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Gothic script: the story of a calligraphic style
Stone arches of illuminated Gothic church

Best articles - Writing

Gothic script: the story of a calligraphic style

13.02.2023

Until the 12th century, the most common script in Western Europe was the Carolingian, which originated from the French court of Charlemagne. From the second half of the century, however, the growing request for books helped a new script known as Blackletter to emerge. Initially, it was known as littera textualis and then as littera moderna to distinguish it from the Carolingian script of the previous centuries. It was only during the period of Humanism that Italian literati gave it the name Gothic. The derogatory term emphasised the script’s connection with the dark ages that preceded the Renaissance.

The origins of the Gothic script

As with the Carolingian script, France is also the birthplace of the Gothic script. The monasteries and abbeys in the northern part of the country carried on a prolific amanuensis activity. The scribal monks were the ones who gradually moved away from the more classical style of writing of the Carolingians. This change in calligraphy was also reflected in art and architecture. In the period between the 11th and 12th centuries, the Romanesque style transformed into the so-called Gothic style characterised by broken, sharp, defined lines and an evident verticality.

Close up di un manoscritto miniato antico.

The spread of Blackletter was not only due to a stylistic change but rather to sociocultural factors. A more educated upper class and the foundation of new universities created a need for the quick production of books. The Gothic script was faster to trace and took up less space on the page, making it a cheaper alternative and the official book script of the time. Copyists wrote their texts in perfectly paged layouts, usually divided into two distinct columns to leave the necessary space for a scholar’s annotations in the margins of the manuscript. The introduction of a new writing instrument, a pen with a tip cut off to the left, was also instrumental in the spread of the Blackletter. It created more angular and geometric letters and gave the script its recognisable flair.

The consecration of the Gothic script as the most widespread style in the western world is due to Johannes Gutenberg. The German inventor chose a Gothic typeface for the first printed version of the Bible. Germany has one of the strongest and most long-lived connections to the Blackletter script. Until the middle of the 20th century, it was considered the only “authentic” German script. It remained highly fashionable and widespread, especially in its Schwabacher variant found in nationalist manifestos of the 1930s and 1940s.

A script with many faces

Born as a break from the soft, sinuous style of the Carolingian script, the Gothic style soon became the written reference in Western Europe, as shown by its recurrence in codex amanuensis. However, to focus solely on the Blackletter when considering Gothic scripts would be reductive. Different variations developed over time that ranged from the more rigid and angular medieval styles to the more articulate Baroque scripts.

Within the Gothic family of scripts, one can therefore distinguish different styles such as the Gothic minuscule, the first true form of this new writing movement. University and philosophical texts were written in Textura, which today holds the place of medieval script par excellence in our collective imagination. The Rotunda, also known as Semi gothic, characterised by more rounded and delicate characters, was also widespread at the time. Notula or Gothic cursive was used in the more popular sphere and for everyday written communications. It merged the stylistic elements of Textura with a modern cursive writing style. Finally, it is worth mentioning Fraktur, a style with slightly less angular shapes and a rounded right side that spread in Germany from the 16th century onwards.

And today?

There is no denying that even today, the Gothic script is still fascinating to behold. When observing ancient texts in a museum display case, one can only admire the skill of the calligrapher who painstakingly formed all the tightly knit characters by hand. However, it is not only in Germany that the Gothic script has left its mark. It is still part of our daily lives today in countries that use the Latin alphabet. The Gothic typeface is the font of choice for the headlines of well-known national and international newspapers such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and the very Italian Il Messaggero.

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