A brief history of goths – Dan Adams


What do fans of atmospheric
post-punk music have in common with ancient barbarians? Not much. So why are both known as goths? Is it a weird coincidence or a deeper connection stretching
across the centuries? The story begins in Ancient Rome. As the Roman Empire expanded,
it faced raids and invasions from the semi-nomadic populations
along its borders. Among the most powerful were
a Germanic people known as Goths who were composed of two tribal groups, the Visigoths and Ostrogoths. While some of the Germanic tribes
remained Rome’s enemies, the Empire incorporated others
into the imperial army. As the Roman Empire split in two, these tribal armies played
larger roles in its defense and internal power struggles. In the 5th century, a mercenary revolt
lead by a soldier named Odoacer captured Rome
and deposed the Western Emperor. Odoacer and his Ostrogoth
successor Theoderic technically remained under the Eastern
Emperor’s authority and maintained Roman traditions. But the Western Empire would never
be united again. Its dominions fragmented into kingdoms
ruled by Goths and other Germanic tribes who assimilated into local cultures, though many of their names
still mark the map. This was the end of the Classical Period and the beginning of what many call
the Dark Ages. Although Roman culture was never
fully lost, its influence declined
and new art styles arose focused on religious symbolism
and allegory rather than proportion and realism. This shift extended to architecture with the construction of the Abbey
of Saint Denis in France in 1137. Pointed arches, flying buttresses,
and large windows made the structure more skeletal
and ornate. That emphasized its open,
luminous interior rather than the sturdy walls
and columns of Classical buildings. Over the next few centuries, this became a model for Cathedrals
throughout Europe. But fashions change. With the Italian Renaissance’s renewed
admiration for Ancient Greece and Rome, the more recent style began to seem
crude and inferior in comparison. Writing in his 1550 book,
“Lives of the Artists,” Giorgio Vasari was the first
to describe it as Gothic, a derogatory reference to the Barbarians thought to have destroyed
Classical civilization. The name stuck, and soon came
to describe the Medieval period overall, with its associations of darkness,
superstition, and simplicity. But time marched on,
as did what was considered fashionable. In the 1700s, a period called
the Enlightenment came about, which valued scientific reason
above all else. Reacting against that, Romantic authors
like Goethe and Byron sought idealized visions of a past
of natural landscapes and mysterious spiritual forces. Here, the word Gothic
was repurposed again to describe a literary genre that
emerged as a darker strain of Romanticism. The term was first applied
by Horace Walpole to his own 1764 novel,
“The Castle of Otranto” as a reference to the plot
and general atmosphere. Many of the novel’s elements became
genre staples inspiring classics and the countless
movies they spawned. The gothic label belonged to literature
and film until the 1970s when a new musical scene emerged. Taking cues from artists like
The Doors and The Velvet Underground, British post-punk groups, like Joy Division, Bauhaus, and The Cure, combined gloomy lyrics
and punk dissonance with imagery inspired
by the Victorian era, classic horror, and androgynous glam fashion. By the early 1980s, similar bands
were consistently described as Gothic rock by the music press, and the stye’s popularity brought it
out of dimly lit clubs to major labels and MTV. And today, despite occasional negative
media attention and stereotypes, Gothic music and fashion continue as
a strong underground phenomenon. They’ve also branched into sub-genres, such as cybergoth, gothabilly, gothic metal, and even steampunk. The history of the word gothic is embedded in thousands of years
worth of countercultural movements, from invading outsiders becoming kings to towering spires
replacing solid columns to artists finding beauty in darkness. Each step has seen a revolution of sorts and a tendency for civilization to reach into
its past to reshape its present.

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