“A Brief History of Goths”: From the Goths, to Gothic Literature, to Goth Music

The his­to­ry of the word ‘Goth­ic,’” argues Dan Adams in the short, ani­mat­ed TED-Ed video above,” is embed­ded in thou­sands of years’ worth of coun­ter­cul­tur­al move­ments.” It’s a provoca­tive, if not entire­ly accu­rate, idea. We would hard­ly call an invad­ing army of Ger­man­ic tribes a “coun­ter­cul­ture.” In fact, when the Goths sacked Rome and deposed the West­ern Emper­or, they did, at first, retain the dom­i­nant cul­ture. But the Goth­ic has always referred to an oppo­si­tion­al force, a Dionysian coun­ter­weight to a ratio­nal, clas­si­cal order.

We know the var­i­ous ver­sions: the Ger­man­ic insti­ga­tors of the “Dark Ages,” ear­ly Chris­t­ian archi­tec­tur­al mar­vels, Roman­tic tales of ter­ror and the super­nat­ur­al, hor­ror films, and gloomy, black-clad post punks and their moody teenage fans. Aside from obvi­ous ref­er­ences like Bauhaus’ tongue-in-cheek ode, “Bela Lugosi’s Dead,” the con­nec­tive tis­sue between all the uses of Goth­ic isn’t espe­cial­ly evi­dent. “What do fans of atmos­pher­ic post-punk music,” asks Adams, “have in com­mon with ancient bar­bar­ians?” The answer: not much. But the sto­ry that joins them involves some strange con­ver­gences, all of them hav­ing to do with the idea of “dark­ness.”

Two sig­nif­i­cant fig­ures in the evo­lu­tion of the Goth­ic as a con­scious­ly-defined aes­thet­ic were both art his­to­ri­ans. The first, Gior­gio Vasari—con­sid­ered the first art historian—wrote biogra­phies of great Renais­sance artists, and first used the term Goth­ic to refer to medieval cathe­drals, which he saw as bar­barous next to the neo­clas­si­cal revival of the 14th-16th cen­turies. (Vasari was also the first to use the term “Renais­sance” to describe his own peri­od.) Two hun­dred years after Vasari’s Lives, art his­to­ri­an, anti­quar­i­an, and Whig politi­cian Horace Wal­pole appro­pri­at­ed the term Goth­ic to describe The Cas­tle of Otran­to, his 1765 nov­el that start­ed a lit­er­ary trend.

Wal­pole also used the term to refer to art of the dis­tant past, par­tic­u­lar­ly the ruins of cas­tles and cathe­drals, with an eye toward the sup­pos­ed­ly exot­ic, men­ac­ing aspects (for Protes­tant Eng­lish read­ers at least) of the Catholic church and Con­ti­nen­tal Euro­pean nobil­i­ty. But for him, the asso­ci­a­tions were pos­i­tive, and con­sti­tut­ed a kitschy escape from Enlight­en­ment ratio­nal­ism. We have Wal­pole to thank, in some sense, for ersatz cel­e­bra­tions like Renais­sance Fairs and Medieval Times restau­rants, and for lat­er Goth­ic nov­els like Bram Stoker’s Drac­u­la, Mary Shelley’s Franken­stein, and the weird tales of Edgar Allan Poe.

We can see that it’s a rather short leap from clas­sic hor­ror sto­ries and films to the dark make­up, teased hair, fog machines, and swirling atmos­pher­ics of The Cure and Siouxsie Sioux. In the his­to­ry of the Goth­ic, espe­cial­ly between Vasari and Wal­pole, the word moves from a term of abuse—describing art thought to be “crude and inferior”—to one that describes art forms con­sid­ered mys­te­ri­ous, and dark­ly Roman­tic. For anoth­er take on the sub­ject, see Pitch­fork’s  music-focused, ani­mat­ed, and  “sur­pris­ing­ly light-heart­ed” short, “A Brief His­to­ry of Goth,” above, a pre­sen­ta­tion on the sub­cul­ture’s rise, fall, and undead rise again.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Three-Hour Mix­tape Offers a Son­ic Intro­duc­tion to Under­ground Goth Music

A His­to­ry of Alter­na­tive Music Bril­liant­ly Mapped Out on a Tran­sis­tor Radio Cir­cuit Dia­gram: 300 Punk, Alt & Indie Artists

Watch 50+ Doc­u­men­taries on Famous Archi­tects & Build­ings: Bauhaus, Le Cor­busier, Hadid & Many More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • nk says:

    I was hop­ing to find out more how the con­tem­po­rary word and “goth” cul­ture relates to the actu­al goths and their cul­ture. It is under­stand­able that the word has a new mean­ing and face, but is it ground­ed in any­thing?

    Did ost­goths of vis­goths dress in black clothes and wear black lip­stick, for exam­ple?

  • RW says:

    The word Goth as in the sub­cul­ture comes from the word Goth­ic and has does not have any­thing to do with ost­goths nor vis­goths. hope this helps!

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