Blackletter

Indices : Type and Lettering Styles : Blackletter

Traditional style of type based on medieval scribal Calligraphy. The earliest books printed with movable type were set in blackletter, including the famous bibles of Johannes Gutenberg. Blackletter type grew deep roots in the Germanic countries, developing its own vernacular form in fraktur type, a highly stylized script well-suited to economically setting German texts. It retained popularity as a decorative / ecumenical script in the English-speaking countries, predominantly as Textura types, a role that survives today mostly in its traditional use on diplomas and wedding invitations.

Blackletter type is strongly connected to German nationalism, with Otto von Bismarck famously proclaiming, “I do not read German books set in Latin letters.” Latin typefaces did exist in Germany as “Antiqua” type and were used, but through the beginning of the 20th century played a subservient role to fraktur. Germans saw fraktur as an inherent part of their national identity. (cf. ref. Bain & Shaw’s Blackletter: Type and National Identity)

Yet an even “greater” German, J. W. Goethe, is reported to have disliked Fraktur, and wished that all his works would be printed in Antiqua. His mother implored him for decades in her letters not to allow his books to be set in foreign antiqua. She believed that, if people stopped reading “German,” they would soon stop speaking it. She feared that, if his books were printed in antiqua, only professors and intellectuals would know the works of Goethe, and his friend Schiller. Goethe and Schiller are still two of Germany’s best-selling authors, almost 200 years past their deaths.

During the rise of German nationalism that led to the Third Reich and World War II, blackletter type’s totemic role as a token of national identity led to its adoption by the Nazis as part of their visual identity, particular in the form of the hybrid blackletter / latin forms known as Schaftstiefelgrotesk, or “jackboot Grotesques”. This has led some commentators to tie blackletter types inextricably to the Nazi party, arguing that this has made them somehow tainted, despite Hitler’s 1941 proclamation banning fraktur (Schwabacher Gotisch, actually) as “Judenlettern”, or “Jewish type”. “Grotesk/Grotesk” actually denotes sans serif, in the same confusing sense that “Gothic” was misused by American foundries at the turn of the century. Hence a “Schaftstiefelgrotesk” denotes an angular sans design rather than a Blackletter, though their ducti mimic that of blackletter–and usually the less distinctly German textura, not true Fraktur.

Regardless, at the end of World War II, Germans were interested more in repairing their shattered nation than untangling their complicated and now-tainted cultural heritage, and adopted the clean, modern types sweeping across the rest of Europe, and blackletter faded from view (interestingly, some forms of blackletter are still widely used in the Spanish-speaking nations, where they connote tradition and are valued for their interesting letterforms). Blackletter type has retained its connotation of medievalism, most ironically in use by heavy metal bands who use it for logos and album titles.

Over the last 20 years, American and English designers have rediscovered a fascination with blackletter forms and produced experimental new interpretations such as Wexford Oakley, Bastard, Sabbath Black, Gothic Gothic and Fakir. Meanwhile, a small number of German revivalists have started to go beyond the standard Fette Fraktur and Wilhelm Klingspor Gotisch to revive a large number of traditional blackletter designs. Two of the most prominent of these are Dieter Steffmann, a freeware designer, and Gerhard Helzel, a German painter who is a sensitive and prolific revivalist of many of the early 20th century’s greatest achievements in blackletter design. Many of the free downloads on the internet have inferior outline quality; these fonts should always be inspected careful before using them for a job which will be professionally output.

Discussion:
What is the Connection between Blackletter and Violent/Extreme Subculture