My personal blog as a 'grown-up' Goth and Romantic living in the Highlands of Scotland. I write about the places I go, the things I see and my thoughts on life as a Goth and the subculture. Sometimes I write about music I like and sometimes I review things. This blog often includes architectural photography, graveyards and other images from the darker side of life.

The Gothic subculture is not just about imitating each other, it is a creative movement and subculture that grew out of post-punk and is based on seeing beauty in the dark places of the world, and looks back to the various ways throughout history in which people have confronted and explored the macabre, the dark and the taboo, and as such I'm going to post about more than the just the standards of the subculture (Tim Burton, Siouxsie Sioux and Anne Rice et al.) and look at things by people who might not consider themselves anything to do with the subculture, but have eyes for the dark places. Goth should not be limited by what is considered "goth", inspiration comes from all places, the key is to look with open eyes, listen carefully and think with an open mind..

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Arthurian Legend, Medieval History and Gothic Architecture

Or how I came to fall in love with anachronism...

This is in response to Jess, who suggested the topic on the Domesticated Goth Facebook Page.


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I have always had a broad appreciation of history. My father is involved in archaeology as a geophysicist and archaeological surveyor, and I was therefore brought up saturated in local history and British history. This, however, can only partially explain why I like history in general, and not really explain why I have a fascination for the medieval in particular, or how this ties in with my other historical interests (we're heading over to Pre-Raphaelite territory...)


My attempts to be a real-life Pre-Rpahaelite depiction of Morgan LaFey

⚜ Childhood Fascination
It all started with an illustrated book of fairy tales from when I was a very, very small child. In it were children's versions of some Arthurian tales. I really, really wish I still had the book, but sadly it is long gone. I can't even remember what the book was called, but I remember that it had lavish, beautiful illustrations in full colour and great detail. There was this fabulous image of a knight in armour on a horse, with the horse adorned in barding and caparison and the knight with a very sharp and shiny looking sword. Then there was a book ordered from the back of a packet of Weetabix (::this:: book - I'm showing my age! ) which I read avidly and repeatedly and with great enthusiasm. It was the first book on history I ever owned, and my favourite section was that from the Norman Conquest on to Henry VIII - just a bit broader than the time-span  referred to as the 'High Middle Ages' and 'Late Middle Ages'.

This interest was picked up, and I was given a French language (I was brought up bilingual, my first language is actually French) history book with a few transparent pages called ::Le Château Fort:: which just fed this interest. I even got taken on some trips to some real-life castles, such as Rochester Castle in Kent, which probably sealed it for me. 

I can't really place what it is that drew me to these things, but  it was partially a confusion between what was myth and reality (probably on account of being a child with a broad imagination). There was something wonderful and exciting about believing that all these knights and maidens and brave chivalrous warriors and fierce monsters and witches and wizards had been real, just centuries and centuries ago. For some time, as a small child, my career ambitions were "knight"... 

As I read more I quickly learnt that no, dragons were not real (dinosaurs, on the other hand...) and neither was the Green Knight, and that chivalry and courtly love were not as later poets would have us believe. I also learnt, over time, that the "shining armour" of knights was often actually depictions things such as 1480s Gothic plate armour from what is now Germany and other parts of the Holy Roman Empire, that there are an awful lot of types of "pointy arches" buildings, and recorders are fabulous musical instruments with a long, long history. Basically, I learnt that a lot of the things I found really interesting came from between the mid 11thC and very beginning of the 16thC. 

⚜ Art History And Gothic Architecture
The more I got to know of art and architecture from that period, the more I realised that it was rich aesthetics that I adored, and still adore. 

I gained an interest in calligraphy and illuminated manuscripts when I was about 12 or 13, after being introduced to them in an English lesson focused on Arthurian myths. I began my first pseudo-'illuminated' Book of Shadows, the precursor to my current book of Shadows, which is all written in uncial calligraphy, richly decorated with a mixture of foliate, spiral and knot-work designs, a lot of silver and gold embellishments (albeit via more modern techniques) and even has a few illustrations. 

I also fell in love with Gothic architecture (no surprise to my regular readers). I like most styles of highly decorative architecture on grand scales, from the temples at Angkor Wat to Christopher Wren's St. Paul's Cathedral, but I have a special fondness for the Gothic and Gothic-Revival. I especially like buildings in the later Gothic styles, especially the Perpendicular Gothic, with their emphasis on verticality and arrays of stained glass windows. I can't explain why I prefer a pointed Gothic arch or fan-vaulted ceiling to a round Romanesque arch or barrel-vaulted ceiling, nor what it is about tracery designs that appeal to me, but that is the way I am, and I could spend all day looking at them. 

It is not enough for me to merely find interest in the appearance of buildings, I am always led to their function, and that then draws me back into the history - old abbeys, cathedrals, grand houses etc. always have rich histories, and it fascinates me how the uses of buildings change over centuries, and boggles me to think of all the thousands of people from so many periods and places that have visited these places and looked at them with their own unique perspectives. 

What also amazes me is the size and complexity of the buildings designed considering the limited understanding of physics and mathematics at the time. People sometimes think that because people in the past were illiterate and superstitious with a limited grasp of science and mathematics that they were stupid but education and intelligence are different things, as can be shown by ::this:: article, where it describes how a string and a weight could show if the vast spire of Salisbury Cathedral was straight or not (it wasn't, it was leaning, and Christopher Wren figured out how to straighten it in 1668) in an age long before optical surveying equipment, let alone laser levels! These cathedrals were built by a largely illiterate work force. People had to be creative and use their initiative to overcome the lack of technology and get things done by other means. 

This does not just apply to great cathedrals across Europe, or even to medieval times alone, of course, but it is one of the things about the medieval period that does intrigue me. 

Also, as an enthusiastic archer, and a person with an interest in historical arms and armour, Medieval European weaponry is very interesting to me, and to understand the weapons, one has to understand the conflicts that were their context, and how they became visual symbols in later periods, which necessitates some understanding of medieval life. 

(Those interested in medieval weaponry may be excited to know that I have asked a friend who is more knowledgeable than me in this area to write a guest post on such things!).

Understanding Where I live
As my readers already know, I live in the UK, currently in Scotland and previously down in the Thames Valley. I am the sort of person that likes to know the history of the places where I live; they make up part of the culture, and inform present day attitudes (like someone I know here, with a tattoo of the Declaration of Arbroath, which was originally made in 1320). The history of the UK stretches back millennia and millennia before the Middle Ages, but much of its best recorded  history is that recorded by the monasteries and onwards, i.e Saxon through to Medieval and onwards. 

Earlier history interest me too, especially the pre-Roman 'Celtic' history of the various Iron Age, Bronze Age and earlier peoples of Britain, but much of these cultures is lost to time, and what we know is pieced together from artefacts and remains, and the writings of later Roman authors writing as outsiders. The very early history is full of mysteries, and these mysteries intrigue me, but they are mysteries, not things we know. 

Medieval history, on the other hand, includes quite a body of knowledge about what life was like then, and is quite accessible - it is not that expensive to go on a tour of Oxford castle and get quite good account of the castle's history, starting with its ecclesiastical history and moving forwards, and I certainly studied the Norman Invasion, the Charter of Liberties, the Magna Carter and the Peasant's Revolt at school, and am sure that various aspects of Medieval history are fairly widespread in history teaching at various levels. I guess it was something I could easily get into, and unlike Roman history, I wasn't faced with my Dad's near-obsession (he spent several years working at a Roman pottery manufacture site with several kilns and a processing works for clay) with the subject. 


The Victorians Have A Lot To Answer for
Another thing my readers may well know is that I have an interest in Victorian things, and as all the Victorian-era Gothic Revival and Scottish Baronial architecture I photograph show, and the subject matter of many Pre-Raphaelite paintings also, there was a definite interest in a fairy-tale and Arthurian Medievalism in that period (as well as an interest in legitimate history). My interests become recursive at this point. To elaborate on the previous examples, I look at a Victorian Gothic Revival buildings, and see in them their stylistic ancestors (and giggle at the Victorian tendency to turn practical medieval things into nonsensical decorative devices.), I look at Pre-Raphaelite depictions of Arthurian legends, and wonder which suits of armour were used as costume references, and how many details are flights of fancy.  

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Hopefully I have managed to detail from where my interest stems in a helpful manner to those curious, and have not been too boring and introspective. Personally, I find the history far more interesting than my appreciation of it! I don't think this explanation is exhaustive, and in racking my brains I wonder if I am overlaying too much of who I am now onto my past self, but hopefully it is at least a bit helpful. 

6 comments:

  1. I wondered if, with your fascination for the medieval period of history, you have come across the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA)? I know there is a group in the UK, and they do some really interesting things, including period-correct archery. I highly recommend them as a hobby group. Here's their website link: http://www.sca.org/

    Be well :)

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    1. I have come across the SCA, and they do sound like a lot of fun, but there was no group local to me previously. I'll have to see if there's a group near me now I'm in the Highlands - I know there are Medieval Highland life re-enactors because I've met a few (and got to handle one guy's weaponry -whee!).

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  2. Your post wasn't boring. I thought it was very interesting.

    Although I was born in the States, the culture of my family was very English. Therefore, I've always had a fascination with the history of your country. One point of interest for me is the possible discrepancy between Arthurian lore and the reality of the times in which he allegedly lived. It's fascinating stuff.

    Thanks for the great post.

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    1. When I write these introspective sorts of posts, I do worry that I waffle on about myself and come over as a bit self-obsessed.

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  3. I have a strange power of recall. There are things I don't want to remember from my childhood. And then there are things that I do want to remember. Trouble is, people don't believe you that something happened long ago. The things other people want me to remember. I have to remember them well. Or else I get into a lot of social trouble. It's like having your wrists slapped, without being touched physically. To me, that's not what childhood memories should be about. Good times are more important. But that's why I cannot remember any good times about Primary School days. Only reading The Mr Men books.

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    1. You're not alone. My memories of my childhood are mostly geographical; in terms of events I am slowly recalling more, which is less than pleasant (I get flashbacks), but mostly what I can remember are the places, devoid of events and people - a very detailed (almost photographic) and chronologically layered recollection of places, but I cannot remember much of what actually happened in them, at least not on call.

      I can't say I had much in the way of happy times at primary school, but I had good times out of school and out of the house, out with my Dad in the countryside learning about what was literally beneath my feet, from how to track deer to identifying possible locations of archaeological remains by changes in topography and flora.

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