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Race, medievalism and the eighteenth-century Gothic turn


Richard Hurd’s Letters on Chivalry and Romance (1762) was a driving force in the late eighteenth-century turn away from classicism and towards medievalism as a favoured paradigm of English identity formation. The shift was causally linked to the rise of Enlightenment race pseudo-science in the public sphere and continues to influence academic and popular medievalisms into the present. Hurd ‘makes’ a Gothic racial formation in Letters through his assertions that romance was the cultural product of a chivalric society that reflected innate qualities of Gothic people of north-western Europe. Hurd favoured Gothic over classical aesthetics in radical move for his time. He suggested that chivalric gallantry made for more refined, civilized poetry than what he portrayed as the unrelentingly violent barbarity of Grecian verse. He also made strong claims about inherent and superior qualities of Gothic language and ideas. Feudal Gothic society is constructed by Hurd as similar to but better than classical Grecian, and as the antithesis of the Islamic Saracen world. Reading Letters alongside Hurd’s Francophone sources, particularly Jean-Baptiste de La Curne de Sainte-Palaye’s ‘Memoires sur L’Ancienne Chevalerie’ (1753), reveals a series of racializing moves that separate chivalry from Sainte-Palaye’s specifically French nationalist framing and link it to a Gothic identity. Hurd’s aesethicization of chivalric romance created a racialized paradigm through which the European Middle Ages could be read – and still frequently is.

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  1. 1.

    In passing, for example, ‘notre nation’ (Sainte-Palaye, 1753, 643). A later edition stated that French national characteristics were those of the Gothic Franks with smatterings of the Gauls (Sainte-Palaye, 1781, vi).

  2. 2.

    Whether Hurd knew Linnaeus’ work directly is not clear, but it was well known in his circle (e.g. Horace Walpole, quoted in Zionkowski (1991, 331)).

  3. 3.

    On the radical departure of Hurd’s realist reading from earlier criticism of The Faerie Queene, see Haughen (esp. 48–51).


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Young, H. Race, medievalism and the eighteenth-century Gothic turn. Postmedieval 11, 468–475 (2020).

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