Blackletter

Blackletter, or as it is often mistakenly called, Gothic or Old-English, is an all-encompassing term given to a range of fonts which started with Gutenberg’s 42-Line Bible. It strongly maintained its roots in the calligraphic scripts and organic shapes of its ancestors-in-influence for the following 500 years as it remained in strong use.

… In which the darkness of the characters
over-powers the whiteness of the page
—Steven Heller—

A better opening than this elegant description of the oldest of fonts, I cannot give. So let’s forge ahead.

Carolingian Minuscule

As the class of intellects grew in Europe around the 8th century, a standard script was developed in the hope to have the Roman alphabet more readable and the forms and accents the letters bore be less dependent on the region in which the text was written. If it was written on one side of the country, it had to be read on the other.

This script, on which the earlier forms of blackletter was based, was a beautiful culmination of Latin, Greek, Irish and English scripts used for the religious texts of monasteries. The script became known as Carolingian Minuscule.

Carolingian Minuscule was developed at the request of the Emperor Charlenmange, to be used throughout his land, which included Western and Central Europe. While illiterate himself, he held a love of letters and realised that a unified writing system that would aid in literacy across his empire would be beneficial to its survival and growth.

With its ease-of-understanding for those newly-literate, use spread across universities and through the boom of literature that was spilling forth. In the original form developed under the emperor, the script’s letter were wide, and large documents were labour-intensive to produce. The script evolved over time and a few hundred years after its initial development, it found its place as the father of blackletter. The letters became smaller, thinner and the script had less of a cursive flare to it.

Ironically, the life this script lead ended with characteristics that were deliberately avoided during its inception.

The purpose of Carolingian Minuscule, above all else, was legibility. It was the first script in which a clear difference between capitals and lowercase letter-forms, as well as one of the first in which a strong space between words, was required.

And legibility it held to tightly. As it evolved, modern variations and letters began to appear, such as the s, v and w. But as time passed, these forward-moving steps became negated and the 12th century saw the letters become tighter, thicker and use fewer ligatures. The legibility was diminishing in these evolved shapes as long lines and large words became less decipherable through their rigidity and uniform shapes. The script was becoming less calligraphic and more mechanical in many ways.

Gutenberg’s Font and What Followed

By this stage, Carolingian Minuscule has essentially turned into what we now consider to be blackletter. It had spread across Europe and was being used by many countries and regions, each putting their own accept upon the shapes of the characters.

1455 saw the birth of the typeface, with Gutenburg’s Bible serving as the platform. It is with this in mind that the birth of the font came to be—for the first time in history, movable type became an easily adaptable form of reproducing texts. Typography as we know it was born and at the heart of it sat Textura – a Northern European form of blackletter.

[NB. While the Eastern Asian countries had been using movable type systems for up to 400 years prior, the complexity of their written languages meant the technology and means of reproduction didn't spread as rapidly or was wide as Gutenberg's machine and system.]

Gutenberg’s bible was the first platform on which a metal font stood. circa 1455

It should be noted that while metal type played a pivotal role in the life blackletter up to and at this point, but the variations that follow were both used by printers with metal type, and by calligraphers and writers with pen and ink, as the images below will show.

Textura is one of the four major varieties of blackletter. The most cursive and calligraphic of the four it was primarily used throughout France, Germany and England.

There was also Rotunda, an Italian variant which held less rigid forms in its letters. These were the early styles of blackletter, from which further forms were developed, especially throughout Germany.

One of the German-strong blackletters to come forth from the before-mentioned was Schwabacher, which is the German name for what was known in other parts of Europe as Bastarda. It was most cursive than its predecessors in many ways, but also crude in its execution of a few letters—the horizontal stroke on the g loses all subtlety and the capital H was draw in a fashion which rendered it unrecognizable.

Examples of Textura, Rotunda and Schwabacher blackletter

Then there is Fraktur. Perhaps the most seen and used of the blackletter styles, Fraktur was developed at the very start of the 16th century and saw continual use through to the 20th.

For me, Fraktur is the most elegant form of blackletter as the letters combine structure in their straight lines and hark back to the calligraphic roots it has with the gentle and soft curves to be found in the majority of the letters.

It is Fraktur that I see when reading of the history and the passion the German people had for this script, which they held in as high a regard as their language, literature, culture and heritage, as well as patriotically as their flag.

Natural Forms & Patriotic Ideologies

Fraktur (whose name comes from the strokes of the letters being broken, or, more obviously, fractured), was seen as an organic script with structure that was made of natural connections and joins that were reflections of the personality of the pre-industrial folk-communities of Germany.

On the left is a printed sample of Fraktur with another two done calligraphically

While modern serif and sans-serif roman type was being used through Europe and side-by-side with blackletter, even in Germany, many regarded it as a mechanical, artificial style and form of lettering.

With a nation of people whom considered Fraktur to be an ever-strong representation of their artistic, natural, organic and craft heritage, the thought of exclusively using modern roman typography must have felt like an insult to who they were and how they identified themselves as a people on the international stage.

After the French revolution blackletter had become folk typography, in which romantic notions for the script were felt in Germans – simply, it was their script. To use anything else—to set their classic literature in anything other than a blackletter—wasn’t an option as it would make them non-German. It was a matter of patriotism and pride that blackletter lived on.

Fraktur was considered to be an intricate part of the German language and for many, the idea of not using it was as idiotic as not speaking German.

A Nazi Death

While Fraktur went on to be used by all those with Germanic pride, regardless of political standing, it became the ‘Nazi’ type style, perhaps because of the strong ties it had with German culture as well as the national pride that the party publicly and strictly based its ideals on. The strong campaigns of propaganda the Nazis lead, with their consistent style and strong and powerful design, would have seen to it that Fraktur became the Nazi type, rather than the German type.

Up until the early 30s Fraktur had fallen from grace slowly, as the Bauhaus and the New Typography movement became strong forms of typographic communication and the preferred style of design by those who saw to push the boundaries of German design forward, into modernism.

But it wasn’t to be, as the Nazi’s would rather that the cultural heritage of the German people was made stronger and more visible, without interference and influence from outside sources.

A 1936 editorial, “Writing and Letter in the Service of the New State” declared that “[Fraktur] will help to vitalize individual capacities and hence further the development of the whole of our future” and “lettering is an active and vitally needful civilizing factor and must from henceforth play a much greater part in our lives”.

The Nazi party did a bit of flip-flopping on the subject. With the reintroduction of Fraktur as the type of the nation, san-serifs were deemed “Judenlettern” (no points for guessing what that might mean). Josef Goebbels went on to officially declare blackletter as the “lettering of the German people”. With this the printers of the country were to only produce works set in blackletter, as to do anything else was to go against ones nation.

“Writing as German Art”, an exhibition held to celebrate the invention of Gutenberg’s press and movable type ran in 1940, a big part of which was the celebration of the letterform and the pride of the people and their script. It could be said that things were going well for blackletter and its new found respect and strength, as it successfully withstood the influence of the clean design being produced in other parts of Europe.

Until three days into 1941.

“The following is brought to general attention by order of the Fuhrer” opened the directive. “To consider or to designate the so-called Gothic script as a German script is wrong. In reality the so-called Gothic script consists of Schawbacher-Jewish letters. Exactly as they later on took possession of the newspaper, so the Jews residing in Germany took possession of the printing shops when printing was introduced and thus came about in Germany the strong introduction of the Schwabacher-Jewish letters.” Following this, blackletter lost its footing, virtually forever. Roman-based serif fonts became the type of the people and for the second time in only a few years, printers across the country had to stop using another form of lettering in favor of what was directed by the offices of the government.

What Became of Blackletter

For 500 years, the blackletter script was something to use with pride for many in Europe, and for many of those years, the people of Germany. Yet after the second world war, things went down hill for the style. The type now had a Nazi taste to it, something which, of course, no-one except a small minority wanted on their tongue. The typographic explosion that was fueled by the advertising, socioeconomic and technological boom that followed WWII meant that more experimentation could be done. It was easier than ever to design and experiment with typography and the opportunities were there to do just that.

It’s a safe bet that Germany wanted to move past what had happen and start fresh, so it’s only natural for Fraktur, for blackletter, to fall to the side in a quest to modernise and make up for what had happened. It was still to be found in those who wished to hold onto traditional values, in beer branding and packaging, newspaper mastheads, and so on, but it was never to enjoy the love and respect it had held onto for so long. It found new life in the propaganda and works of the Neo-Nazis who used it to have a connection to their influences, as the use of the Swastika was banned under Germany law, but this was, unfortunately, perhaps as good as it got.

Typographers never stopped developing blackletter typefaces, and a good number have been developed into, and as, digital versions that are easily available. And there is of course use for it in gothic and sub-cultures who wish to bring a feel of something dark to their thoughts. But one of the more interesting recent uses of blackletter is to be found in the form of a compendium which brought together three-hundred examples of blackletter, with many available on an included CD. This book is noteworthy as it’s more than just a compendium, but also experiments with the forms and shapes to be found on the letters, for each font.

A Welcome Discovery

At the beginning of my research on blackletter, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought it would be a fairly straight-forward article to write. For some reason, I thought of blackletter as just an old font, something akin to calligraphy and something German. But to look into the history of blackletter is to look into the history of writing, as one is the natural evolution of the other. It is also to look into the strength and power that typography can hold as well as the history of printing and, to a strong extent, design.

And it is perhaps this last one that I was so drawn to. These shapes started as a style of hand-writing that saw to improve literacy rates. To make words easier to understand. It must have brought joy to so many to be able to read and absorb new thoughts and ideas and knowledge. From before it was even blackletter, this style was something people could connect with, and this is what happened to it for its entire life. It evoked emotion and pride, it was powerful.

Germany connected with this script. A font. A style of shaping letters. An entire nation saw these letters and thought “this is who we are and what we are, this is how we write, talk and express ourselves. This is our heritage, this is us.” Lend your mind to this thought for just a moment and try to think of any thing else in history, other than religion, that so many found comfort in.

And it is in the answer to that question that causes one to appreciate and adore blackletter, and, in more scope, typography. It shows the power of a letter and of the way in which people can connect to messages spoken, visually, mentally and emotionally.

Update: Links.

The best resource I found for research was Google Books, at which I found and enjoyed Blackletter By Peter Bain, Paul Shaw, Philipp Th Bertheau, Texts on type By Steven Heller, Philip B. Meggs, Design Literacy By Steven Heller and Fonts & encodings By Yannis Haralambous, P. Scott Horne.

Wikipedia was, of course, a great resource and helped me to find information on a general blackletter overview, Carolingian Minuscule, Roman Half Unical, Insular Script, Movable Type, Rotunda, Fraktur and this great image, which I used for the blackletter styles key in the article.

And lastly, many beautiful images were found at Design History and a great number of blackletter fonts can be found at Eccentrifuge.

Published on the 11th of May, 2009 in Typography

10 Brilliantly Fantastic Responses

    Esben Thomsen

    Yes writing about a subject is the best way to learn it.

    I have to add something to this article, because blackletter is far from dead, even in Germany or Denmark for that matter. Im not sure if I no much about neo-nazi’s, but they tend not to be sophisticated enough, to be able to use such a font.

    Its used rather extensible in Germany, oddly enough: Its seen in tourism: cups, mugs, ceramics in general, festivals and the chosen font for traditional pubs, taverns and restaurants. Actually everything that have some sort of traditional german culture surrounding it.

    Its only used in pubs in Denmark (Germany equals beer equals blackletter…). I have to admit I don’t believe its seen in other Scandinavian countries than Denmark since Norway and Sweden don’t have so close relations with Germany.

    I think its ‘dead’ for two reasons. First northern european folk culture isn’t exactly mainstream or gotten the same “cool” label as other countries older folk cultures. The second reason its only used as display font and not for paragraphs as it used too.

    The second reason is why I think people imagine its a dead font.

    Alex Charchar

    Hey Esben,

    I tried very carefully to not suggest that it was now a dead font, but more just a little sleepy. It isn’t used to the same extent it was and I’d imagine it doesn’t hold the same sense of patriotism that it held not that long ago either..

    I’d imagine things that are almost stereotypically german it would be used, or perhaps more accurately, anything that’s craft.. out of those two things you can many of the things that you listed (cups, mugs, ceramics, festivals, pubs, etc).. but i like how you said it! Germany = beer = blackletter..

    Dom Conlon

    Another wonderful article here Alex. You are a scholar! I’m no designer but years ago I spent a long time learning calligraphy and studied a little bit around Blackletter (though I was more drawn to the Book of Kells – a copy of which is held here in Manchester and is a sight that any typographer should see with its wonderful subversion of an artform that at the time seemed to hardly have any rules to subvert.

    Alex Charchar

    Ah the book of kells! While researching one of the avenues I found my self wandering down was The Book of Kells.. such a stunning piece of work I would love to see with my own eyes.. the intricate line work is just amazing..

    and while it isn’t as pretty, I think i’d still have to keep the Gutenberg 42-line bible as my number one of books I’d travel the world to see.. not sure why, maybe just because for print, it’s where it really started in a serious way?

    Thanks for the comment Dom :)

    do me a favour, try to tear out a page of the Book of Kells and mail it to Australia, yeah? Shouldn’t be toooo difficult

    Elliot

    Good article and cool site as well. Could you quote your sources?

    Alex Charchar

    Hi Elliot, thanks for the kind words :)

    I’m more than happy to post sources, not sure why I didn’t originally, so I’ll update the article as soon as I get a chance (next couple of hours probably).

    Paul Rodriguez

    May a reader offer two more lines of investigation?

    1. Fraktur has a history in the US as well. The large and distinct German immigrant population known as the Pennsylvania Dutch used it both as the basis of a form of folk art and in print—I once had the distinct meditative pleasure of learning to read blackletter by browsing the index of an 1813 psalter printed in Philadelphia.

    2. In the late 19th & early 20th centuries a form of handwriting was used as a blackletter parallel to roman script styles, die Sütterlinschrift, knowledge of which is now so rare that I have heard of people mastering it just to use it as a code.

    Alex Charchar

    Hi Paul,

    It was hard not to travel down distinct roads of nationality/region outside of Germany for this article as the style sort of branches off and styles developed along the way.. but I have to admit, I didn’t for a seond think of the Pynnsylvanian Dutch! Thanks for the top, would be interesting to see if it adapted much in a Western country with western influences?

    and just looked up die sutterlinschrift and found a couple examples.. quite interesting and can see how it can be used only between people who would understand it.. some of the evolution of the letters is kind of easy to understand, but there are a few that are almost completely foreign

I would be so delighted if you were to contribute