Medieval Scottish Gothic

Posted by on January 09, 2008 in Blog tagged with

Siobhan Hanlin writes on the Gothic in the work of William Dunbar

Some academics would assert that the ‘Gothic’ only occurred in the eighteenth century with the publication of Walpole’s “The Castle of Otranto” and ends with “Frankenstein” (or “Melmoth” depending on whether or not you view “Frankenstein” as a gothic text). But the Gothic mode, it is also argued that the separate modes of gothic, be it American, French or Asian occur out of a specific set of political and cultural conditions.
          What I wish to create a dialogue about is the medieval Scottish gothic, particularly the work ‘The Tretis of the Twa Mariit women and the Wedo’ by William Dunbar. For the full text please follow the link:
          In Dunbar’s work “The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo” I believe that there are two hallmarks of the gothic mode within the text: socophilia and unheimlich. The male gaze upon the three women by the male narrator objectifies them with gilded aureate language, thus the gothic notion of socophilia is introduced immediately at the outset of the text. These women are objects of beauty, yet these objects subvert this beauty as they start their perverse discussion. Dunbar uses the chanson de la marrie mode, traditionally used to exalt the institution of marriage. He chose to use this poetic mode in a way that I believe is unheimlich. Dunbar is exposing the hypocrisy that existed at the heart of the institution of marriage at this time in society. Marriage at the time were marriages of alliance, and through the women’s complaints Dunbar is showing all that is wrong with this institution, an institution others wished to exalt. A similarity shared with eighteenth century Gothic focus upon marriages for love, whereby marriages of alliance are made abject.  The women lament their families poor choice of husband, while the widow teaches them how to have secret love affairs, how to ruin their husbands, and make as much money as possible from their death all whilst maintaining respectability. Dunbar is exposing the failing of this system and the atrocious effects it has upon the people involved.

It could be argued that I am just Gothicising medieval Scottish poetry from a twenty-first century perspective. But if we take a moment to examine the anonymous work the Frieris of Berwick (which is often attributed to Dunbar) (please consult The Mercat Anthology to Early Scottish Literature eds R. D.S Jack, as it is not available online) we have all the ingredients of a Gothic text. A lustful monk, a pact with the devil, adultery, a dark lonely location and a moral ending were those who are not righteous are punished. Is it possible that the social and cultural conditions needed to create the Gothic Mode occurred in Scotland in the fourteenth century?

Author Bio: Siobhan Hanlin is currently a postgraduate student studying the Gothic Imagination at Stirling University; she completed her undergraduate degree with Honours from Glasgow University in Scottish Literature and Language in 2006. Her academic interests lie both with the Gothic and Scottish literature. She focuses primarily on: the medieval period, the eighteenth and twentieth century and the gothic elements which (in her opinion) exists at the heart of Scottish literature.


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