The Gothic Survivor

This article was originally published on Five Thôt.

Winston Churchill, a historian and something of a cynic, wrote, “History is written by the winners.”  Even if that’s too cynical for your taste, you have to admit that history can only be written by the survivors.  More importantly, it tends to be written about the survivors. You have to last around long enough to do something worth writing about.  Sometimes, just the act of surviving is enough.

Linguists who study such things believe that around the time of Caesar, far north of Rome where Germany and Scandinavia are now, speakers of Proto-Germanic used the word geutan to mean “flow” or “pour”.  Linguists believe that, but can’t know for sure, because except for a few scattered inscription, nothing written in Proto-Germanic has survived. The longest river in Scandinavia was named Göta Älv, “the flowing river”, and the people who lived by the Göta were called the Gotar and eventually, the Goths.

There were a lot of Germanic tribes — the Semnones, the Langobardi , the Reudigni, the Aviones, the Varini, the Eudoses, the Suardones, the Nuithones — and the names of most of them are remembered now only by ethnologists.  Three tribes managed to keep their names alive to the modern day.  The Anglii moved to Britain, colonizing it and giving their name to the south-eastern half of the island: England.  The Vandals — whose name just meant “wanderers”, as you realize if you say “wander” in a fake German accent — had a largely undeserved reputation for looting and pillaging so severe that 1500 years later, malicious juveniles who spray-paint overpasses are still denounced as “vandals”.

The name “Goth” survived through a process as unfair and much more complicated.

For 500 years, large buildings were constructed in the Romanesque style, heavy stone heaps kept mostly vertical by semi-circular arches.  The semi-circular arch had a reputation as undeservedly good as the Vandals’ reputation was undeservedly bad.  A circle is perfect, the reasoning went, and a semi-circle is half a circle, so it must be almost perfect.  (Given this reasoning, I suspect that “killed in church collapse” must have been contending with “died of the Plague” for the title “Most Popular Epitaph of Middle Ages”.)

In fact, the semi-circle arch wasn’t terribly strong for its size.  To support any weight at all, the arch had to be quite thick.  And it was fairly clunky.  By definition, it had to be exactly twice as wide as it was high, so to span a series of different widths, you needed different heights too, and it never looked right.

At some point in the 12th Century, architects began to realize that a pointed arch was both much stronger and stylistically more flexible than a semi-circular one.  Starting in France, and spreading to Britain and central Europe, the thick, low, graceless Romanesque style died away, its homely chapels, gloomy monasteries, and squat fortresses overshadowed by glorious new-style cathedrals and palaces, with their pointed arches supporting needle-like spires, endless arcades, delicate wing-like buttresses, huge and light-filled naves.  Chartres, Notre Dame, Limoges, some of the most beautiful building ever erected.

Every movement, no matter how spectacularly successful, has its critics.  Traditionalists bashed the “barbarous German style”.  The 17th Century architect Sir Christopher Wren, one of the last holdouts of the Romanesque tradition (and even he gave in eventually), invoked the by-then-legendary Germanic savages to denounce the pointed arches and the whole school of design: such crude imperfect arches could only have been built by a Goth.

Ambrose Bierce wrote, “For every man there is something in the vocabulary that would stick to him like a second skin. His enemies have only to find it.”  The enemies of the pointed arch had found its name.  Gothic arches, Gothic cathedrals, Gothic architecture.

But just as the name “Gothic” for the tribe could have been relegated to the ethnologists, the same name for architecture could have forgotten by all but builders and designers.  Did you know the word “Romanesque”?  I didn’t, until I started researching this article.

“Gothic” probably would have forgotten the same way, except that Horatio Walpole, Earl of Orford, politician, historian, novelist, and all-around trivia-quiz answer, made the whimsical decision to give his horror/romance novel Castle of Otranto the subtitle “A Gothic Story”.

As luck would have it, the novel became the Twilight of its day, melodrama spiced up with the supernatural and enormously popular.  Like Twilight, anyone with any pretensions to taste hated it, or said they did, but readers snapped up copies.  They didn’t have airport waiting rooms in 1764, and not many people went to the beach, but somehow, people found the opportunity to follow the adventures of Lord Manfred, his fiancee Princess Isabella, her true love Theodore, Theodore’s father Friar (!) Jerome, and Bianca, the plucky comic relief.

Like any success, the book spawned a host of imitators and eventually an entire genre — called, of course, Gothic literature.

The genre was, and still is, popular (witness Twilight) but there’s no particular reason the name should have become well-known outside publishing circles. People read “picaresque novels” and “whodunits” without ever wondering what they’re called.

Somehow, “Gothic” as a name continued its millennium-long record of beating the odds.  In a 1979 BBC interview, Tony Wilson, manager of the grim post-Punk band Joy Division, happened to describe his group as “Gothic”, meaning I suppose that they were energetically morbid.  Joy Division was to dissolve six months later when their lead vocalist Gothicly hanged himself from a clothes line, but fans seized upon the description, and soon there was a new sub-sub-genre of music: Punk Gothique.

Some of the Punk Gothique bands were actually pretty good, the Cure, Adam and the Ants, Bauhaus.

I’ve never heard — or even heard of — most of the others, but with names like Southern Death Cult, Specimen, Sex Gang Children, UK Decay, Virgin Prunes, Christian Death, and Alien Sex Fiend, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Fans of Gothique tended to be teenagers, and like most teenagers do sooner or later, they found an idea that already was pretty stupid and took it way too far.  Goth transcended just music and became a full-fledged, if fairly ridiculous, subculture.  The typical Goth affects a gloomy mien and an all-black wardrobe, not just black clothing but black-dyed hair, black nail polish, and black lipstick, even on boys.  There’s even Goth gardening, confining itself to flowers that are black or that only bloom at night.

I love survivors.  I picture “Gothic” the word as dodging and weaving its way through a dangerous 1000 years of language and history, opportunistically attaching itself first to one idea and then another.  In 500 AD, a Goth was a miserable tribesman, huddling by a damp smoky fire in Norway, coughing and trying not to freeze to death; in 2013 AD, a Goth is a miserable high-school junior, huddled behind the gym, skipping class — probably history class! –- to puff on a cigarette and complain to her friends about how uncool her step-mother is.

Neither one has any idea of the curious chain of events that gave them their shared name; they’re equally ignorant of Horatio Walpole, Christopher Wren, even Joy Division.

I like to think that when the last modern-day Goth washes off her black lipstick and trades in her black bustier and crinoline for the blue vest of a Walmart greeter, the word “Goth” will manage to attach itself to a new concept entirely.  Maybe there will be Gothic food or Gothic surgery.  Something.

Everything changes, meaning changes, architecture changes, culture changes, but somehow, a word survives.  You gotta admire that.

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