Gothic and the medieval revival

Origins of the term

Ancient Germanic familyThe term ‘Gothic' originally refers to the Goths, an ancient Germanic people, and then comes to mean ‘related to a style of architecture of the 12th-16th centuries'. However, in literature it is usually associated with an aspect of the English Romantic movement, and especially to the renewed interest of that time (late eighteenth to mid-nineteenth century) in all things medieval.

A fashionable style

The fashion for ‘Gothic' permeated almost every aspect of life, and lingered on well into the reign of Victoria, when much new architecture reflected the Gothic Revival: many parish churches, village schools and railway stations were built in sham medieval style. Old castles such as Windsor and Belvoir, which had been modernised, had their ancient battlements restored at great expense, and the writer Horace Walpole turned his house, Strawberry Hill, into a mock medieval mansion, complete with ornate plaster vaulting. This became so fashionable that he was inundated with visitors wanting to see it.

The fashion for ruined castles was so strong that those who had new estates without real ruined castles on them would sometimes build themselves a ‘ruin' as an interesting feature of landscape gardening.

The effect on interior design

The taste for everything medieval led to household objects being designed in the ‘Gothic' style: the pointed Gothic cathedralarch with ornamental tracery, so common in fourteenth and fifteenth century English church architecture, was reproduced everywhere – on the backs of chairs, the bases of vases, the fronts of cabinets, or in purely decorative panels. Everything from clocks to candlesticks, fans to fish-slices, might be covered with Gothic tracery and medieval ornamentation.

Gothic literature

In literature, too, the taste for medievalism was constantly indulged, and especially its association with the strange, the weird and the exotic. The work which is generally considered to be the forerunner of the vogue for the ‘Gothic horror' novel in Britain is Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto, published in 1765, ostensibly as a translation of a medieval tale. It is set in medieval times in a strange, gloomy and haunted castle in Italy. Walpole unashamedly makes fantastical and imaginative use of the supernatural, which was to become a feature of Gothic novels. This was in itself a reaction against the stress in much late seventeeth to mid-eighteenth century writing on the importance of reason. The castle of Otranto is riddled with dark vaults, subterranean passages, trap-doors, caverns – and ghosts.

Contemporary gothic horror

Walpole's success was quickly followed by the novels of Mrs Ann Radcliffe, especially The Mysteries of Udolpho, published in 1794:

  • Her tales do not take place in the distant past, but are set amongst medieval castles and monasteries in France, Switzerland and Italy
  • She makes use of fear of supernatural horrors without supernatural events actually occurring
  • She suggests horrific discoveries which turn out to be harmless: for example, the ghastly sight behind the black veil which Jane Austen's heroine Catherine Morland (in Northanger Abbey) is so frightened of when reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, turns out to be not a real skeleton but a wax model.

Female suffering

Generally the sufferings of heroines in Gothic novels are not allowed to be slight. Imprisonment, rape, murder – often at the hands of perverted nuns or monks – such things are commonplace, especially in the novel The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, published in 1796, which earned him the nickname ‘Monk' Lewis. (Lewis, incidentally, was a guest of Lord Byron at the Swiss villa where Byron started a ‘competition', among friends staying with him, to write a Gothic novel, which resulted in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.)

Mere escapism?

Such novels today might well be regarded as sheer escapism and to Jane Austen, writing in the early nineteenth century, the fact that such works appeared to be totally divorced from reality made their immense popularity suspect. She mocked such novels in Northanger Abbey, warning young ladies of being too easily taken in by the pleasures of the ‘circulating library'. The sensible Henry Tilney's gentle rebuke to Catherine questions the public taste for improbable horror:

Consult your own understanding, your own sense of the probable, your own observation of what is passing around you… what ideas have you been admitting?

Ongoing influence

If the taste for medievalism went hand in hand with the unbelievable in the Gothic horror novel, in also strongly influenced more serious C19 writers such as the Brontës and Dickens, and C20 and C21st writers such as Mervyn Peake, Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood.

In other areas of literature it fostered a growing interest in ‘true' medievalism: many writers saw medieval life as offering an ideal of nobility and harmony, where feudal ties linked people together in a way which was impossible in their contemporary, factory-based economy. Attempts were made to reconstruct the glories of medieval existence, and authenticity became the keyword. The C19 Arts and Crafts movement was another outworking of this.

In literature, this can be seen in:

  • The novels of Sir Walter Scott, who, in works such as Ivanhoe or The Talisman, endeavoured to reproduce as faithfully as possible the language, dress and manners of the historical period he was representing, without falling into the error of being merely obscure
  • Keats set his poem The Eve of Saint Agnes in a medieval castle, and he reinforces the setting by choosing archaic terminology such as ‘liege-lord', ‘beadsman' , ‘well-a-day' and ‘mickle'
    Later, Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King – a poetic rewriting of the story of King Arthur and his knights.

So it is a mistake just to see the taste for ‘Gothic'as merely the precursor of such later horror stories as Bram Stoker's Dracula. In fact it had a huge impact on the imagination, beliefs and attitudes of writers of all genres - and on artists of all kinds. This impact was just felt at the time of its main flowering, but is still influential today.

See Aspects of the Gothic: Gothic and sensation fiction

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