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Middle Ages without borders: a conversation on medievalism

Tommaso di Carpegna Falconieri
Pierre Savy
Lila Yawn

c) From Belle Époque to gothic

3) Dark entries: medievalism in the post-punk gothic aesthetic

Aidan Conti

Texte intégral

1In the cultural formation now known as post-punk gothic, the medieval plays a markedly ambiguous, and so aesthetically generative, role. At once decidedly “modern” in juxtaposition to the “classic” rock that defined a previous generation, post-punk gothic, as evinced through a number of initially disparate yet subsequently related musical acts, engages the non-modern within the very contemporary moment these artistic forms occupy and index. As we see in early reviews of Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, and Bauhaus, “gothic” paired with descriptions like “sinister,” “dark” and “gloom” evokes a mood rather than a fixed historical, literary, or musical antecedent. In this spirit, I see early post-punk gothic around the year 1980 as a structure of feeling in the sense elaborated by Raymond Williams (Williams 1977): that is, a new formation of thought, not yet fully articulated and yet clearly visible, here in the shadow of ascendant neoliberal governance in Britain. Although each of the following demonstrations can be viewed in relation to medieval referents, we see not a singular genealogical relation to the medieval but rather varied gestures towards a time that is not now, not here. To elucidate this orientation towards here and now, then and there, I consider the artwork of Joy Division’s Closer (1980), the lyrics of Siouxsie and the Banshees’ “Arabian Knights” (1981), and the performance of Bauhaus’s “Stigmata Martyr” (1980).

2The artwork of Joy Division’s Closer (1980) is emblematic of interpretive tensions produced in the post-punk assemblage. Even as the funerary scene—four figures next to a haloed figure in repose—can be related historically to medieval depictions of the Lamentation of Christ, the feeling of approaching proximity intimated by the tableau and the title is offset by the monumental lettering of Roman epigraphy, a distance heightened by Peter Savile’s creative posture. As art director for the album, Saville selected the photo by Bernhard Pierre Wolff (1930-1985) from Zoom magazine, believing it to be staged as “a postmodern neoclassical scene.” So removed from its origins as an early-twentieth-century medieval-like statuary in a Genevan cemetery, Saville’s reconfiguration posits a “classical” cover in juxtaposition to the modern sound of the album.

3In a different but similarly skewed relation with the medieval, Siouxsie and the Banshees demonstrate a determined appropriation of a number of non-modern objects, places, and ideas, from ancient Rome (“Cities in Dust”) to West Africa, to North America and beyond. As part of an appropriative stance that medievalizes the non-Western, and playing on a homophony that links the nocturnal and the medieval, “Arabian Knights” from the 1981 album Juju elides certain temporal relations. The lyrical subject, a “you” who is distinctly not us, considers “the jewel, the prize” of its gaze. This modern medieval scene, then, is at once an imagined court of Shahryar, even as it lurches to a contemporary “tourist oasis” and a monstrous oil tanker with its “wound bleeding in seas.” Situating the “Knights” within the capital flows of the global oil market, the text positions its subject, characterized by insatiable and illicit desires, as a non-modern and monstrous at its “primitive best.”

4Relatedly, “Stigmata Martyr” from Bauhaus’ debut album In the Flat Field (1980) can be read against the affective medieval practice of contemplating Christ’s wounds. As the song’s insistence on the “ecstasy” of the Crucifixion and the “scarlet bliss” of the wounds eerily suggests the vivid depictions and devotions to Christ’s sufferings, the camp performance of the song radically alters the relation between viewer and object. In a possible inversion of the notion of affective piety, Peter Murphy’s exaggerated vocals query a potential veering towards psychosomatic obsession. Through this camp sensitivity, which is always “alive to a double sense” (Sontag 1966), we see a deeply ambivalent stance towards the affective propositions offered by both the medieval and the modern.

5These three demonstrations, immanently readable vis-à-vis medieval referents but only experienced as vaguely medieval, reframe the historical situatedness of the medieval. And so, in restructuring the “topography of the thinkable” (Rancière 2010, p. 24), this emergent aesthetic recognizes and calls forth divergent aesthetic regimes. The bricolage of the post-punk gothic situates the medieval as an often unnamed alterity to the structured and alienating relations of modernity but refuses to embrace it.


6Rancière 2010
Sontag 1966
Williams 1977

Musical works

7Bauhaus, In the Flat
Joy Division, Closer
Siouxie, Juju
Siouxie, Cities


University of Bergen

© Publications de l’École française de Rome, 2021

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