The monk is a classic character type repeated in many Gothic chapbooks and novels. Outside of fiction, a monk is a male Catholic who lives in a monastery in fellowship with other monks. He can be a priest, but he could also be an unordained brother who lives in the monastery in service and study with the other monks. Behind his cowl, therefore, the monk is a mystery; outsiders have no way of knowing whether the monk they see at the monastery grate is a priest with the power and authority that entails, or a 'brother' monk, who mops the floor.
This mystery of the cowl is what makes the monk such a strong figure in the Gothic. The robes of his faith can disguise a monster within; Monks in the Gothic are at best Byronic heroes, and at worst, heretics, rapists and murderers. This treatment of the Monk type is closely related to the Anti-Catholic sentiment of the Gothic, particularly reflecting a deep suspicion of Catholic clergy, whose vows of chastity and poverty seemed out of step with contemporary English sensibility.
Eino Railo attributes the truly villainous monk as an English literary invention to Matthew Lewis, who extracted the idea (among others) for The Monk's Ambrosio from Monvel's play Les Victimes Cloitrees (1796). Prior to Lewis, monks and priests in English literature had been lazy, greedy, or drunk, and served as a comic locus of blame and satire. For example, Diane Long Hoeveler points to Brother Reginald in Longsword, Earl of Salisbury (1762) by Thomas Leland. Brother Reginald, while he doesn't descend to the level of wickedness as Ambrosio, he engages in “drunkenness, and riot, and lewdness." Ann Radcliffe's monks in A Sicilian Romance also adhere to this model; as a group they are discovered in a "wild uproad of merriment and song," drinking, reveling and toasting when they are supposed to be in prayer. Indeed, Hoeveler agrees with Railo that with The Monk, the truly evil monk character type is born.
After The Monk came a flood of English (as well as German and French) authors writing titillating tales of wicked monks, reinforcing and developing the monk as a pervasive character type of the Gothic. Radcliffe follows with Schedoni, Maturin with Schemoli (The Fatal Revenge) and Morosini (Milesian Chief), and Walter Savage Landor with Rupert (Andrea of Hungary, Giovanna of Naples, and Fra Rupert).
Courtesy of Wendy Fall, Marquette University
Hoeveler, Diane Long. The Gothic Ideology: Religious Hysteria and Anti-Catholicism in British Popular Fiction, 1780-1880. University of Wales Press, 2014. Print.
Railo, Eino. The Haunted Castle; a Study of the Elements of English Romanticism. New York, Humanities Press, 1964. Print.
(See also: Anti-Catholicism.)
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