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The Knights of the Front: Medieval History’s Influence on Great War Propaganda
By Haley E. Claxton
Crossing Borders: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Undergraduate Scholarship, Vol. 1:1 (2015)
Abstract: Spanning a number of academic areas, “Knights of the Front: Medieval History’s Influence on Great War Propaganda” focuses on the emergence of medieval imagery in the First World War propaganda. Examining several specific uses of medieval symbolism in propaganda posters from both Central and Allied powers, the article provides insight into the narrative of war, both politically and culturally constructed. The paper begins with an overview of the psychology behind visual persuasion and the history behind Europe’s cultural affinity for “chivalry,” then continues into specific case studies of period propaganda posters that hold not only themes of military glory and prowess, but also themes of race, gender, and religion as well. Finally, the article makes the argument that the realities of the First World War shattered the chivalrous and romantic ideals of war so completely that the concepts and images were no longer appropriate for use as propaganda.
Introduction:“For Honour’s Sake! Our Cause is Just!” A group of the king’s heralds called knights to do their duty in an impending war within the kingdom. “Take up the sword of Justice! Your king needs you to maintain the honour and glory of the Empire!” Clad in armor, knights, as the story goes, quickly rose from their peaceful lives as farmers or nobility to face their foes, to maintain the code of chivalry, and to seek the glory and adventure of battle.
Fast forward several centuries to the advent of World War One. Throughout Europe, and soon the United States, these were the words that rang out from poster after poster, plastered to every surface and circulated by any means available. Posters urged men to join the military to uphold the honor of their nation, and to do their manly duty in combat. Many posters included images of the distant past. The iconic medieval knight served as the chivalrous protector of the homeland and the weak. Images of the mythology of medieval war, the legends of heroism and chivalry, were widely propagated to garner new fighting forces. War itself, according to the story woven together by the governments and cultures of the Entente and Central Powers, was adventure. War offered the chance to be remembered as strong and patriotic, or even as a national hero, harkening back to tales of knights and chivalry of old.
The glorious story of battle success in the European Middle Ages was retold in many ways through the ages, and at the start of World War One, very prominently through propaganda posters and other images. The visualizations and rhetorical techniques of propaganda were artfully constructed to draw parallels between ancient battles and the more modern war effort.