The different font types

Previous note:

With our remembrance and thanks to Diego Alonso Montes, co-author of our book “La Miniatura Altomediecal Española” of which we publish this chapter.

Historical constraints

The fall of the Roman Empire meant not only a fracture of political unity, but also the end of a uniform culture. In this sense it is interesting to highlight the extensive production of manuscripts during the Low Empire, due to its high demand in the circuits of commerce. A sign of this demand is the standardization of calligraphic types, which by the fourth century had given rise to two main fonts: the calligraphed uncial, used preferably for codices, and to la  semiuncial, a small italic letter that was already used for letters and documents since the 3rd century, but not yet in codices.

Letra  Uncial.  Sacramentario de Metz

But already in the fifth century semi-uncial writing had become widespread, and its use lasted until the eighth century. With regard to the calligraphed uncial, it seems that since the seventh century it was reserved for titles. In that period the manuscripts no longer had the diffusion they had come to have in the Low Empire due to the commercial decadence, and they had become products of internal consumption for the monasteries and cathedral schools. This does not mean that they did not circulate, and in fact, it is testified that they lent or exchanged frequently, but only in the reduced scope of the Church.

The commonly used material was papyrus, which because of its great flexibility imposed the roll format, and although the manufacturing process was slow, obtaining the raw material was very cheap. Given the widespread culture under the Empire and the fluid trade with Egypt, the use of papyrus was much more widespread than parchment. But the Arabs conquered Egypt in the 7th century ending the main source of papyrus supply. And since the parchment was always in short supply, since both the obtaining of the skin and its preparation were very expensive, during the seventh and eighth centuries there was a shortage of materials, which could only be supplied by the inclusion of more text in the folios, for which the lowercase or italic (semi-uncial) script was very appropriate. In those centuries arose the so-called national writings (Visigoth, Merovingian, Germanic precaroline…), which were not really as stagnant as has been supposed, having interaction and reciprocal influence between them.

In the eighth century the Carolina script emerged, which recovers the old lowercase of the codices of the fourth-fifth centuries, more carefully and cleanly than the italics used in documents. It seems that this letter was promoted and perfected by the intellectuals who surrounded Charlemagne, such as Alcuin of York, Paul Deacon and Epinard, among others. This phenomenon should be observed as one more aspect of the Carolingian “renovatio” that not only sought the restitution of the political unity of the Empire, but also returned to the classical standards of culture. It was therefore a conscious creation to provide a unifying and diffusing element to Christian culture. And although it came to settle in France, Germany and northern Italy already in the 8th-9th centuries, it was not until the 11th century when it arrived in England, and in the 12th century in the north-western region of the Iberian Peninsula.

In fact, it was at the Council of León in 1080 that the cardinal who presided over the assembly ordered the Carolina to be adopted, influenced by the Cluniac monks. The last bastions of the Visigothic letter were Galicia and Portugal, where it remained during the 12th-13th centuries, as well as in the community of Andalusian Mozarabic, who used it; until the 14th century for obvious reasons. At the end of the twelfth century and as a derivation of the carolina appears the so-called gothic letter, which accuses the last tendencies of that, as a certain mannerism, together with the accentuation of the angles and the thickening of the strokes. These characteristics are the daughters of the “serial production” imposed by the libraries dependent on the new university centres. It is a less spontaneous writing, which responds to the need for uniformity of the new book trade. The Gothic letter reached its perfection in the 13th century and remained, generally, until the 15th century (in Italy), although still in the first half of the 16th century it was still used in France, and in Germany, England and Spain even longer.

Within the distinction between the writing used in books, heiress of the Roman lowercase through the carolina, and the cursive writing, used for documents, it is interesting to note that the latter gave rise to the letter albalaes (13th-15th centuries), the courtesan (XV-XVI centuries) and the procedural (XVI-XVII centuries), so that the documents ended up being reduced to the tradition. Since the fifteenth century, books have adopted, as a product of the new fashion, the humanistic letter, which is a translation of the carolina, so clear and readable.

Roman semiuncial letter

Letra Semiuncial. San Hilario de Poitiers (De Trinitate Liber Constantinum)

A possible origin has been noted in the colophons and marginal notes of books written with uncial letter. He did not get free from his humble condition and thus the uncial was followed; used for books of great category. Its character of widespread writing in the production of books did not go back to its origins in the third century, because it began being restricted to letters and documents, to be used in the fifth century as minuscule calligraphy, that is more careful than italics, round and vertical. In any case it was not constituted in official letter of the Church until the sixth century. It spread throughout Italy and southern France, and still reached England, possibly by the hand of Saint Augustine of Canterbury. The Roman semiuncial mixes the lowercase with the upper case, used these for the starting letters, being enlarged versions of the lowercase text or, in other cases, initials and rustic capitals. The abbreviations follow the same system of uncial writing, differentiating, however, from this one in that, initially the writing is continuous, although later an interval will be left. But ligatures are frequent, because of couples that can have continuity in their constitutive characters, being in any case recognizable the two letters. A margin letter is used for paragraph changes that indicates this, although sometimes simply.

The most pronounced tendency is to enlarge the interlinear space and in congruence with it, give a very artificial treatment to the ascending strokes. The letters have a rounded shape which does not prevent them from being opened at the beginning to be closed later.

Visigothic letter

Letra Visigótica: Códice de RodaIt has two forms: the italics of the documents, and the lowercase of the books, both daughters of the semiuncial. The first is recorded at the end of the Visigoth period on late slates and in marginal notes of codices and documents. Its validity in the documents is more limited than in the books, especially the religious ones, custodians of the tradition, and only in the Andalusian Mozarabic centers remains until the twelfth century and even there only for notes and additions. Minuscule Visigothic is in common use until the early 12th century in the northwest of the Peninsula, enduring longer in other circles.

The Visigoths will use the new Roman, as the ulfilan alphabet (associated with Bishop Ulfilas, who devised it to transcribe the Bible after the conversion of the Goths to Arianism in the fourth century) It was soon reduced to Arian religious documents until the conversion of Recaredo in 587. Mabillon (17th century) believed that the Visigoth had been the creation of the Visigoths, but it seems that his native script was the ulfilane which was an adaptation of the Greek with the addition of runic and Roman letters. Hence, the Visigoth letter was not an original idea and it also shows a strong Islamic influence since it developed mainly after the invasion. This is especially visible in the capital letters used as initials and in the titles, which are profusely.

The Visigoth script is easily legible, in part because the letters are separated by a space in white, although the ligatures are frequent between the “e” and the letter that follows, and also in the case of the preposition with its regime. The abbreviations form a characteristic system, foreign to that of other European writings, and its most visible repeating feature is the undulating superimposed line. The oblique line that cuts to the last line of a consonant indicates the lack of “um”, “ur”, etc. When the suspended line resembles the “s” and is placed as an exponent, it replaces “us” or in the case of the “q” to “that”. El mismo trazo hacia abajo sustituye a “is”. But what can lead to confusion, by the differential use of abbreviations, is the sign for “per”, which is the same as in other scriptures represents “pro”. Also the reduction of “qui” uses the sign that others use for “quod”.

Carolina letter

Letra carolina. Beato de Las HuelgasIts origin is much discussed, and while some authors place it in Italy or Rome and others in France, some believe that the letter carolina is not the fruit of a particular center, but of a vast cultural movement, although it is not surprising that the letter carolina arrived in the tenth century to Catalonia given the establishment of the Hispanic Brand by the Carolingian Empire. But a writing that became common throughout Western Europe, could not be entirely homogeneous, and thus is spoken of the north and the south carolina, the latter very influenced by the Italian school. The success of the carolina was due to the easy readability it offered, with round, open, clear-drawn letters, with a small body compared to the splinters that came out much of the text box. In addition the letters did not stick to each other, generating few ligatures. Among the abbreviations, few, the most characteristic was the elimination of the m represented by means of a horizontal stroke on the vowel. The interline space was large. But over time the letter becomes less regular, almost since the 10th century, with the ascendants leaning to the right. In the following century these strokes end in the form of a gallows, and by the 12th century the letters become more angular and closer to each other, losing the text clarity.


Gothic letter

Carolina transición a la Gótica. Beato de LorvaoSo called by the Italian humanists, in reference to a non-Roman and therefore barbaric letter. Her contemporaries referred to her as modern writing, as opposed to ancient Roman. Its implantation occurred during the thirteenth century, although already in the twelfth century there are manuscripts in Gothic script produced in France, and remained, generally, until the fifteenth century. It is classified according to formal criteria for writing books and italics, but regional types can also be entered. Thus the Italian Gothic, tends to be round and easily legible, while the German has broken lines and fine terminals.

From the general context in which it arises, we have already pointed out that it is when the network of universities reintroduces the book trade. But two conditions must be added, such as the search for the economy of the folio, which is achieved with the multiplication of abbreviations, the reduction of the astiles, with descending strokes and the contraction of the letter. Second, the pen tends to be cut, obliquely to the left, then the horizontal and vertical stroke is characteristic, thick and the oblique fine and faint.The characteristic letter is the high “s” for the initial letters or the intermediate letters, having the ending a form similar to an 8. In addition it is with this letter that you begin to differentiate some characters that were previously confused, such as the “u” vowel and the “v” consonant, or “j” and “i”, in addition to entering in the alphabet the “w” and the “z”. Regarding the letter “i” there is a tendency to mark it with something similar to the point of our days. Finally, the clear differentiation between upper and lower case alphabets is also important.