Historical Research – Origins of the Gothic Genre

The Goths

The Goths were an East Germanic tribe of Scandinavian origin. The two branches of the tribe were called the Visigoths, and the Ostrogoths. They were known as a warlike tribe, the first record of this is an incursion in 238, where the Goths attacked the Roman town of Histria. There were many Gothic raids during the 3rd Century. Particularly around the Black Sea and in Eastern Europe.

There may be a very loose link between The Goths, and Gothic Literature. For example some of the early Gothic stories such as Carmilla are about Eastern Europe and talk about ancestry. But it is probably just the name. Don’t read too much into it, historically there was a lot of confusion about such things, think about Red Indians in America (not actually from India) or the way the Victorians used the word Chinoserie to describe any art from the east, not just China. Travel is a common feature in Gothic Literature, and was becoming more popular. There were many Gothic ruins across Europe, and it’s easy to see how this might have inspired writers on their travels. Some early Gothic novels do use the word “Gothic” in reference to architecture and ruins.

Folk and Fairy Tales 

Fairy Tales: These were generally oral. The Brothers Grimm famously recorded tales from around Germany, publishing them as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which can still be bought today. Many of the Gothic Tropes are found in folk and fairy tales. The supernatural and un-Christian monsters in the tales are similar to the Vampires and Ghosts which appear in the Gothic Genre Novels.

Old Wives Tales and Folk Wisdom: If we take as an example, Bram Stoker using garlic as the Vampire repellent in his novel Dracula. He doesn’t expand much on this in the novel, but looking at folk medicine, garlic was used as a natural repellent for bloodsucking insects such as mosquitos. In Don Quixote, by Cervantes, Quixote advises his servant who is about to be made Governor of an Island, not to eat onion or garlic, as these are considered rustic peasant foods. The Vampire was usually an aristocratic figure, so there may also be a connection here.

Aristocracy, Power, Differences between Rich and Poor: In Carmilla, one of the traits of the Vampire, is that she has been alive for hundreds of years. Why might this be? Aristocrats would have aged less and lived longer than peasants. Also, they often had similar names to their parents, and maybe also looked similar from inbreeding. So from a peasant’s point of view, it may have been hard to tell the generations apart. Carmilla is also described as sickly. Richer families would be able to support a sickly child easily. Diseases such as haemophilia were found in aristocratic bloodlines. Think about those celebrity visits to third world countries, compare the general health and life expectancy between a poor and a rich person in any era. Think about very powerful figures in Government, Business, Media and Modern Aristocracy.

Religion: Looking at old Christian beliefs is a useful reference in understanding Gothic Literature. What is good and evil? Do you believe in life after death? Ideas from the bible were often mingled with earlier superstitions.


Shakespeare wrote several tragedies. He studied Greek and Roman literature at school, and his tragedies are based on works form these traditions. There is a huge amount of analysis and criticism of tragedy as a form, but put simply, a tragedy is a plot which does not have a happy ending.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein uses a classic tragic structure. The child Ernest Frankenstein, is the only member of the family to survive the events which unfold throughout the book. This is similar to many Greek/Roman tragedies, where an entire family is annihilated, with maybe one or two children fleeing into exile.

Shakespeare’s Jacobean tragedies MacBeth and King Lear which explore themes of power, dynasty, family, murder, torture, mystery and witchcraft, and use isolated castle settings, are prototypes for later Gothic works. And The Tempest, although not dark and tragic, does use a dream-landscape which is a device later used in Gothic fiction.

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