Benevolent Political Medievalism in a Security Crisis

In the new security political situation of Europe, medieval borders, battles and ethnicities are being reinterpreted.

The most prominent examples come, unsurprisingly, from Russia and Ukraine. After Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine in February and the following brutal war, political commentators and scholars have been forced to revisit Putin’s rhetoric that for years has questioned Ukraine’s legitimacy as a state and emphasised the unity of Eastern Slavic nations since the Middle Ages.

Correspondingly, Ukrainians in their rather successful battle over social media, have used memes to ridicule the Moscow narrative of superiority and depicted invaders as violent hordes with imagery that subtly invoke both medievalism and Word War II memories.

Scholarship of political medievalism tends to focus on such hostile images. However, if the current geopolitical crisis creates enemies, it also strengthens alliances.

Yesterday, on 15 June, a striking example of political medievalism jumped to my eyes on Twitter:

Kaja Kallas, the prime minister of Estonia, congratulated Denmark’s Statsministeriet on Valdemar’s Day, a holiday that since 1913 has been celebrated to commemorate the birth of the Danish flag, the Dannebrog. According to a late medieval legend, the flag descended from the sky when the Danish King Valdemar II Sejr (Victorius) was preparing for a battle against Estonians near present-day Tallinn in 1219. This miracle, so says the legend, led the Danes to an unexpected victory.

Kallas’s tweet celebrates the shared history and values of the current close allies, reinterpreting a medieval legend and battle that in the national romantic historiography had marked, on one hand, the golden age and superiority of medieval Denmark and on the other hand, the foreign invasion and defeat of the ancient Estonians in the hand of Danes and Germans. An ancient enmity and centuries of its interpretation are thus transformed into a message of unity.

Dannebrog falling from the sky. A painting by Christian August Lorentzen (1809). Original located at Statens Museum for Kunst, Denmark. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Thus, Kallas’s celebratory tweet is a perfect example of banal political medievalism, in which, according to Andrew B. R. Elliot, the connection to actual medieval history is often entirely superficial. Of course, when medieval history is being rewritten by politicians, Kallas’s benevolent medievalism is far from the worst kind.


Advertisement: If you’re interested in the uses of medieval history in Putin’s speeches, medievalist memes, online pseudohistory, changing interpretations of the northern crusades and much more, check out our forthcoming volume: Medievalism in Finland and Russia: Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Aspects