Blackletter

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Blackletter or Gothic script is an old way to write text. Everybody in Western Europe used to write in Blackletter between the 12th and 16th century. In art history this period of the Middle Ages is called gothic.

Some people call Blackletter Old English. This is not right, because Old English is many centuries older. Also Gothic script has nothing to do with the Goths. They lived in central Europe from the 3rd to 6th century and wrote in Runes.

Origins[change | change source]

Carolingian minuscule was the direct and linear ancestor of blackletter. Blackletter came from Carolingian when Europe in the twelfth century needed new books in many different subjects when more and more people learned to read. New universities were founded, each writing books for business, law, grammar, history, and other topics, not only religious books, where earlier scripts were used.

Folio 56r of the Aberdeen Bestiary, an early example of blackletter from the twelfth century

These books needed to be produced quickly to keep up with demand. Carolingian, though legible, was time-consuming and labour-intensive to produce. It was large and wide and took up a lot of space on a manuscript in a time when writing materials were very costly. As early as the eleventh century, different forms of Carolingian were already being used, and by the mid-twelfth century, a clearly distinguishable form, able to be written more quickly to meet the demand for new books, was being used in north-eastern France and the Low Countries.

Page from a fourteenth century Psalter (Vulgate Ps 93:16-21), with blackletter "sine pedibus" text
German Blackletter typefaces

The name Gothic script[change | change source]

The term Gothic was first used to describe this script in fifteenth century Italy, in the midst of the Renaissance, because Renaissance Humanists believed it was a barbaric script. Gothic was a synonym for barbaric. Flavio Biondo, in Italia Illustrata (1531) thought it was invented by the Lombards after their invasion of Italy in the sixth century.

Not only were blackletter forms called Gothic script, but any other seemingly barbarian script, such as Visigothic, Beneventan, and Merovingian, were also labeled "Gothic", in contrast to Carolingian minuscule, a highly legible script which the Humanists called littera antiqua, "the ancient letter", wrongly believing that it was the script used by the Romans. It was invented in the reign of Charlemagne, although only used significantly after that era.

The blackletter must not be confused either with the ancient alphabet of the Gothic language or with the sans-serif typefaces that are also sometimes called Gothic.

Forms of blackletter[change | change source]

Textualis[change | change source]

Textualis, also known as textura or Gothic bookhand, was the most calligraphic form of blackletter, and today is the form most associated with "Gothic". Johannes Gutenberg carved a textualis typeface – including a large number of ligatures and common abbreviations – when he printed his 42-line Bible. However, the textualis was rarely used for typefaces afterwards.

According to Dutch scholar Gerard Lieftinck, the pinnacle of use for blackletter was the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. For Lieftinck, the highest form of textualis was littera textualis formata, used for de luxe manuscripts. The usual form, simply littera textualis, was used for literary works and university texts. Lieftinck's third form, littera textualis currens, was the cursive form of blackletter, extremely difficult to read and used for textual glosses, and less important books.

Blackletter typefaces
Textualis lettering

Textualis was most widely used in France, the Low Countries, England, and Germany. Some characteristics of the script are:

Page of a rare blackletter bible, 1497, printed in Strassburg by J. R. Grueninger, the coloured chapter initials were handwritten after printing
  • tall, narrow letters, as compared to their Carolingian counterparts.
  • letters formed by sharp, straight, angular lines, unlike the typically round Carolingian; as a result, there is a high degree of "breaking", i.e. lines that do not necessarily connect with each other, especially in curved letters.
  • ascenders (in letters such as b, d, h) are vertical and often end in sharp finials
  • when a letter with a bow (in b, d, p, q) is followed by another letter with a bow (such as "be" or "po"), the bows overlap and the letters are joined by a straight line (this is known as "biting").
  • a related characteristic is the half r, the shape of r when attached to other letters with bows; only the bow and tail were written, connected to the bow of the previous letter. In other scripts, this only occurred in a ligature with the letter o.
  • similarly related is the form of the letter d when followed by a letter with a bow; its ascender is then curved to the left, like the uncial d. Otherwise the ascender is vertical.
  • the letters g, j, p, q, y, and the hook of h have descenders, but no other letters are written below the line.
  • the letter a has a straight back stroke, and the top loop eventually became closed, somewhat resembling the number 8. The letter s often has a diagonal line connecting its two bows, also somewhat resembling an 8, but the long s is frequently used in the middle of words.
  • minims, especially in the later period of the script, do not connect with each other. This makes it very difficult to distinguish i, u, m, and n. A fourteenth century example of the difficulty minims produced is, mimi numinum niuium minimi munium nimium uini muniminum imminui uiui minimum uolunt ("the smallest mimes of the gods of snow do not wish at all in their life that the great duty of the defences of the wine be diminished"). In blackletter this would look like a series of single strokes. Dotted i and the letter j developed because of this. Minims may also have finials of their own.
  • the script has many more scribal abbreviations than Carolingian, adding to the speed in which it could be written.

Schwabacher[change | change source]

The Schwabacher was a blackletter form that was much used in early German print typefaces. It continued to be used occasionally until the 20th century. Characteristics of the Schwabacher are:

  • The small letter o is rounded on both sides, though at the top and at the bottom, the two strokes join in an angle. Other small letters have analogous forms.
  • The small letter g has a horizontal stroke at its top that forms crosses with the two downward strokes.
  • The capital letter H has a peculiar form that somewhat reminds the small letter h.

Fraktur[change | change source]

The Fraktur is a form of blackletter that became the most common German blackletter typeface by the mid 16th century. Its use was so common that often any blackletter form is called Fraktur in Germany. Characteristics of the Fraktur are:

  • The left side of the small letter o is formed by an angular stroke, the right side by a rounded stroke. At the top and at the bottom, both strokes join in an angle. Other small letters have analogous forms.
  • The capital letters are compound of rounded c-shaped or s-shaped strokes.

Cursiva[change | change source]

Cursiva refers to a very large variety of forms of blackletter; as with modern cursive writing, there is no real standard form. It developed in the fourteenth century as a simplified form of textualis, with influence from the form of textualis as used for writing charters. Cursiva developed partly because of the introduction of paper, which was smoother than parchment. It was therefore, easier to write quickly on paper in a cursive script.

In cursiva, descenders are more frequent, especially in the letters f and s, and ascenders are curved and looped rather than vertical (seen especially in the letter d). The letters a, g, and s (at the end of a word) are very similar to their Carolingian forms. However, not all of these features are found in every example of cursiva, which makes it difficult to determine whether or not a script may be called cursiva at all.

Lieftinck also divided cursiva into three styles: littera cursiva formata was the most legible and calligraphic style. Littera cursiva textualis (or libraria) was the usual form, used for writing standard books, and it generally was written with a larger pen, leading to larger letters. Littera cursiva currens was used for textbooks and other unimportant books and it had very little standardization in forms.

Hybrida[change | change source]

Hybrida is also called bastarda (especially in France), and as its name suggests, refers to a hybrid form of the script. It is a mixture of textualis and cursiva, developed in the early fifteenth century. From textualis, it borrowed vertical ascenders, while from cursiva, it borrowed long f and ſ, single-looped a, and g with an open descender (similar to Carolingian forms).

Sources[change | change source]

  • Bernhard Bischoff, Latin Palaeography: Antiquity and the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 1989.