Blackletter (also known as Gothic script) was a script used throughout Western Europe from approximately 1150 to 1500. It continued to be used for the German language until the 20th century.
Carolingian minuscule was the direct and linear ancestor of blackletter. Blackletter developed from Carolingian as an increasingly literate 12th century Europe required new books in many different subjects. New universities were founded, each producing books for business, law, grammar, history, and other pursuits, not solely religious works for which earlier scripts had usually been used. These books needed to be produced quickly to keep up with demand. Carolingian, though legible, was was time-consuming and labour-intensive to produce. It was large and wide and took up a lot of space on a manuscript. As early as the 11th century, different forms of Carolingian were already being used, and by the mid-12th 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.
The name Gothic script
The term Gothic was first used to describe this script in 15th 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 6th century. Not only the blackletter were called Gothic script, but any other seemingly barbarian script, such as Visigothic, Beneventan, and Merovingian, were also labelled "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 only invented in the reign of Charlemagne).
The blackletter must not be confused either with the genuinely Gothic alphabet or with the sans-serif typefaces that are also sometimes called Gothic.
Forms of blackletter
Textualis, also known as textura or Gothic bookhand, was the most calligraphic form of blackletter, and today is the form most associated with "Gothic".
According to Dutch scholar Gerard Lieftinck, the height of blackletter was the 14th and 15th 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, less important books, etc.
Textualis was most widely used in France, the Low Countries, England, and Germany. Some characteristics of the script are:
- 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, etc.) are vertical and often end in sharp finials
- when a letter with a bow (in b, d, p, q, etc) 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 attacked 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 14th 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.
Cursiva refers to a very large variety of forms of blackletter; like modern cursive writing there is no real standard form. It developed in the 14th 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 can 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 was generally written with a larger pen, leading to larger letters. Littera cursiva currens was used for textbooks and other unimportant books, and had very little standardization in forms.
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 15th 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).
French blackletter was the earliest form of blackletter to develop, in the 11th and 12th centuries. French textualis was tall and narrow compared to other national forms, and was most fully developed in the late 13th century in Paris. In the 13th century there was also an extremely small version of textualis used to write miniature Bibles, known as "pearl script." Another form of French textualis in this century was the script developed at the University of Paris, littera parisiensis, which is also small in size and designed to be written quickly, not calligraphically.
French cursiva was used from the 13th to the 16th century, when it became highly looped, messy, and slanted. Bastarda, the "hybrid" mixture of cursiva and textualis, developed in the 15th century and was used for vernacular texts as well as Latin. A more angular form of bastarda was used in Burgundy, the lettre de forme or lettre bourgouignonne, for books of hours such as the Trčs Riches Heures of John, Duke of Berry.
English blackletter developed from the form of Caroline minuscule used there after the Norman Conquest, sometimes called "Romanesque minuscule." Textualis forms developed after 1190 and were used most often until approximately 1300, afterwards being used mainly for de luxe manuscripts. English forms of blackletter have been studied extensively and can be divided into many categories. Textualis formata ("Old English" or "Black Letter"), textualis prescissa (or textualis sine pedibus, as it generally lacks feet on its minims) , textualis quadrata (or psalterialis) and semi-quadrata, and textualis rotunda are various forms of high-grade formata styles of blackletter.
The University of Oxford borrowed the littera parisiensis in the 13th century and early 14th century, and the littera oxoniensis form is almost indistinguishable from its Parisian counterpart; however, there are a few differences, such as the round final "s" forms, resembling the number 8, rather than the long "s" used in the final position in the Paris script.
English cursiva began to be used in the 13th century, and soon replaced littera oxoniensis as the standard university script. The earliest cursive blackletter form is Anglicana, a very round and looped script, which also had a squarer and angular counterpart, Anglicana formata. The formata form was used until the 15th century and was also used to write vernacular texts. An Anglicana bastarda form developed from a mixture of Anglicana and textualis, but by the 16th century the principal cursive blackletter used in England was the Secretary script, which originated in Italy and came to England by way of France. Secretary script has a somewhat haphazard appearance, and its forms of the letters a, g, r, and s are unique, unlike any forms in any other English script.
Italian blackletter is also known as rotunda, as it was less angular than in nothern centres. The most usual form of Italian rotunda was littera bononiensis, used at the University of Bologna in the 13th century. Biting is a common feature in rotunda, but breaking is not. Italian Rotunda is also characterized by unique abbreviations, such as q with a line beneath the bow signifying "qui", and unusual spellings, such as x for s ("milex" rather than "miles", "knight").
Italian cursive developed in the 13th century from scripts used by notaries. The more calligraphic form is known as minuscola cancelleresca italiana (or simply cancelleresca, chancery script), which developed into a bookhand, a script used for writing books rather than charters, in the 14th century. Cancelleresca influenced the development of bastarda in France and Secretary script in England.
Despite the frequent association of blackletter with German, the script was actually very slow to develop in German-speaking areas. It developed first in those areas closest to France and then spread to the east and south in the 13th century. However, the German-speaking areas is where blackletter longest remained in use.
German textualis is usually very heavy and angular, and there are few features that are common to all occurrences of the script. One common feature is the use of the letter "w" for Latin "vu" or "uu". Textualis was used in the 13th and 14th centuries, afterwards becoming more elaborate and decorated and used for liturgical works only.
Johann Gutenberg used a textualis typeface for his famous Gutenberg Bible, the first book ever to be printed in 1455. The Schwabacher, a blackletter with more rounded letters, became soon the usual printed typeface, but it was replaced by the fraktur in the early 17th century. The fraktur remained in use as the most common German typeface family until the nazis prohibited it in 1942. Since it was so common, all kinds of blackletter tend to be called fraktur in German.
German cursiva is generally similar to the cursive scripts in other areas, but forms of "a", "s" and other letters are more varied; here too the letter "w" is often used. A hybrida form, which was basically cursiva with fewer looped letters and with similar square proportions as textualis, was used in the 15th and 16th centuries.
In the 18th century, the pointed quill was adopted for blackletter handwriting. In the early 20th century, the Sütterlin script was introduced in the schools.