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Here at Ferrebeekeeper we have reviewed all sorts of meanings of the word “Gothic”–From Gothic painting to Gothic literature to Gothic history to Gothic architecture, a review of the changing history of this word has taken us through thousands of years of western culture (and beyond).   Although this blog has described the Gothic alphabet created by Bishop Wulfila in order to proselytize to the Gothic tribes, the term Gothic has yet another meaning in the context of the Roman alphabet.

Black-letter book hand by Jacobus de Voragine, from his Legenda aurea, 1312; in the British Museum, London

From approximately 1150 to well into the 17th century, Blackletter script was widely used throughout Western Europe.  Renaissance humanists from 15th century Italy onward thought the various varieties of Blackletter script were barbaric and they called the fonts “Gothic” to belittle them as un-Roman and hence primitive (the Germans however did not suffer such prejudice and Blackletter–or Gothic–scripts are still used for writing and printing German).

Fraktur walbaum (a Fraktur script from the early 1800s)

The main Blackletter scripts were Schwabacher, Fraktur, , and, above all, Textualis (although typographers may disagree with me about this—and indeed about everything I am writing here).   Blackletter was developed in a world where ink made of bone soot was cheap but parchment was heavy and expensive.   Letters and Lettering by Frank Chouteau Brown describes the development of Blackletter as a pursuit of both beauty and practicality:

The original Gothic letter was a gradual outgrowth from the round Roman Uncial. Its early forms retained all the roundness of its Uncial parent; but as the advantages of a condensed form of letter for the saving of space became manifest, (parchment was expensive and bulky) and the beauty of the resulting blacker page was noticed, the round Gothic forms were written closer and narrower…until a form was evolved in which the black overbalanced the white–the Blackletter which still survives in the common German text of to-day. Thus, though a Gothic letter may not be a Blackletter, a Blackletter is always Gothic, because it is constructed upon Gothic lines.

Thus generations of medieval scholars, scribes, and copyists carefully transcribed the Roman classics by hand into Blackletter manuscripts.   When Guttenberg carved the font for his 42-line Bible (an original copy of which I saw last year at the Huntington) he chose Textualis as the most appropriate for the printed word of God.

A hand decorated page from a Guttenberg Bible (Huntington Library)

I find Blackletter fonts to be extremely beautiful (although I am disquieted by how quickly they edge towards illegibility).  Throughout this short article I have not attempted to provide any sort of true overview of the endless variety of Gothic fonts, but  I have attempted to include an overview of these extremely gorgeous alphabets.

A Scwabacher Script

There is one addendum to all of this.  Nobody seems able to stop calling things “Gothic” and of course contemporary typography designers were no exception.  Your word processing program probably has a variety of modern sans-serif typefaces named “something-something Gothic” (“Frankln Gothic being especially popular).  These scripts have nothing to do with Gothic Blackletters but instead  are a throwback to true classical Roman and Etruscan letters.  Unfortunately American publishers and designers called the new fonts “Gothic “since that was their term for German alphabets (and it was 19th century German designers who first introduced some of these letters).

Franklin Gothic Number 2 (Designed by Morris Fuller Benton between 1903-1912)

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

September 2021