The Gothic: A Beast is Born

As much as I love digging through the history of the Gothic, my 50 000 word limit quickly became a too tiny space in which to explore even the shallowest representation of its beginnings. Consequently, I’ve had to cut broad swathes of text from my thesis on Neo-Gothic fiction, and where better to use what literally elicited blood, sweat and tears than on my blog? I’m thus hoping (thesis-allowing) to post a couple of introductory excavations into the history and development of Gothic fiction as I explored it for my thesis. This first post attempts to give a brief introduction to the origins of ‘the Gothic’ and its shifting uses up to the eighteenth century.


From the beginning, the Gothic has been sustained by legend, pseudo-history and the dialectic between the primitive and the civilised. Over the centuries, the Gothic has evolved into a many-faced beast whose origins and intentions remain murky. Despite the boom in Gothic studies during the late 1970s (Punter and Byron xvii), little is concretely agreed upon and descriptions of its countenance vary. This is, of course, due to the nature of the beast – amorphous, mysterious and characterised by the whim not only of its creators, but also of its consumers. Therefore, in order to approach this beast, one must first attempt to classify and understand it. Discussions of Gothic fiction usually start at Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), but to gain an understanding of the genre’s relationship with history and its diffusion into modern culture, one must dissect its ‘deep roots’ in the appropriation of the history of ancient Gothic peoples.

Gothic Roots:

What is today understood as ‘the Gothic’ has an origin of sorts in the appropriation of the historical narrative of the Goths, one of the northern European tribes instrumental in the fall of the Western Roman Empire (Punter and Byron 3). Originally used to delineate only one of the Germanic tribes, all “Germanic” or “Teutonic” tribes would come to be subsumed in a collective northern identity under the title “the Goths” (Punter and Byron 3). Even though, as Robin Sowerby points out, what we today call the Gothic has seemingly little to do with the people from which the term is derived (25), the appropriation and misapplication of the myths and perceived history surrounding these tribes would inform the key tenets of the Gothic as a literary genre.

The first revival lies in the resurrection and construction of a mysterious and mythologized people. As David Punter and Glennis Byron suggest, the actual history surrounding these ‘tribes’ was “sketchy” (3) at best. The Goths of the fourth and fifth centuries left no written records or art of their own and, due to their role in the fall of Rome, were perceived as “thoroughgoing pillagers, ravagers, looters, and spoilers” (Sowerby 27). What was known of them depended on two classical works: Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War) and the Germania of Tacitus. Sowerby asserts that “[t]hrough history the word ‘Gothic’ has always been chiefly defined in contrasting juxtaposition to the Roman, and a constant factor in its various uses, perhaps the only constant factor, has continued to be its antithesis to the Roman or the classical” (Sowerby 25). During the Renaissance, the Goths were accordingly labelled as the originators of the ‘Dark Ages’, when the ‘light of civilisation’ was thought to be extinguished in the rapid decay of western society as it was conquered by ‘primitive’ tribes (Ward-Perkins 2). Renaissance historians, who saw themselves as the “direct heirs of the Romans” (Sowerby 33), started to cast the Goths as the antithesis to Rome and all that is classical in terms of culture, art and progress. During this time, the term ‘Gothic’ was also erroneously attributed to a style of architecture that was deemed “barbaric, disordered and irrational in opposition to the classical style” (Punter and Byron 4), which was characterised as clean, harmonious and balanced. These characteristics were extended to the cultures themselves, and served “not only to establish through difference the superiority of the more classical traditions of Greece and Rome, but also to confirm the virtues of the equally civilized, ordered and rational present” (Punter and Byron 4).

The Sack of Rome by the Visigoths
The Sack of Rome by the Visigoths on 24 August 410, a painting by JN Sylvestre. This painting gives some idea of how the Goths were viewed by ‘civilised’ peoples – half naked and destructive. In the background, King Alaric I surveys his ‘work’.

Eighteenth-Century Developments:

This affirmation was also claimed in eighteenth century Britain, when the Gothic was once again used as a foil to classical values in the Augustan or Neoclassical period. More generally subsumed into the Enlightenment, the Neoclassical period pertained specifically to aesthetics that valued the emulation of classical traditions of harmony, structure and balance (Abrams and Harpham 175).  As Fred Botting suggests, ‘Gothic’ at this time “condenses a variety of historical elements and meanings opposed to the categories valued in the eighteenth century” (13). The word ‘Gothic’ was used to denote “art, architecture and writing that failed to conform to the standards of neoclassical taste”, and signified “feudal barbarity, superstition and tyranny” (14). Up to the seventeenth century, all things medieval (and therefore all things that formed a contrast to both classical and Renaissance values) were signified by the term ‘the Gothic’ (Punter and Byron 3). From the start, then, the Gothic was characterised as something primal and dark, capable of the annihilation of ‘civilised’ values.

Gar by TheTork
Gothic architecture is all about the sweeping upwards of your gaze to a sublime height that makes you thank God that the building is not crumbling on top of you. Or, in other words, its grand lines and intricate details stand as a testament to the frailty of human life. See the connection? Photo by EvranOzturk, found at

‘Gothic’ is, however, a “truly Protean term” (Sowerby 35), and during the eighteenth century a second level of meaning came to be associated with the word. According to Punter and Byron, ‘Gothic’ “began to be invested with a set of different and contradictory values” (4). Starting in the seventeenth century, British historians showed a “deep interest in the historical role of the Germanic tribes […] which had invaded Britain in the fifth century AD” (Clery and Miles 48). This interest pervaded the British political landscape and sparked a debate about the influence of Gothic customs and institutions on contemporary British society. Based largely on Roman historian Tacitus’s favourable history of Germanic tribes in Germania, the narrative of the Goths became a site for the “reclamation of a native English past” (Punter and Byron 4) that provided a legitimating precedent for ideals of parliamentarianism, liberty and order (Botting 17). With the need to distinguish Britain from its feudal past and its Catholic neighbours, the Gothic became the site of “a true national, democratic and civilized heritage” (4). As E. J. Clery and Robert Miles explain:

[T]he myth of Gothic origins was fundamental to an emergent sense of British national distinctiveness; favourite historical sources tended to represent the Goths as valorous and virtuous, innately inclined to venerate women, and with a strong attachment to liberty and justice, displayed in their representative system of government and their invention of the jury system. (48)

As the Gothic was “secularized and imbued with Whiggish politics” (Spooner 14), the historical narratives around the Goths also took on a Whiggish slant that transfigured the Renaissance’s unruly, destructive barbarians into a source of civilised values.

"Ludwig Thiersch - Alaric à Athènes" by Ludwig Thiersch - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
King Alaric I in all his glory, seated in Athens after his forces conquered the city a few years before the Goths invaded Italy. Painting by Ludwig Thiersch, 1894. This gives some indication of the splendour associated (by some) with the Goths.

The Polymorphous Beast:

The origins of the Gothic as an aesthetic movement thus lie in the appropriation and embellishment of a history. Through its past, the term ‘Gothic’ retains an association with the primitive, but as Punter and Byron point out, this association serves specific ideological purposes (5). For Renaissance art historians, “the Gothic [was] associated with the barbaric and uncivilized in order to define that which is other to the values of the civilized present” (5). During the Enlightenment and specifically the Neoclassical period, the Gothic “signified the lack of reason, morality and beauty of feudal beliefs, customs and works” (Botting 13). For Whigs, the Gothic was associated with a primitive that was “identified with the true, but lost, foundations of a culture” (Punter and Byron 5). What remains constant is the use of history to authenticate an ideal of the present, and the Gothic as a mode remains the “symbolic site of a culture’s discursive struggle to define and claim possession of the civilized, and to abject, or throw off, what is seen as other to that civilized self” (5). The primary binary between primitive and civilised is maintained throughout the Gothic’s influence over both art and literature, and its crucial link to the use (and abuse) of historical narratives informs both the development and the core tenets of the genre. However, as is demonstrated, the values of each binary pole shifts with the needs and aspirations of those who employ it, and the history that is established through this manoeuvring is every bit as slippery.

"John Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare" by Henry Fuseli - Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
The Nightmare by John Henry Fuseli. This painting is perhaps the most famous of its kind, and is often depicted in association with the Gothic.

This is, however, the history out of which the Gothic beast was born in the late eighteenth century. The destruction, violence and primitivism with which the ancient Goths were associated would filter into later understandings of the word, and Gothic fiction would take up its negative sense to create dark, subversive narratives. These narratives evoked that sense of fear of the unknown that must have permeated the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, as the bastion of ‘civilization’ crumbled under the invasion of ‘barbarians’. While early Gothic narratives perhaps lacked this sense of epic shifts in the cosmos, its rise tells a story of dread and tribulation that would provide the impetus for a strain of fiction that charted not only humanity’s deepest fears, but also its strangest desires.

"Carmilla" by David Henry Friston - English wikipedia via Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -
“Carmilla” by David Henry Friston. This picture appeared as an illustration to Sheridun le Fanu’s novella ‘Carmilla’, which is hailed as one of the earliest works of Vampire fiction. Carmilla is often seen as a figure of transgressive sexuality, whose vampiric tendencies symbolised a breaking free of the repressive attitude toward sex during the Victorian era.

Bibliography and Further Reading:

Abrams, M. H. and Geoffrey Galt Harpham. A Glossary of Literary Terms, Ninth Edition. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2009.

Botting, Fred. “In Gothic Darkly: Heterotopia, History, Culture”. A New Companion to the Gothic. Ed. David Punter. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Clery, E.J. and Miles, Robert, eds. Gothic Documents: a Sourcebook, 1700 – 1820. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2000.

Punter, David and Glennis Byron. The Gothic. Malden: Blackwell, 2004.

Spooner, Catherine. “Gothic in the Twentieth Century”. Routledge Companion to Gothic. Eds. Catherine Spooner and Emma McEvoy. London: Routledge, 2007.

Sowerby, Robin. “The Goths in History and Pre-Gother”. A New Companion to the Gothic. Ed. David Punter. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

Ward-Perkins, Bryan. The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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