Towards a taxonomy of Gothic

I was once told that if you are struggling to write something it’s because you haven’t done enough reading. So it is with trying to write about ‘Gothic Marxism’.

As a starting point, Gothic architecture. This in itself went through many phases and developments but I find the study of built environments brings history alive. Learning what a spandrel is and finding King Edmund being shot with arrows, his head chopped off and his corpse protected by a wolf is much more interesting in stone than some dreary royal hagiography.

And so I found myself in Norwich for the day making sketches of tracery and towers and taking photographs of flush work and flint walls and porches and heraldic shields. It was only the start of the research. Much will change as the huge canvas of ignorance slowly gets a few dabs of knowledge applied in primary colours. Then shade and light can be added and the colours blended and shapes will hopefully begin to form. Finally a picture might appear. And then one realises that this picture is just a small part of a much larger sequence so a new picture must be created. And then a new blank canvas must be added to the easel of curiosity.

I walked around Pottergate and St Benedicts and Tombland and Elm Hill and streets and squares and alleyways in between. Norwich was one of the great medieval cities and when you walk slowly and sit still in the churchyards and lean against the flint walls you can find the precious experience of atmosphere.

There are over 30 medieval churches in the city and some appear to have been locked for some time. This creates a certain sense of Gothic, of ruin, decay. A mystery that might be laced with horror, ghosts and spectres, chill airs and unexplained sounds and movement.

But is there not a steady defiance here as well? Of buildings standing guard, biding their time, ready to open their doors again as the catastrophe engulfing humanity intensifies. Glaciers disappear, ice sheets collapse and melt into the sea, immense floods, mile upon mile of wild fires, choking heat, murderous wars, barbaric acts in afternoon in the sunshine of Libya and Somalia and the wheat fields of Ukraine.

Mystery is subjective, the supernatural surrounds us in different ways. The quality of reality changes, the speed of time is never constant, events have different weights and pressures. Religion will rise again as crisis intensifies. New cults are already appearing, crazed, conspi-racist, the little man once again desperate for the great man.

We all look for anchors in these storms, escape, flight, fight, compasses, instruments of resistance, the means of producing rebellion and revolution. Does the gothic hold hidden clues?

As a starting point for the study of Gothic I’m creating a small taxonomy. This can be developed to include key words such as ‘iconography’, ‘feudalism’, ‘technology’. I’m going to apply patten language to see what happens.

These early days of study require much labour but already provide some illumination. Philip Ball in his book The Universe of Stone suggests that Gothic cathedrals are a product of urban cultures, as opposed to the Romanesque style of the monasteries which tended to be rural.

I would suggest that this represents power struggles; between the bishops, based in the cathedrals, and the abbots, based in monasteries. And that those power struggles have their origins in the development of urban areas in parts of Europe in the 12th century. The new towns and their inhabitants had different interests than of the monks and nuns and that was as much to do with political economy as anything else. Can capital accumulation be discovered here?

This is high level, general stuff, but it seems like a useful starting point. It may be that the Gothic is an expression of class power; in which case, the first tentative relationships with Marxism can be established.

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