Revolution, Inquisition and Monks: Gothic in the Late 18th Century

Updated on December 17, 2019
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Kristen has been writing for over 30 years. She graduated from UCF with a B.A. in English-Creative Writing December 2015.

The first instances of monks in Gothic literature are the characters of Friar Jerome of The Castle of Otranto and Father Oswald in The Old English Baron. These men were kind and helpful to the protagonists of their respective stories. Friar Jerome saves Theodore’s life, attempts to give sanctuary to Isabella, and comforts Hippolita. Father Oswald works with Edmund not only to clear the slanders jealously applied to Edmund's name, but to discover and restore the legacy that is his birthright. These monks were portrayed as good men who acted for justice, humanity, and service to the Lord.

Less than two decades later, Gothic literature gives us two monks very different from these two pious men. Matthew Lewis would creates the despicable Ambrosio, and Ann Radcliffe writes the Machiavellian Father Schedoni a year later. Between the two characters, they commit the criminal sins of rape, incest, sorcery, murder and matricide in addition to partaking of the deadly sins of lust, envy, greed, pride and wrath. These portrayals were a complete turnaround from the religious men of Walpole and Reeve, and the shift extended to the women as well. Mother St. Agatha of St. Clare’s in The Monk and the Lady Abbess of San Stefano in The Italian are shown to be just as capable of cruelty as their male counterparts. It is quite obvious that there was a strong change in attitude toward religious figures of Catholicism in England at the turning of the century; the onset of the French Revolution and adverse sentiment towards the Inquisition were contributing factors.

The English Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII marked the beginning of the sea-change in English opinion of the Catholic Church. This was a truly drastic shift in the religious order of Great Britain as “There were nearly 900 religious houses in England…some 12,000 people in total... that meant that one adult man in fifty was in religious orders. Religious houses were everywhere; in towns, in remote rural areas. Monks, nuns and friars were altogether a familiar part of everyday life” (Bernard 390). Scholars have debated whether Henry VIII's motives for the dissolutions of these orders were included the desire to confiscate the monasteries’ vast wealth or to assert power power as the newly self-appointed head of the church. What they agree on is that his “black propaganda” efforts of portraying the religious houses as hoarders of great wealth and rampant sexual misconduct were used to turn the populous against them (Bernard 399). With a few exceptions like Thomas More, John Fisher and The Pilgrimage of Grace, the kingdom accepted the break with Rome and its ways. From this moment in British history that the seeds of anti-Catholic sentiment were sewn.

Two centuries later, Great Britain would witness another eradication of the role of the Roman Catholic Church as a source political power over the monarchy, this time by means of the French Revolution. Unrest in France was spurred on by the idea that the country's “economic and intellectual development was not matched by social and political change… governed by privileged groups—the nobility and the clergy—while the productive classes were taxed heavily to pay for foreign wars, court extravagance, and a rising national debt.” (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia) The unrest came to a head on July 14, 1789 with the storming of the Bastille; the act that has come to represent the beginning of the revolution. Clergy lands became properties of the state in 1789. Their religious orders were overthrown and they were required to pledge to observe the Civil Constitution of the Clergy in 1790. Before its end by Napoleon in 1999, the revolution would see one of the bloodiest chapters in history known as the Reign of Terror. From April 1793 to July 1794, an estimated 200,000 people were imprisoned and 40,000 were killed. (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia)


The influences of the French Revolution on the Gothic fiction of the 1790’s were profound. Previous antagonists of the genre were men “concerned with property, heirs, and wealth; a man who tries unscrupulously to preserve his family and fortune against the incursions of a penniless outsider” (Paulson 534). This is no longer the case for the villains in the novels of Lewis and Radcliffe. The wealthy families of the books are never in danger of being usurped by any long lost heirs. In The Monk, Raymond de las Cisternas is quite willing to recognize Elvira and Antonia as family; unfortunately, tragic events keep this from officially occurring.

The raiding of the Bastille is mirrored in the convent rescues of Lewis’s Agnes and Radcliffe’s Ellena. Here we have, “the castle as prison… and it may have been only this image and this frame of mind that made the Fall of the Bastille an automatic image of revolution for French as well as English writers…the castle, prison, tyrant, and sensitive young girl could no longer be presented naively…” with the convent replacing the castle (Paulson 538). Just like the French fortress where political prisoners were held, the covenants serve to hide these women from the world, practically erasing them, because of the designs of others who wish to punish them in secret for their perceived transgressions.

Ronald Paulson makes the case that Ambrosio should be seen as a metaphor for the revolutionaries, with “the bursting out of his bonds-of a repressed monk imprisoned from earliest childhood in a monastery, with the havoc wreaked by his self-liberation” reflecting their extremist views that led to the Reign of Terror (534). His crimes against Elvira and Antonia were as violent, and took innocent lives, as many of those who fell during the Reign of Terror.

Echoes of the revolution are present in the death of the abbess and the destruction of St. Clare’s by “The incensed Populace, confounding the innocent with the guilty, had resolved to sacrifice all the Nuns of that order to their rage…They battered the walls, threw lighted torches in at the windows, and swore…not a Nun of St. Clare's order should be left alive” (Lewis 536-37). This event in the novel compares to the September massacres of 1792, where those loyal to the monarchy who had been arrested were victims of a raid on the Parisian jails that lasted 5 day and ended in around 2,000 people being horrifically killed. The nuns of St. Clare’s, both the innocent and guilty, suffer a similar fate to that of the prisoners. Paulson states “the mob that lynches- literally grinds into a bloody pulp the wicked prioress … not only destroys the prioress but…the whole community and the convent itself” (534-35). Lewis stresses the gruesome manner in which Mother St. Agatha meets her demise to demonstrate the similar horrors to those occurring in France.


With regard to the Inquisition (though inquisitions took place all across Europe and its colonies), there were actually two primary tribunals: the Medieval Inquisition and the Spanish Inquisition. In 1233, the Medieval Inquisition was established by Pope Gregory IX to investigate and try charges of heresy. The trials were secretive in nature. They were not held in public places, nor were open to the public. The accuser’s names were kept from the defendants. The accused could attempt to rescind any testimony by naming their enemies. One could also appeal a guilty verdict to the pope. To obtain confessions, torture was used. Those found guilty, which was most of the defendants, were handed over to the secular authorities for punishment by burning at the stake. Established in 1478 by Ferdinand and Isabella, the Spanish Inquisition was wholly controlled by the Spanish kings and independent of its Roman counterpart, though it employed many of the same techniques. Unlike the Medieval Inquisition, in addition to punishing heretics it was also used to convert those not of the Catholic faith, and no appeals were allowed. The Spanish Inquisition finally came to an end in 1834, while the Medieval, later referred to as Roman, Inquisition was not abolished until 1965. (Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia) Matthew Lewis and Ann Radcliffe give the readers a view into each of these tribunals, focusing on different aspects.

The Monk places its protagonist in the hands of the Spanish Inquisition. Consistent with the other horror elements of his novel, Lewis depicts the physical trials of the defendants. Ambrosio, not wanting to die over doubts of his ability to repent for his crimes, declares his innocence, knowing that it means being put to an examination by torture. He is then subjected to “the most excruciating pangs that ever were invented by human cruelty… His dislocated limbs, the nails torn from his hands and feet, and his fingers mashed and broken by the pressure of the screws” (Lewis 424-25). Upon witnessing his torture, Matilda immediately confesses, and even Ambrosio breaks when facing it a second time. Though they both escape it, they are both sentenced to burn at the stake. Mr. Lewis conveys that, in administering their “justice,” that the Catholic Church is no better than Ambrosio himself.

Mrs. Radcliffe spends a great deal of time in The Italian exploring the process of the of the Roman Inquisition. Unlike what we see in The Monk, Schedoni faces a genuine trial with witnesses that testify, including those found during an investigation. As in the actual trials, Vivaldi’s accuser is not reveled when he request to know (Radcliffe 205). He is given a chance to name his enemy to prove his innocence (206). To secure his release, his father the Marchese obtains “an order …from the holy office for the release of Vivaldi” (405). The Italian professes that even a blameless individual, once caught up in the clutches of the Inquisition, has a nearly impossible time of vindicating himself, even after being proven innocent. Though the tribunal demonstrates its belief of Vivaldi's innocence through its lack of continued questioning after Schedoni’s trial, it still takes Schedoni’s deathbed confession to give the Marchese what he needs to get the papal order which finally secure release from the Inquisition. Without resorting to the grotesque, Ann Radcliffe still delivers on fear, where the Inquisition is concerned. The reader is shown an institution that “focuses on the suffering of the accused, the injustice of a trial resolved without evidence, public charges, or a known accuser, and the likelihood of a blameless victim perjuring himself under such circumstances” (Fennell 8).

The remaining few years of the 18th century saw the end of the French Revolution, the Spanish Inquisition in its final throws, and Catholicism losing more and more political power in Europe. All of these historical events had a strong influence on the subsequent literature of the British Isles, and most profoundly on the newly-created Gothic genre. As Vivaldi is entering the Inquisition, he sees a sign bearing “Dante’s inscription on the entrance of the infernal regions…’Hope, that comes to all, comes not here!’” (Radcliffe 200). The Monk and The Italian live up to this ominous warning and promise. These real life horrors and terrors happening in neighboring countries provided fertile ground for exploring the depths of depravity of the human psyche.

Works Cited

Bernard, G. W. "The Dissolution Of The Monasteries." History 96.324 (2011): 390-409. Academic Search Premier. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.

Fennell, Jarad Heath. Representations Of The Catholic Inquisition In Two Eighteenth-Century Gothic Novels: Punishment And Rehabilitation In Matthew Lewis' The Monk And Ann Radcliffe's The Italian / By Jarad Heath Fennell. n.p.: Orlando, Fla.: University of Central Florida, 2007. 2007. UCF Libraries Catalog. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.

"French Revolution." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th Edition (2013): 1. Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.

"Inquisition." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2013): 1. Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.

Lewis, Matthew. The Monk. Ed. Howard Anderson. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 2008. Print.

Paulson, Ronald. "Gothic Fiction And The French Revolution." Elh 48.3 (1981): 532-554. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 21 Mar. 2014.

Radcliffe, Ann. The Italian. Ed. Frederick Garber. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 2008. Print.

Reeve, Clara. The Old English Baron. Ed. James Trainer. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 2008. Print.

"Reign Of Terror." Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6Th Edition (2013): 1. Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.

Walpole, Horace. The Castle of Otranto. Ed. W.S. Lewis. Oxford. Oxford University Press. 2008. Print.

© 2017 Kristen Willms


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