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.”
There were also numerous references on the admitted 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.
“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.”