Development of Gothic script

1996type's picture

Hey people,

I used to think that the development of the Gothic script was mainly caused by economic necessity. The Gothic script is narrower, thus more space-efficient, thus cheaper to write in. However, it's development in the 11th century coincides with economic growth in Europe, making this theory unlikely. Also, it seems odd to use such a depressing looking script, when times are good. Gothic architecture makes much more sense in that way. Could anybody shed some light on this?

Cheers! jasper

hrant's picture

Depressing?! Blackletter is inspiring.
And don't get me started on that wheezy Italian stuff.

More: http://themicrofoundry.com/ss_fraktur1.html

hhp

Bert Vanderveen's picture

I think that an important aspect is that it is fairly to teach an aspiring scribe/monk to draw gothic glyphs. Reproducing books was an important means of income for monastries.

There is also a parable to the rise of gothic architecture — those slender and tall forms were quite to thing. Fashionable, in other words.

oldnick's picture

The Gothic letterform probably has more basis in the shape of a chisel-point quill than it does in economics. Vellum was not the greatest cost of a copied manuscript: labor was. Hence, prosperity paid more scribes, who wrote in the fashionable style. Had different, easily available equipment been available and a different style prevailed, a great many medieval manuscripts could just have well been written in Comic Sans.

HVB's picture

And yes, there IS a Comic Sans edition of the King James Bible (pdf only, AFAIK). I won't post the link!

John Hudson's picture

All mature scribal cultures develop both formal and informal styles. The Carolingian minuscule had, however briefly, imposed a single uniform model which then diverged, predictably, into formal and informal styles regionally. The blackletter styles represent formalisation, a typical characteristic of which is the frequent lifting of the pen (contra the reversals characteristic of informal styles) and hence deliberate slowness that encourages care in the forming of the letters and their consistency.

1996type's picture

@John Hudson: From my research, it seems the Gothic script became a more formal script some centuries after it came in to use, so this would not really explain the initial reasons for it's design, right? Please do correct me if I'm wrong :-)

Here's my take in my essay:

During the 11th century, Europe went through a period of high economic growth. As a part of the population got wealthier, the demand for books increased, pressurizing scriptoria to produce more books in less time. With an increase in demand came an increase in competition to not only produce books faster, but cheaper at the same time. This resulted in the development of a new script in France and Belgium, with a much more compressed and angular design than the previously used Carolingian minuscule. Due to it’s economical width, this new script, later called the Protogothic script, required fewer pages to be used, bringing down costs spent on parchment, and making books lighter. The latter was especially important for the improved transport and storage of books, as one can imagine. Another advantage of the Gothic script was it’s relative simplicity, making it easier to teach to the monks.
Although uncertain, there seems to be a relation between the tall Gothic architecture and the tall (or narrow, depending on your viewpoint) Gothic typography. Fashion will always remain an elusive subject, so the precise reasons for this new design, other than it’s economic functionality, remain unclear.

hrant's picture

BTW there's a lot of food for thought in Bain and Shaw's "Blackletter: Type and National Identity", a must-read for anybody even mildly into the style.

hhp

John Hudson's picture

From my research, it seems the Gothic script became a more formal script some centuries after it came in to use.

By my classification, all Blackletter styles are formal, because all are slow to write, all require frequent lifting of the pen, all favour consistency over fluidity, all are disconnected, all are upright... these are the classic characteristics of formal Latin book hands, contra informal, cursive hands. The process of development of 'protogothic' that you describe is a process of formalisation of the Carolingian minuscule, from a semi-cursive script featuring a lot of pen reversals and organic terminals, to a non-cursive script featuring a lot of pen lifts and constructed terminals. Consider: the Carolingian letter n can be written in two strokes with a reversal between them; the pen never needs to leave the page. A textura n requires a minimum of six strokes, with the pen lifted and repositioned between each stroke.

1996type's picture

So formality does not have anything to with the actual meaning of the word, but refers only to the way of writing? If this is true, you are indeed right, but the question remains: Why formalize (as in, lift the pen of the page often)?

"Another advantage of the Gothic script was it’s relative simplicity, making it easier to teach to the monks."
I wrote this after reading Bert van der Veen's comment, but how can it be more easy to learn, if it has so much more strokes per letter?

hrant's picture

I would say it has everything to do with the meaning of the word.

Anything formal is easier to teach/learn to do adequately. The informal is what requires one to control one's own intuition, which is much harder - without much practice and even introspection it looks like a big mess. The twist here though is that the formal is generally more helpful to others, and it's also more difficult to innovate.

hhp

John Hudson's picture

...how can it be more easy to learn, if it has so much more strokes per letter?

Because the strokes are repetitive and simple, and the fact that the formal script must be written more slowly than the cursive means that more care is taken: a scribe can easily produce page after page of consistent text in a formal style, which is the purpose of such styles. Formal hands are book hands.

John Hudson's picture

Well said, Hrant.

1996type's picture

Thank you both :-) very convincing. Sorry to keep on asking questions, but I guess thats what typophile is for. Why would copyists chose a more formal (thus slower written) script in a time when te demand for books increased, requiring faster production?

John Hudson's picture

In part, as Bert suggests, it is part of a larger aesthetic movement, about harmonising the appearance of text to the cultural context in which it is encountered. This is continuous factor in the development of new writing styles and, later, new typographic styles. [An area of research for me is the development of the 'English Roman', which results in Baskerville's types, and which can most easily be made sense of in terms of trying to find a new model for text that harmonises with neo-classical applied arts.] Blackletter styles harmonise with the strong perpendicular and verticality of Gothic art and architecture, just as the Carolingian minuscule had harmonised with the softer and more curvaceous Romanesque forms.

The other thing to bear in mind is that, almost all the time, what you are going to see reproduced in picture books of mediaeval manuscripts are prestige volumes, and especially volumes intended for communal liturgical worship. The formal script is used because these are formal books.

1996type's picture

Ok, I feel like I got it now :-) John, time to write a book perhaps? You seem to know a lot... In any case, thanks a lot. Do you mind if I mention your name in a footnote as a source for my essay?

Here's my last version. Sorry for the long read.

Until the 11th century, the Carolingian minuscule was a relatively standardized script in Western Europe. It was a very elegant and legible script, still treasured for it’s beauty by designers these days, but it’s time to make place for a new script had come. This new script would later be known as the Gothic script.
During the 11th century, Europe went through a period of economic growth. As a part of the population got wealthier, the demand for books increased, pressurizing scriptoria to produce greater volumes of books. With this increase in demand for books, the emphasis of a script’s purpose came to lie more in the writing of books, which were seen as formal objects, as opposed to informal every day usage. This resulted into a formalizing process of the Carolingian minuscule. A typical characteristic of formal writing is the frequent lifting of the pen, thus writing slower deliberately to encourage greater care in the forming of the letters and their consistency. France and Belgium were the first to introduce a more formalized script, called the Protogothic script, in the 11th century.
To understand how the Protogothic script, as well as the Carolingian minuscule, was written, it is important to be aware of the tool used to write with. This tool, the ‘broad-nip pen’, is still used today to understand the underlying structures behind modern day typography. It was, and is, constantly held at the same angle of approximately 45°, lifted of the parchment with every new stroke. The formalization of the Carolingian minuscule resulted in previously single-stroke curves, being replaced by several vertical and diagonal strokes throughout the alphabet. This gave the Protogothic script a much more angular design. This angularity, in turn, led to a much more compressed design, for curves take up more space than straight lines. [Picture of comparison between Carolingian minuscule and Protogothic script to come.]
Although uncertain, there seems to be a relation between the verticality and perpendicular Gothic architecture and the Gothic script. Fashion will always remain an elusive subject, though, so our focus here is in the functional and cultural aspects of the design of scripts.
Due to it’s economical width, this new script required fewer pages to be used, bringing down costs spent on parchment, and making books lighter. The latter was especially important for the improved transport and storage of books, as one can imagine. Another advantage of the Gothic script was it’s relative simplicity, making it easier to teach to the monks.

John Hudson's picture

I should point out that the term 'Gothic' in this context is a bit problematic. It is a later term, mostly found in English sources, and is confusing because, of course, there was also a Gothic language with its own script and palaeography. I think the term 'blackletter' is better as a general category, and within that category care should be taken to distinguish the individual styles.

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