The reputation of the eighteenth-century has mainly been as an age of reliance on reason, as a time when enlightenment was seen as possible, and the rational explanation of natural and human activities formed an agenda in the service of which most of the European intellectuals of the age worked. However, as is always the case with such simple histories of ideas, this inevitably tells only part of the story.
During the eighteenth-century, there was, for example, a shift in the meanings and connotations of the word “Gothic”. Whereas previously it had referred specifically to the “Goths” (q.v.) themselves, or at least to later imaginings of them, to the northern barbarian tribes who played so reviled a part in the collapse of the Roman Empire, less weight came to be placed on the presumed geographical significance of the word and correspondingly more on the historical. Here, however, there was a serious difficulty, for very little was known in the later eighteenth century about the history of the Dark Ages, or indeed about medieval history. From being a term suggestive of more or less unknown features of the Dark Ages, “Gothic” broadened out to become descriptive of anything medieval — in fact, of all things preceding about the middle of the seventeenth-century.
Another connotation was attached to this: if “Gothic” meant to do with what was perceived as barbaric and to do with the medieval world, it could be seen to follow that it was a term which could be used in structural opposition to “classical”. Where the classical was well ordered, the Gothic was chaotic; where the classical was pure and straightforward, Gothic was ornate and convoluted; where the classics offered a world of clear rules and limits, Gothic represented excess and exaggeration, the product of the wild and the uncivilized, a world that always tended to overflow cultural boundaries.
These extensions in, or reversals of, meaning have a perceptible logic; but what started to happen in the middle of the eighteenth-century had less to do with logic and more to do with a shift in cultural values. For a while the word “Gothic” retained this central stock of meanings, the value placed upon them began to alter radically. It is not possible to put a precise date on this change, but it was one of the huge dimensions which affected whole areas of architectural, artistic and literary culture in Britain and also in some parts of mainland Europe; for what happened was that the “medieval”, the primitive, the wild, became invested with positive value in and for itself and came to be seen as representing virtues and qualities that the “modern” world needed.
Gothic stood for the old-fashioned as opposed to the modern; the barbaric as opposed to the civilized; crudity as opposed to elegance; old English barons as opposed to the cosmopolitan gentry; often for the English and provincial as opposed to the European or Frenchified, for the vernacular as opposed to an “imposed” culture. Gothic was the archaic, the pagan, that which was prior to, or was opposed to, or resisted the establishment of civilised values and a well-regulated society. Moreover, various writers, starting from this point, began to make out a case for the importance of these Gothic qualities and to claim, specifically, that the fruits of primitivism and barbarism possessed a vigour, a sense of grandeur that was sorely needed in English culture. Furthermore, these writers began to argue that there were whole areas of English cultural history which had been ignored in conventional reconstructions of the past and that the way to breathe life into the culture was by re-establishing relations with this forgotten, “Gothic” history.
Many of the critical texts which made this point were written in the 1760s. The most important of all was ‘Letters on Chivalry and Romance’ (1762), by Richard Hurd. Richard Hurd was a littérateur, an amateur and an antiquarian rather than a serious critic, but he summarised a very widespread flow of thought in his enquiry into the nature and value of the Gothic. Perhaps the best-known passage goes as follows: The greatest geniuses of our own and foreign countries, such as Ludovico Ariosto and Torquato Tasso in Italy, and Spenser and Milton in England, were seduced by these barbarities of their forefathers, were even charmed by the Gothic Romances. Was this caprice and absurdity in them? Or, may there not be something in the Gothic Romance peculiarly suited to the views of a genius, and to the ends of poetry.
The arts of our forefathers and the folk traditions on which they drew, Richard Hurd is saying, may have been ill-formed and may indeed not have conformed to rules which we have since come to regard as constitutive of aesthetic success and propriety; but perhaps this very rudeness and wildness can be construed as itself a source of power — a power that Spenser, Shakespeare and Milton saw and which we may not be able to reclaim unless we come to value it and see it more clearly.
It is not simple to pin down precisely who the “forefathers” were to whom Richard Hurd refers, but critics agree that there were four principal areas of past literature that were brought back into cultural acceptability and prominence under the aegis of this early “revival of the Gothic”. First, there was the genuinely ancient British heritage, in so far as any of it was available in the eighteenth-century. Thomas Gray regarded himself as well read in old Welsh poetry; James Macpherson (q.v.) in his “translations” of the imaginary Gaelic poet Ossian saw himself as referring back to ancient British “tradition”; Thomas Percy’s important translation in 1770 of P. H. Mallet’s Northern Antiquities was designed to reacquaint its readers with large areas of the ancient history of northern Europe.
Second, there was a revival of interest in ballads. Percy’s crucial collection, ‘Reliques of Ancient English Poetry’, was published in 1765, and it was the re-establishment of the credentials of this form of “folk-poetry” which was to lead on to the interest of the major romantics in ballad-like poems, through works like William Blake’s ‘Gwin, King of Norway’, written in the 1770s, to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’ (1798), and thence to John Keats’s ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ and Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Mask of Anarchy, both written in 1819.
Third, Gothic was taken to include English medieval poetry. Best known by far were the works of Chaucer, which were given a scholarly edition by Thomas Tyrwhitt in 1775–8. Moreover, fourth, Gothic included, at least for some writers and critics, the primary work of Spenser and of the Elizabethans, whose strength, it now came to be thought, had been buried under the achievements of the mid-seventeenth century. This shift of value was at its apogee in the 1790s. It was not, of course, the case that Gothic ever became a universal standard of taste, but by that time the arguments that supported it were being given their fullest articulation and the stage was set for Gothic to develop as the basis for a literary form.
As we have said, however, the literary effects of this change in values were by no means the whole of the picture. The other principal application of the term “Gothic” was, as it still is, in the field of architecture (q.v.), and here it was used to refer to medieval architecture, principally churches and cathedrals, from about the twelfth to the sixteenth-centuries.
Alongside its taste for “ancient” literature, the late eighteenth-century acquired a pronounced taste for medieval buildings, whether real or fake. Wealthy land-owners even went to the extent of building Gothic ruins, ready-made, in the grounds of their mansions, and occasionally to the expense of hiring hermits to live in custom-made adjacent cells. The most famous example of Gothic building in the period was Horace Walpole’s (q.v.) Strawberry Hill, a Gothic castle in appearance even if surprisingly small in scale. By far the most impressive, however, must have been William Beckford’s (q.v.) Fonthill Abbey, which collapsed under the weight of its own vast tower. What later flowed from this taste was to be the “Gothicizing” mania of the Victorians.