From Blackletter to Roman

Does the way a Bible looks influence the way we read it? Does the font a Bible is printed in matter?

I think so. I mean, imagine if someone gave you a resume written in Comic Sans as opposed to Times New Roman or Arial or one those professional-looking fonts. You’d probably think that person was crazy, unless he/she was applying for a babysitting job. This is kind of the same thing. Typography is never neutral; it adds another layer to the text, affecting the reader’s response by either enhancing or dampening the intended message. Whether intentional or not, typographical design decisions inform the reading experience by influencing the way the reader interprets what he/she is reading. These design decisions don’t necessarily represent an intent to persuade readers of anything, but rather an attempt to accurately reflect the content of the text and to evoke particular feels – of authority, of distinction, of exaltedness – through the use of different typefaces. For the sake of this post, I’m gonna focus on the different feels brought on by the use of blackletter and roman types in English-language Bibles. Because I like studying Bibles.

First things first.

What is blackletter? The term “blackletter” encompasses textualis (Textura), bastarda, rotunda, Swabacher, and Fraktur typefaces, among others, although people tend to focus on primarily on the use of Fraktur in Germany. Because it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between the different kinds of blackletter, I won’t differentiate between them here. Also, note that if you choose to look further into blackletter types, you’ll quickly find out that many people call blackletter “Gothic.” That’s fine, although there are some that insist that the two terms mean different things. I use the terms interchangeably.

For a long time, blackletter was used throughout Europe for everything from textbooks to church books. However, roman came in and eventually became the font-of-choice. (Although we still use blackletter fonts today, for things like newspaper mastheads, to imply a sense of antiquity and tradition, as well as a sense of authority. They are big and bold for impact.)

The New York Times
A prime example of contemporary blackletter use.

The shift from blackletter to roman didn’t happen overnight, and Shaw and Bain believe that this is because blackletter and roman types represented more prominent contradictory social binaries, such as “medievalism vs. modernity… German Romanticism vs. the French Enlightenment, the authority of the state vs. personal liberty and popular sovereignty… [and] mysticism vs. rationality,” respectively. That is, blackletter represented traditional dominance of the Church, while roman represented individual interpretation of religious texts.

But where did this “individual interpretation” thing come from? Cue Luther.

Martin Luther, lookin’ foxy.

Martin Luther suggested that all Christians were capable of reading and interpreting the Bible for themselves. So, quite radically, Luther translated the Bible into his vernacular, German. Let’s get one thing straight, though – vernacular Bibles were unusual, as the Church didn’t like them very much. There’s a whole (super interesting) history of the quest for a lasting vernacular Bible, but this post isn’t the place for it – I’ll touch on it another time. For now, all you need to know is that the gradual shift away from Latin Bibles mirrored a pretty significant shift away from the centralized regulation of the Church in Medieval Christian Europe, and ultimately a shift towards humanism as the Bible became more accessible to regular folk. The typography of Bibles from this time reflected this shift as it became less ornate and more legible according to our contemporary standards.

As with any shift, there was a fair bit of overlap when roman started to replace blackletter. For example the first King James Bible (printed by Robert Barker in 1611) distinguishes sacred text from that of human interpretation, such as chapter summaries and marginalia, through blackletter type. This is the kind of thing that Shaw and Bain talk about; blackletter seemed to reflect hesitancy to alter anything associated with religious tradition. So, although the KJB was for the common people, the perceived power of the Church (and of religion) was retained through the use of blackletter because blackletter evoked a particular feel of religious authority. This wasn’t necessarily done in attempts to persuade audiences of anything. Rather, printers may have felt a religious obligation to depict what they perceived to be Holy words.

In contrast to the 1611 publication of the King James Bible, Isaiah Thomas’ 1791 Bible does not distinguish between the voices of God and the writers by using different fonts – it’s printed entirely in roman. This may be a reflection of the refined ideals of the Enlightenment, as to present the entire text as uniformed implies that God’s words and the writers’ words are equal.

To counter this feel of equality, some printers employed means to distinguish God’s words by accentuating text, visually indicating to the reader that the highlighted passages were especially valuable. This is still done today (in red letter Bibles, for example). In distinguishing God’s or Jesus’ words, the reader recognizes that the highlighted passages are potentially more significant.

Broadly speaking, modern typefaces emphasize clarity while old typefaces emphasized beauty. It’s functionality versus funkiness. Growing humanist interest lay in simplicity of communication as opposed to ornamentation of text. In the shift to humanism, the content of the text was increasingly considered to be of greater importance than the text’s appearance, and readers seemed willing to sacrifice aesthetic appeal for affordability and legibility, thereby supporting the shift to roman.

Now people seem to prefer roman to blackletter; when used as type for entire texts, blackletter has been described as “dark, cramped, angular, and fussy,” while roman is often described as “simple, rational, balanced, and graceful,” and more legible. However, Philipp Luidl, a German, challenges this by asserting that traditional blackletter has a more distinctive profile than roman due to its greater richness and more frequent use of ascenders and descenders, thus making it more legible. But, really, we read best what we read most. By this I mean that familiarity with a particular typeface prompts ease of reading. Because in Germany all official printed matter, school textbooks, and newspapers were set in Fraktur until 1941, Luidl probably does find blackletter more legible than roman because he’s so used to it. Similarly, most of our books are now printed in roman, so we’ve grown accustomed to reading things in roman. That’s just how it is. I mean, if someone handed me a Harry Potter novel printed in blackletter, I’d probably take the book and smack them with it.

A beautiful image of Nicolas Jenson's first roman type, courtesy of Typophile.
A beautiful image of Nicolas Jenson’s first roman type, courtesy of Typophile.

So we’ve started to address the pretty important role of book producers in this. After all, our preference for roman isn’t all about social attitudes; technological developments occur alongside changes in social attitudes and have to be considered when examining changes in typography. For the sake of considering the multi-faceted aspects of this discussion, I’ll briefly sum them up here. In regards to written texts, the shift from the use of brushes to steel nib pens led to a shift away from calligraphic- to increasingly mechanically-styled writing, as steel nib pens create more sharply-defined lines. A finer-pointed writing instrument than the brush, the pen is able to illustrate finer details of one’s writing and, depending on the flexibility of the nib and the expertise of its user, a pen can produce lines of varying width. In regards to printed texts, blackletter was probably used for incunabula and early printed books because it was the font-of-choice for manuscripts of the time. However, because one could fit more roman letters than blackletter letters on a page (when printed, that is – when blackletter is written out, one can save a lot of space by using abbreviations and ligatures), roman type was considered more efficient. Thus, as the printing press drove rapid and more profitable publication, the shift from blackletter to roman type was a logical extension of capitalist drive. Simplified fonts led to increased profits. However, because the Word of God was still considered important, printers had to look for other ways to distinguish it, which is why we have red letter Bibles. So we can’t forget about technological developments when we consider typography. We just can’t.

On a grand scale, the transition from blackletter to roman not only appears to represent a shift derived from technology, but also a shift from the authority of the Church towards individualism. Typography impacts interpretations, and interpretations impact typography. Different typefaces may inform Bible readers’ experiences differently, ultimately resulting in different interpretations of a similar text.

Want my bibliography? Send me an email! I’ve chosen not to include it here to avoid intellectual theft. Because my work is, you know, valuable.

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