the new government and far-right groups are propagandizing a fictional version of the European Middle Ages, insisting that the period was uniformly white, patriarchal, and Christian. This reactionary revisionism presents Brazil as Portugal's highest achievement, emphasizing a historical continuity that casts white Brazilians as the true heirs to Europe. In this way, through a genetic view of history, the far right frames Brazilian history as essentially linked to Portugal's own imaginarily pure medieval past.

The most common way to express this association is to proclaim a so-called Judeo-Christian tradition as the main pillar of Brazilian culture. Such rhetoric serves to indicate that Brazil is a Christian nation and, as a result, that it's a proud part of Western civilization. The Brazilian state has been pushing this historical narrative since the 19th century. Therefore, to affirm Brazil's identitarian links with the European Middle Ages is also to affirm a set of old and very specific conservative political projects.

In his inauguration speech, Bolsonaro vowed to "unite the people, value the family, respect the religions and our Judeo-Christian tradition, oppose gender ideology, and preserve our values." His reference to Brazil's supposed "Christian tradition" was similarly a staple of his speeches during the campaign. Last September, during a campaign rally in Campina Grande, Bolsonaro told his supporters: "Given that we are a Christian nation, God above all!" (Later in the same speech, he added: "No more of this tale of secular state! It is a Christian state.") Finally, Bolsonaro's campaign slogan was "Brazil above everything, God above all"—a religious twist on the Nazi slogan Deutschland über alles.

The centrality of this idea about a "Judeo-Christian tradition" is widespread among Brazilian far-right groups. Kim Kataguiri, leader of the Movimento Brasil Livre, who was elected as a congressional representative in 2018, highlighted the same idea during a 2017 interview, telling an interviewer: "In our [MBL] videos, we talk about the pillars of Western Civilization, which are Greek philosophy, Roman law, and Judeo-Christian religiosity."

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.

These ideas have social traction among both right-wing voters and the general population in Brazil. A 2017 documentary called Brazil: The Last Crusade was produced and released on YouTube by the far right organization Brasil Paralelo ("Parallel Brazil"), a channel with more than 700,000 subscribers; the documentary now has more than 1.5 million views. The first episode, "The Cross and the Sword," presents a short history of Western civilization in the Middle Ages. Rife with Islamophobia, the episode focuses on the Arab conquest of the Iberian Peninsula and the Crusades, highlighting the role of the Templar Knights in European and Portuguese history, including the so-called Reconquista and the overseas expansion. The filmmakers emphasize how Portuguese conquest and colonial rule established European heritage as Brazil's deepest essence, linking the future nation with the legacy of the European Middle Ages.

In fact, the idea of Western civilization is a recent political construct designed to legitimate specific political and historical processes, imperialism and colonialism among them. By portraying the European Middle Ages as the nation's true past, the Brazilian far right whitewashes both its own true history and the cruelty of its ongoing political practice, especially (but not only) the persistence of active racism, misogyny, homophobia, and religious intolerance.

Racism is a structural element of Brazilian society. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery, in 1888. In 2017, 70 percent of all the murders in Brazil victimized Afro-Brazilians. More than 60 percent of the prisoners in Brazil are black. Likewise, gender violence and misogyny are central facts of Brazilian life: Brazil is the fifth most dangerous country in the world for violent deaths of women. In addition, Brazil is one of the most dangerous nations for LGBT people, with scores of homophobic murders registered every year. Finally, religious intolerance has been on the rise in recent decades. The majority of the Brazilian population identifies itself as Christian (mostly Catholic and evangelical), but there is an immense diversity in spiritual practice. The adepts of Afro-Brazilian religions are the main targets of acts of intolerance.

Within this framework, Brazil offers fertile ground for an imagined version of the European Middle Ages that the far right presents as white, patriarchal, and Christian. By stressing the relationship between Brazil and Portugal, the far right erases the importance of indigenous and African peoples in the history of Brazil and ignores their social, cultural, and economic contributions. In this imaginary past, Portugal is not framed as a distant colonial power, but as the "motherland" that gave Brazilians a European language and culture. Gilberto Freyre famously developed the myth of a racial democracy in Brazil: the peaceful coexistence of the "three races." In the far-right version of history, we are back to an ante-Freyrian view: a clean, white past for Brazil.

Yet the aim of the demagogues who appropriate the European Middle Ages in this way is not just to reconstruct the past. As historians know, present and past are linked; to rewrite Brazil's history is also to push for a specific project for its future. As Bolsonaro said during his campaign rally in Campina Grande: "Let's build a Brazil for the majorities! Minorities must bow to majorities! The law must exist to defend majorities! Minorities must adapt themselves or just disappear!"

Bolsonaro's political platform is to build a country in which conservative Christianity enjoys unchallenged dominance, the patriarchal family is the seat of domestic authoritarianism, and racism, homophobia, misogyny, and religious intolerance are encoded in daily life. Fulfilling his campaign promises, the Bolsonaro administration has already terminated important public policies that offered protections to marginalized groups. The best way to describe Bolsonaro's government is as a reactionary one: an aggressive conservative reaction to the modest progressive steps that Brazil has taken over the last decades.

By examining how important the idea of a pure, white European Middle Ages is to the Brazilian far right, we can glimpse the core principles that will guide this government, and the wider social movement that gives it strength. In this sense, it is important to stress that the Brazilian far right (including the Bolsonaro government) does not want to "make Brazil medieval again," but rather to evoke a set of ideas about the European Middle Ages as an idealized past that provide elements for the construction of a noble future.

The weaponization of the Middle Ages by the far-right is a global problem, with particular outbreaks in the U.S. and Western Europe. Brazilian would-be crusaders know this. The far-right English YouTube personality Paul Joseph Watson interviewed Martins just after Bolsonaro's victory in the first round of elections. Likewise, during 2018, both Martins and Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president's son, were in contact with the far-right American organizer Steve Bannon. Eduardo Bolsonaro even boasted that he and Bannon were joining forces "against cultural Marxism."

There's work to be done in Brazil, but also throughout academia globally. In teaching and scholarship, medievalists must oppose the far right and dispense with these myths. The new "global" Middle Ages, based on looking beyond Western Europe and embracing the true complexities of a multiethnic, polyreligious world with active subjects from diverse genders, is going to have to take on global white supremacy.

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