The Design Center, DT&G's Typography Department: 2003 Fall Fonts Festival   Previous Page  

To fully appreciate what was taking place during the late Gothic era, one must back up several hundred years to find three distinct lettering styles. You also have to understand that this was a slow but persistent process over a period of seven centuries. In those days nothing happened fast.

Around 430 AD, a missionary was sent to the further most shores of the Roman Empire, to bring Christianity and the Bible to the heathens of the country now known as Ireland. He took with him copies of all the current manuscripts and lettering styles so he could establish a monastery and bring literature to those lands. Of course you know him through the official holiday which celebrates his coming with green beer and shamrocks -- St. Patrick's Day. But there's more to the story.
      St. Patrick and his monastery was saved from the sacking of the Roman Empire in 476 AD because the lands of Ireland were separate from the mainlands. His scribes flourished and continued their arts while Rome burned, and the rest of the civilized world fell into several hundred years of disarray. A "Celtic" style of lettering evolved which was more round, and uniform. The scripts were written along four guide lines approximately one inch apart, or (in Latin) an Uncial. It was here that Semi-uncials, or smaller letters, became used to save space and conserve vellum. Over the next century or so, some of these Semi-uncials developed extensions which helped differentiate those letters from other similar letters. These extensions came to be known as ascenders and descenders -- establishing the basis of today's lower case alphabet. The period from 430 AD through 700 AD also saw an expansion of illumination to the manuscripts, with ornately decorated initial capitals and margins.

From roughly 500 to 750 AD, all of what had been the Roman Empire was torn apart by localized wars and territorial disputes, and was disintegrating into small feudal regions. In 768 AD, one of the stronger Gaul leaders consolidated a large expanse of central Europe under one reign, and was eventually crowned Charlemagne, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
      We have to mention Charlemagne once again, because it was he who charged the lead scribe, Alcuin of York, in 789 AD, to assemble a team of letterers and establish a "standardized" letterstyle for the empire. Alcuin, who is believed to have been a Celtic-trained monk, chose a hand similar to the Celtic Uncials he inherited from St. Patrick. His team established the Carolingian (which means "during the reign of Charlemagne") style of lettering. The empire spread this standardized style to the far ends of the civilized world. The Carolingian alphabet utilized the larger Uncials of the Celts to introduce a sentence and the tapered, more uniform small letters called semi-uncials to complete it.
      As all good things must come to an end, Charlemagne's empire crumbled around 827 AD with invasions from all sides -- the Vikings and Huns from the north and east, and the Moslem Arabs from the south and west. Once again, Europe became a battle field and the arts and literacy ground to a halt.

Thus begins the Middle Ages. For the next 500 years the civilized world passed through a period of isolationism as once again the feudal structure returned. A myriad of closed communities carried of the traditions of the scribes, clinging on to the lettering styles established by the Celts and Charlemagne. It was not until the 900s, and the reign of Otto that a new lettering form began to emerge. In the regions known today as Germany, monks began condensing the roundness out of lettering styles. Strokes because bold and black. Terminals became rigid and angular -- and, now, we've made the full circle back to the Gothic period and the Black Plague, which opened this article.

As presented in the beginning of this article, the 1300s were significant to the development of typography because the convergence of two distinct lettering styles would eventually be merged into the styles we see today. Coming out of the Black Plague, the Humanist movement reacquainted society with art, literature and education. Rag paper was now readily available throughout world commerce and a prolitheration of scribes and wood carvers brought books to the masses.
      Through the 1300s and into the early 1400s, textura remained the popular style -- however a new "Humanist" style was rapidly gaining popularity. This new style was called "Rotunda" because it once again took the upright shapes of Textura and introduced roundness and uniformity.

Preparing for a Renaissance

Through the Middle Ages, the late Gothic period, the Black Plague, and the revitalization of civilization, industry, commerce, architecture and the literary arts flourished. Renaissance literally means rebirth, and that's what happened to the entire typography and printing field. By the late 1400s the Islamic Turks had closed all routes to India and the far East once opened by the Crusades. European aristocracy needed new ways of obtaining the riches of the far East. Once again civilization took to the seas and the well known voyages of Columbus, Vasco da Gama and others would open new worlds for discovery.
      So too, new worlds of the printed word would blossom. Things began to happen quickly... And, as we end our story here, there's no need to expand because the lettering styles and typefaces we've talked about in these pages set the basis for all times. Much of which we've talked about is still favored by designers and printers today. Even through the Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Dadist, Modern, and Bauhaus periods leading to the 1960s and the development of the computer, these early beginnings were and continue to be the driving force for all printed communications.

Thanks for reading...

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