Medievalism and the Gothic Novel

The Gothic novel is the product of eighteenth century interest in “the potentialities of the Middle Ages for picturesque horror” (Hume 202). The Middle Ages have also been called the Dark Ages, Muddy Ages, or Barbarous Ages. The period called the Middle Ages bridges the classical world and the Renaissance. Early historians viewed this period as one of decay and chaos, and they mourned the loss of the classical civilization of the Greeks and Romans. This dark view of the Middle Ages allowed for the people of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to use their imagination and conjure dark tales of what life could have been like in Medieval Europe. Thus, the Gothic aesthetic and the Gothic novel were born.

Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons

Scholars point out that the Gothic movement of the eighteenth century “involved a conscious reframing of the medieval past” (Reeve). The very act of the Gothic movement challenged the Enlightenment idea of historical progress; people were letting their minds move backward to a “dark” time of history rather than moving forward. One historian writes that the Gothic aesthetic is the “chivalric past idealized at the explicit expense of a classical present” (Miles 39). Indeed, the authors of Gothic novels idealized, twisted, stretched, and imagined the truth of the medieval past. They are historical novels, but historical accuracy of fact was not the primary concern of the authors. Gothic novels flourished as a literary form from 1764-1820 (Hume 282). They permeated the culture and were even parodied by the likes of Jane Austen.

Elements of the Gothic Novel

  • Gothic settings had a heavy focus on dark castles, abandoned abbeys, dark stormy nights, black forests, and supernatural weather.

    photo courtesy of wikimedia commons
    photo courtesy of wikimedia commons
  • Psychological interest. Characters’ mental state was examined and put to the test as they faced incredible or appalling situations.
  • Use of the supernatural. This was one of the most distinguishing characteristics of the Gothic novel. Characters were often visited by ghosts or attacked by spirits. The use of the supernatural may be representative of a longing to return to the time when the supernatural was knowable, i.e., when its presence was universally felt behind the words, emblems, and ceremonies of the Catholic church in the Middle Ages (Miles 41).
  • Atmosphere of terror, horror, and suspense.

    photo courtesy of wikimedia commons
    photo courtesy of wikimedia commons
  • Damsels in distress.
  • The Byronic Hero. A sort of anti-hero who became characteristic of Gothic novels. Rebellious, arrogant, brooding, and darkly, enticingly romantic. The confusion of good and evil within this character produces a “non-Christian or “anti-clerical feeling” (Hume 287). The Catholic church was the center of the medieval world; the way that these heroes are written questions, challenges, defies, or dilutes it. For example, The Monk by Matthew Lewis tells the tale of a monk who gives into sexual temptation and eventually engages in depraved acts of sorcery, murder, incest and torture.

Prominent Gothic Novels

The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

“The following work was found in the library of an ancient catholic family in the north of England. It was printed at Naples, in the black letter, in the year 1529. How much sooner it was written does not appear. The principal incidents are such as were believed in the darkest ages of christianity; but the language and conduct have nothing that favours of barbarism… If the story was written near the time when it is supposed to have happened, it must have been between 1095, the era of the first crusade, and 1243, the date of the last” -Walpole’s Preface to The Castle of Otranto

From the very beginning Walpole sets the tone of the book as historically mysterious and dark. His preface also reflects an anti-Catholic attitude. Walpole called himself a “Protestant Goth,” however, he had an “erotic fascination” with Catholicism (Reeve). The story opens

Inside the Castle of Otranto. photo courtesy of wikimedia commons
Inside the Castle of Otranto.
photo courtesy of wikimedia commons

with a wedding, and the groom is crushed by a helmet fit for a giant. The grooms father attempts to marry the bride, Isabella, himself, but she escapes to a church. After many supernatural occurrences and duels between knights, Isabella finds and marries her true love.


The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

Radcliffe’s Gothic romance is set in 1584 and follows the journey of Emily and her Aunt as they struggle under the power of evil men. After supernatural events and much suspense, Emily reclaims her family’s fortune and reunites with her true love. The following scene illustrates the elements of supernatural and church imagery:

“The nun offered to accompany Emily to the grave, adding, ‘It is melancholy to go alone at this hour;’ but the former, thanking her for the consideration, could not consent to have any witness of her sorrow…Emily paused a moment at the door; a sudden fear came over her…As she heard the steps of the nun ascending, and, while she held up the lamp, saw her black veil waving over the spiral balusters, she was tempted to call her back. While she hesitated, the veil disappeared, and, in the next moment, ashamed of her fears, she returned to the church” -Chapter 8

Works Cited

Hume, Robert D. “Gothic versus Romantic: A Revaluation of the Gothic Novel.” PMLA 84.2 (1969): 282-90. JSTOR. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.

Miles, Robert. “The Gothic Aesthetic: The Gothic as Discourse.” The Eighteenth Century 32.1 (1991): 39-57. JSTOR. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Mysteries of Udolpho. Ed. R. A. Freeman. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Reeve, Matthew M. “Gothic Architecture, Sexuality, and License at Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill.” The Art Bulliten 95.3 (2013): 411-41. Proquest Research Library. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto; a Gothic Story. Ed. W. S. Lewis. London: Oxford UP, 1964. Print.

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