One of the greatest delights of hunting for typography in Berlin – as opposed to, say, in Paris or Los Angeles – is the presence of two very different typographic traditions belonging to the same language. Alongside the familiar Roman characters common throughout Western Europe, the parallel tradition of Blackletter continues to play a defining role in the urban spaces of Germany.
Roman and Blackletter are both designed to express the Latin alphabet; for the purposes of the German language, this means upper- and lower-case versions of the thirty standard characters, the twenty-six letters, plus ä, ö, ü and ß (Blackletter also features the long-S, which was once a feature of Roman types but has since fallen out of use). Yet both styles have their own distinctive letterforms and their own particular rules; you would never mistake one for the other.
So where did these two different styles come from, and how did they come to co-exist in Germany even as Roman type became dominant throughout the rest of Europe? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the story is vast and complicated. What follows is a highly reduced version, with apologies in advance for the glaring omissions which must inevitably occur when one attempts to condense such a temporally far-ranging narrative into the span of a single blog post.
The story begins in the time of Charlemagne. When the King of the Franks became ruler of the newly unified Holy Roman empire at the dawn of the ninth century, he ushered in a notable period of intellectual rebirth in western Europe. One of the side-effects of this increase in scholarly activity was the development of a new handwritten script, known to modern palaeographers as Carolingian minuscule.
Although Carolingian minuscule spread quickly throughout the Holy Roman empire and was the dominant script for more than three centuries, it was not immune to regional influence. In parts of northern Europe, the letter forms soon grew less rounded and more rigid. By the twelfth century, a script now known as textura (also known as Gothic textura, or simply gothic script) had become prevalent in German-speaking lands.
It is around the same time (the late twelfth and early thirteenth century) that the earliest surviving works of Middle High German – the Nibelungenlied, the Parzival of Wolfram von Eschenbach, and the poems of Walther von der Vogelweide – were initially composed. While the gothic scripts of northern Europe had been used primarily for Latin texts, they became forever bound – if only by chronological chance – to the birth of German literature.
The gothic scripts that developed in the Italian peninsula never achieved the compression and rigidity of their northern European counterparts and, by the end of the fourteenth century, had been largely supplanted by humanistic script, which drew its inspiration directly from the clear, rounded forms of Carolingian minuscule.
Only half a century later, the advent of movable type in Europe effectively brought the development of handwritten scripts to a sudden halt. When Gutenberg first applied his method of metal-type printing to the bible, his letters attempted to imitate the highly compressed (and ligature-heavy) textura of the northern European scribes. Printers in Italy, on the other hand, created what they believed to be a ‘classical’ alphabet, supplementing the humanistic minuscule with an upper case drawn from ancient Roman inscriptions.
Although the resulting ‘Roman’ typography spread quickly throughout Europe, the subsequent development of Blackletter remained confined largely to the German-speaking world; and while Roman letterforms would experience a series of striking transformations in the coming centuries – embracing hairline serifs and approaches to shading which would have been almost impossible with a pen – Blackletter, for all its variety, tended to follow more closely the rules dictated by its calligraphic origins.
Blackletter typography – of which Fraktur became the most common variant – maintained an uneasy relationship with its Roman counterpart. It was not unusual for German printed books to include foreign words in Roman characters, nor was it unheard of for German printers to set an entire foreign-language book in Roman type. Yet Blackletter remained the standard for the German language: Otto von Bismarck famously refused to read any German book which had been set in Roman letters.
In the early days of the National Socialist era, Blackletter was encouraged due to its perceived association with German language and culture; but before long it was erroneously determined – apparently without consulting a single tome of palaeographic history – that the Gothic scripts of northern Europe had originated from ‘Schwabach Jew Letters’ and thus had no place in the Third Reich. Blackletter was officially banned in 1941.
That probably should have been the end of the story … yet Blackletter, in its various forms, has persisted. It may no longer be used for the typesetting of books, but it can still be found throughout the city. There are, of course, numerous historical examples that survived the twentieth century mostly intact, some carved in stone or painted on old signs; but there are also plenty of modern examples to be found.
At its worst the use of Blackletter can come dangerously close to pastiche, and there are certainly no few instances which betray a lack of understanding regarding basic calligraphic principles. Yet the best examples offer an understated elegance and a marked sense of place that Roman forms could never achieve. New variants on old Blackletter faces have been used successfully in street signs and on train platforms to convey a sense of historical continuity; and in a world of increasing typographic homogeneity, Blackletter can offer a welcome flourish of the vernacular.
It is difficult to imagine that Blackletter will ever return to the prominence it enjoyed between the sixteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Yet as we become attuned to its delightful peculiarities of form, and come into contact with its myriad contributions to the city, we are left with the hope that it will never die out entirely.
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