What do modern Goths have to do with ancient and medieval ones?
In the Autumn semester last year, the students on my third year module in History at the University of Lincoln, The Goths: Barbarians through History?, took a closer look at this question. In the first half of the module we looked at the Goths of late antiquity (‘historical Goths’) and in the second half we explored the different ways they were reinvented and reused after the fall of the Visigothic Kingdom in Spain in 711 (‘Gothic revivals’). We ranged from the use of the Goths to justify the Reconquista in Spain via their ‘nation-building’ roles in early modern Sweden and Spain, to the burst of poems about the end of Visigothic Spain in early 19th century Britain in the context of the Peninsular War against Napoleon.
In the final class we took a look at modern Gothic identity using YouTube. The students each had to find a video on YouTube of someone talking about what it meant to be a Goth in the modern world or that made some kind of comment on Gothic identity. Here’s what we came up with:
So, what did we learn from this process of collecting and reflecting on YouTube videos? Most importantly for me, I’ve realised that this is a great way to get students to think about identity as something that is constructed by individuals and groups and relies on both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ perspectives. Modern-day Goths on YouTube self-define their identity culturally. According to them, Goths have a distinct sense of fashion and style. Musical tastes are often mentioned as important defining features of what is means to be a Goth today.
This identity is grounded historically by reference to ‘the Gothic’ rather than to ‘the Goths’ of the past: for example, having read 19th century Gothic novels. Ancient Goths are only mentioned (infrequently) as fellow ‘outsiders’: they occupied a place outside the Roman imperial system just as Goths today often see themselves as standing apart from conventional society. Some Gothic YouTubers have a strong sense of what it means to be a ‘proper’ Goth and exclude from the category those who do not meet their criteria, while others are concerned to draw distinctions with other groups (Emos, Punks…) or to break down modern Goths into sub-groups.
YouTube also contains plenty of videos which provide us with ‘outsider’ views on the Goths, in the same way that we’re reliant on Roman source for early Gothic history in antiquity (and, some scholars would argue, for most of the rest of their history too). On YouTube this often takes the form of satire/ comedy, as in the case of South Park’s Goth Kids (see above) or Richmond from the IT Crowd. Interestingly, the ‘outsider’ videos often pick up on the same characteristics as the ‘insider’ YouTube clips: music, fashion, attitude (though often satirised as unremittingly miserable).
I think that viewing all of this through the perspective of YouTube videos – which are familiar and in some ways unlike ‘real work’ – really enables students to deconstruct ideas of identity rather than getting bogged down in the minutiae of academic papers. Students were required to read research papers in preparation for class and especially if they wanted to deal with this topic in their assessments. For the assignment on Gothic revivals (which asked students to explore at least two instances of the reuse of the Goths/ Gothic identity after the fall of the Visigothic kingdom in 711), the YouTube clips were valid primary sources and a number of students chose to use them. I’m considering using this activity as the first rather than the final seminar next year in order to encourage students to think more critically and creatively about identity from the start. We’ll see how that goes. Also, it’s fun, so why leave it until the end!?