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Deus vult is a Latin expression meaning "God wills it." It was used as a battle cry by Christian Crusaders in the 11th century and is strongly associated with the Princes' Crusade, which was responsible for the Siege of Jerusalem in 1099. The expression Deus vult is sometimes written as Deus volt or Deus lo volt, both of which are corruptions of the Classical Latin. In his book "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire," historian Edward Gibbon explains the origin of this corruption:
"Deus vult, Deus vult! was the pure acclamation of the clergy who understood Latin… By the illiterate laity, who spoke the Provincial or Limousin idiom, it was corrupted to Deus lo volt, or Diex el volt."
In Ecclesiastical Latin, the form of Latin used in the Roman Catholic Church, Deus vult is pronounced DAY-us VULT. In Classical Latin, the expression is pronounced DAY-us WULT. Since the battle cry was first used during the Crusades, during a time when the use of Latin was confined to the Church, the Ecclesiastical pronunciation is much more common.
The earliest evidence of Deus vult being used as a battle cry appears in the "Gesta Francorum" ("The Deeds of the Franks"), a Latin document written anonymously and detailing the events of the First Crusade. According to the author, a group of soldiers gathered in the Italian town of Amalfi in 1096 in preparation for their attack on the Holy Land. Wearing tunics printed with the sign of the cross, the Crusaders cried out, "Deus le volt! Deus le volt! Deus le volt!" The cry was used again two years later at the Siege of Antioch, a major victory for the Christian forces.Pope Urban II preaching the First Crusade in the Square of Clermont. Heritage Images/Getty Images
In the early 12th century, a man known as Robert the Monk undertook the project of rewriting the "Gesta Francorum," adding to the text an account of Pope Urban II's speech at the Council of Clermont, which took place in 1095. In his address, the pope called on all Christians to join the First Crusade and to fight to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims. According to Robert the Monk, Urban's speech so excited the crowd that when he finished speaking they cried out, "It is the will of God! It is the will of God!"
The Order of the Holy Sepulchre, a Roman Catholic order of chivalry established in 1099, adopted Deus lo vult as its motto. The group has persisted through the years and today boasts a membership of about 30,000 knights and dames, including many leaders in Western Europe. Knighthood is conferred by the Holy See to practicing Catholics recognized for their contributions to Christian works in the Holy Land.
Until recently, modern usage of the expression Deus vult has been confined to popular entertainment. Variations of the phrase (including the English translation) appear in medieval-themed games such as "Crusader Kings" and in movies such as "Kingdom of Heaven."
In 2016, members of the alt-right-a political movement known for its white nationalist, anti-immigration, and anti-Muslim ideology-began appropriating the expression Deus vult. The phrase appeared as a hashtag in political tweets and was graffitied on a mosque in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Alt-right leaders such as Stephen Bannon have claimed that the West is in the "beginning stages of a global war against Islamic fascism," placing current political problems within the larger history of conflict between Christians and Muslims. For this reason, some alt-right activists have fashioned themselves as "modern Crusaders" fighting to protect Christianity and Western values.
Ishaan Tharoor, writing in the Washington Post, argues that:
"A whole realm of alt-right Trump supporters have imported the iconography of the Crusades and other medieval warfare into their memes and messaging… “Deus Vult”-or “God wills it” or “it is the will of God”-has become a kind of far-right code word, a hashtag proliferated around alt-right social media."
In this way, the Latin expression-like other historical symbols-has been repurposed. As a "code word," it allows white nationalists and other members of the alt-right to express anti-Muslim sentiment without engaging in direct hate speech. The phrase is also used as a celebration of white, Christian identity, the preservation of which is a core element of the alt-right movement. In August 2017, the phrase appeared on a shield carried by an alt-right protester at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.