As ever, dear readers, welcome.

I had just finished lunch last week when I was stopped by a student worker who asked if I minded answering a question.  As I love student questions, I said, “Absolutely!” and he said, “What was that book you were reading?”

It was this book—

I had the sense that he was puzzled because, when we say “Goth” today, I imagine that most of us probably think this first—

But there’s a long, complicated history behind this, and the clothing may provide an immediate clue—

if we see this as a direct descendant not only of later Victorian clothing, but of a specific kind—mourning dress—

like the sort of thing Queen Victoria wore for the rest of her life,

after the death of Prince Albert, in 1861.

(There is another Victorian tradition, associated with Victorian ladies’ undergarments, here, as well, but we will allow others to pursue that.  If you’d like to know more on the subject of Goth culture, there’s a long, detailed article at:  )

This, in turn, is linked to what is often called “Gothic horror” fiction—familiar to us from stories like Dracula (1897),

with its vampire villain

(by Andrew Baker—one of the few illustrations of Dracula which actually follows the description in the novel)

and especially its opening, full of foreboding as its first protagonist, Jonathan Harker, comes to the brooding, semi-ruined castle of Dracula in the wilds of the Carpathian mountains.

(This is Bran castle in Romania, which has been suggested as a model for Dracula’s stronghold.)

But why “Gothic” horror?

And answer to this may lie in Horace Walpole’s (1717-1797)

(with a bit of his own “gothique” castle, Strawberry Hill, in the background.)

 1764 novel, The Castle of Otranto, the subtitle of the 1765 edition bearing the words “A Gothic Story”.

It’s clear that, when Walpole chose to add those words as a subtitle to the second edition, he was aware that the idea of “gothic” stories already existed, as the reviewer in The Monthly Review for February, 1765, says of the book:

“Those who can digest the absurdities of Gothic fiction, and bear with the machinery of ghosts and goblins, may hope, at least, for considerable entertainment from the performance before us…”  (The Monthly Review, February, 1765, page 97—you can read it here: )

This tale, which includes murders, haunting, and kidnapping, among other events, all set around an ancient castle in a remote area of southeastern Italy, however, became such a sensation in its own time that it’s usually cited as the ancestor of many such stories to come. 

Although this may link “Gothic” with fiction, we are then left with the question:  why the link?

In his preface to the Second Edition, Walpole has this to say about his work:

“It was an attempt to blend the two kinds of Romance, the ancient and the modern. In the former, all was imagination and improbability: in the latter, nature is always intended to be, and sometimes has been, copied with success. Invention has not been wanting; but the great resources of fancy have been dammed up, by a strict adherence to common life. But if in the latter species Nature has cramped imagination, she did but take her revenge, having been totally excluded from old Romances. The actions, sentiments, conversations, of the heroes and heroines of ancient days were as unnatural as the machines employed to put them in motion.

The author of the following pages thought it possible to reconcile the two kinds. Desirous of leaving the powers of fancy at liberty to expatiate through the boundless realms of invention, and thence of creating more interesting situations, he wished to conduct the mortal agents in his drama according to the rules of probability; in short, to make them think, speak and act, as it might be supposed mere men and women would do in extraordinary positions.”

That is to say, take a less-than-believable setting from “the ancient”—that is, medieval, world of story-telling, but place within it people from “the modern” with their current reactions.  In fact, the actual story is, to me, as unbelievable as any “ancient” romance, but Walpole’s intent can easily be seen in later novels, Dracula, in fact, being a perfect example, in which a character based upon a late 15th-century border warlord,

infected with vampirism, plans to invade the very realistically-depicted late-Victorian England, using its very modern 20,000 miles of railroads to conquer the country and faced by protagonists who use everything from modern science and medicine to modern firearms to oppose him. 

Attaching “Gothic” to the past appears to have originated in a Renaissance architectural criticism, in the works of Giorgio Vasari (1511-1574),

famous for his The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects (1550; 1568),

(the 1568 edition)

in which he suggests that earlier architects had created “buildings of a style which today have been called by us ‘Germanic’ (maniera di edifizi c’hoggi da noi son chiamati ‘Tedeschi’—my translation from the 1568 edition, which you can see here:   He later calls this style barbaric and joins it with the Goths and this is where castles must come in, as, in fact, the “Gothic” style, as he understands it, doesn’t belong to the Goths, invaders and rulers of the later western Roman empire from the later 4th AD century on,

(Angus McBride)

but to the later medieval period, when castles first appeared and in which Walpole wanted to set his story.

Those Goths, in fact, spoke an early Germanic language and that’s the subject of the book about which the student was curious.  I feel like I’m always working on my German and my latest approach has been to seek out the earliest member of the family for which we have significant evidence and to study it to see if it will help to make my modern German stronger, just as Latin has certainly helped with my Romance languages (and English for that matter, as about 50% of English is directly or indirectly derived from Latin).  As someone with a certain amount of German and a lot of experience with ancient Indo-European languages (mainly Latin and Greek), 4th-6th century Gothic feels quite comfortable, as it shares many features.  There is the added bonus that the main surviving text is a large chunk of the Christian New Testament, so that, having grown up in that world, many of the stories told are already familiar.

And, in all of this, I’m following in the footsteps of someone about whom I often write.

As Humphrey Carpenter tells us:

“One of his school-friends had bought a book at a missionary sale, but found that he had no use for it and sold it to Tolkien.  It was Joseph Wright’s A Primer of the Gothic Language.

Tolkien opened it and immediately experienced ‘a sensation at least of full of delight as first looking into Chapman’s Homer.’ “ (Carpenter, Tolkien, 41)

While I am certainly enjoying the study of it, I doubt that I’ll ever have anything more than a general reading knowledge—Tolkien wrote book dedications in it (see Letters, 356-8) and even poems, which were published, along with other colleagues’ work, in a 1936 booklet, Songs for the Philologists

but becoming a scholar of Gothic was never my goal. 

Now as to blue hair, piercings, and funeral dress…

Thanks for reading, as ever.

Stay well,

Refrain, while invading, from damaging the previous owner’s art collection,

(another Angus McBride)

And remember that, as always, there’s