Published online by Cambridge University Press: 16 July 2020
This chapter examines the numerous meanings of ‘Gothic’ in the period before 1800 to explain how it was understood in a variety of contexts, from politics and Protestantism to architectural heritage and literary style. The ancient Goths were simultaneously seen as the barbarian destroyers of Classical civilisation, and as the northern champions of liberty against Roman tyranny and corruption. The reputed organisation of ancient Gothic society was understood to have provided the foundations for post-Roman English and later British systems of government, so influencing both the constitution and contemporary politics, especially among Whigs. The perceived links between the Goths of antiquity and the history and society of the Middle Ages and the Reformation in turn provided the basis of a national cultural identity that was increasingly celebrated and revived in the eighteenth century, and the term was adopted in broader debates on governance, cultural values, national character and the environment. The literary dimensions of Gothicism, inspired by medieval romances, added further characteristics of the supernatural and the mysterious to the term's changing meanings.