Decadence and Dark Ages’ Guest Post: Medieval Gothic

January has been dedicated (half-absently, thanks to a vicious virus) to the exploration of the Gothic Muses, to historical and artistic influences on our beloved genre. For today’s post, I am delighted to hand the keyboard over to the delectable Decadence and Dark Ages; a professional spooky nerd and devout medieval gothicist!

I am particularly excited for this post because, though my interest in the medieval is boundless, my knowledge is certainly not! Without further ado, I shall step back into the shadows, and let Decadence and Dark Ages introduce herself, then lead us all on a journey into the darkness that is the Medieval Gothic…

𝕯𝖊𝖈𝖆𝖉𝖊𝖓𝖈𝖊 𝖆𝖓𝖉 𝕯𝖆𝖗𝖐 𝕬𝖌𝖊𝖘

Hi!  My name is Alex, and I’ve just begun a PhD studying the influences of medieval narratives on Victorian Gothic literature.  At the moment, my social media presence is limited to Instagram (@decadence.and.dark.ages) where I share images from both the Middle Ages and the 19th century along with interesting facts and book reviews (and occasionally I have a little grumble/giggle about my experiences as a student).  My handle actually alludes to both eras, and though I thoroughly disagree with the idea that the medieval period was actually ‘the dark ages’ (the Renaissance just had better PR), I couldn’t resist the delicious alliteration.

‘Female Saint Holding a Book’ (detail), Amico Aspertini, c.1510-1520 | Via Wiki Commons

My research explores how the Gothic and the medieval are actually deeply intertwined, and that by examining how Gothic literature has grown from the narratives of the middle ages we can better understand how the genre has developed over time.  It might be worth acknowledging that ‘medieval’ is a term that spans the interval between the Romans and the Tudors, lasting approximately 1,000 years. However, a millennium of literature gives me a lot to explore, from revenants and vampires, to werewolves and witches, and at the time that Gothic literature was solidifying into a genre in the 18th century, there was a cultural shift towards reclaiming the ‘dark ages’ as a form of literary heritage.  Think about the tropes of Gothic and you’ll notice that they’re flavoured with the medieval.

So what is Gothic?  For me, what I love most about Gothic is how much it reveals about the culture writing it at any given time.  If you consider the 1890s and the 1990s, both teetering on the cusp of a new millennium, you’ll see that vampires become zeitgeist obsessions (from Dracula to Buffy).  What is it about a shift in era that stops us from looking into the future, but has us glancing fearfully over our shoulders, back into the past instead?  Because that’s what the vampire is, the personification of the past rising up to bite us in the… er… neck. For the Victorians the vampire was many things: venereal diseases, collapsing empire, blurring gender boundaries – all that good stuff (mostly, maybe not so much the venereal diseases).  So while the Gothic is often dismissed as tacky or vapid, it is secretly, deeply rich in revelations about what it is to be human, as we desperately attempt to define ourselves in contrast to the monsters. Attempt, and often, fail. Here’s looking at you, Dr. Frankenstein.

𝕸𝖊𝖉𝖎𝖊𝖛𝖆𝖑 𝕲𝖔𝖙𝖍𝖎𝖈

Whether you realise it or not, the medieval era plays a huge role in the Gothic narratives you consume.  True, there are seldom knights rocking around the novels of Joe Hill (please tell me if I’ve missed one!), but even Shirley Jackson has a quote from Chaucer engraved on the eponymous Sundial of her novel.  If you pause for a moment, and consider the themes of Gothic – the ruined castles (which in time become haunted houses), the darkness, the recurring fascination with Catholicism and its notions of demons, resurrection and exorcism – it becomes clear that these originated in our cultural understanding of the Middle Ages.

The Castle of Otranto, dir. Jan Svankmajer, 1977 | Film Still

However, in order to appreciate how the Middle Ages influenced the Gothic, it’s necessary to recognise that there are two types of medieval eras at play in the genre, and that they are, in fact, largely imaginary.  It is probable that most early authors read Chaucer alongside their Shakespeare and Ovid; and even if they were not recreating medieval narratives verbatim in their own novels, they were able to use the dark ages as an amorphous, mythic setting for their work. 

The first imaginary medieval emphasises the ‘evil’ – everyone knows the Middle Ages were barbaric, dangerous and rife with superstition and monsters, right? Of course it was! (It wasn’t, for the record). In this way, the dangerous and unsettling atmosphere of the medieval seeped into the Gothic through the work of these authors.  This dark age aesthetic is crystallised in The Castle of Otranto, where Horace Walpole uses the ruse of the found text (modernised with a vengeance by The Blair Witch Project) to present his novel as an actual account of something that happened in the medieval era: “Belief in every kind of prodigy was so established in those dark ages,” he writes in his preface, “that an author would not be faithful to the manners of the times who should omit all mention of them.”  Walpole is assuring his readers that he doesn’t believe in giant, prince crushing bits of armour, or omens, portents and ghosts; but the people in the text (that real, historical text!) absolutely did.  In this way, Walpole is able to create a rich and eerie atmosphere without anything as pesky as historical accuracy getting in the way of a good, spooky story.

‘Manfred’s comic servants being terrified by the ghost’s gigantic foot’, Bertie Greatheed |
via Yale.edu

The Castle of Otranto is largely held to be The First Gothic Novel, and influenced the direction of Gothic literature, with medievalism quietly lurking in the background like the ghost at the feast.  Of course, it wasn’t long before the Victorians arrived and became thoroughly obsessed with the era – so much so that they actually coined the term ‘medieval’. This is where the second imaginary Middle Ages comes into play: the idealised medieval.  Think King Arthur and the might of England; the fair feminine maidens (who absolutely would not want the vote) and chivalrous knights with their brothers in arms (who absolutely would become soldiers in honour of the Empire – er, the Round Table). This fascination with the Middle Ages was born of the Victorian longing for a pastoral past where everything was simpler and more noble (supposedly.  It wasn’t). But the era was far enough away and still so largely unknown that the Victorians could invent any sort of history they wanted – could valorise the Middle Ages, or demonise the dark ages. The nineteenth century looked back to the last moment in British history (they felt) where the miraculous was still possible; their contempt gave way to nostalgia and they longed for a time when fairies could bless a baby, or demons blight a crop.  This created an atmosphere of the medieval that allowed the ghost of the era to flourish in the Gothic: Melusine, the medieval shape-shifting fairy who is both woman and snake can be found in Prince Alberic and the Snake Lady by Vernon Lee; the revenants and zombies of Walter Map are palpable in the demonic hauntings of M.R. James. Like Dracula rising up from the past to harass the protagonists and readers of the nineteenth century, the medieval era is itself a revenant that refuses to die.

So although there may not be literal knights in the Gothic as it is written now, we nevertheless all recognise the medieval trope of the woman in the tower in the various figures of isolated women and their haunted houses within such books and films as Rebecca, The Haunting of Hill House, and even AlienThere may no longer be dragons, but the medieval is part of Gothic’s literary heritage, and it haunts the books we read – whether we know the ghost is there, or not.

~

It’s Generally Gothic again, returned from the shadows, wiser. A huge thank you to Alex for this fascinating piece! Let us know what you thought in the comments below, or on Instagram.

If you’d like to see your work featured here – whether you’re a blossoming expert, a self-made specialist, or want a reason to research – reach out! I’m also open to collaborations and would love to see your creative, um… creations (poetry, short fiction, artwork, photography) too!

Finally, as you may have seen, I am hosting a little giveaway as a thank you for joining me in my spooky-nerdy endeavours. Find all the info here.

There’s one last post planned for the season of Gothic Muses: a review of Circe, January’s Generally Gothic Book Club read-along pick. Follow Generally Gothic to receive a notification when it’s out.

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