Latin Paleography From Antiquity to the Renaissance [by A. M. Piazzoni]

16.1 Birth and characteristics of the gothic writing

Today we define this as the Gothic script; contemporaries of the script called it littera textualis and in the 14th century there arose a littera moderna in contrast to the littera antiqua which was the Caroline of the previous centuries. In the 15th century, Italian humanists used the Gothic term in a derogatory sense to refer to early medieval scripts such as Merovingian and Beneventan, and in the following century, the name was also applied to littera moderna, which was no longer modern.

The first examples of the use of the pen cut on the left, as well as the transformations it triggered, are located in the area of ​​Northern France and Southern England. Paleographers have given various interpretations: Olga Dobiache-Rojdestvensky (Dobiache-Rojdestvensky, Quelques), sustains that Gothic is derived from Beneventan (through contacts between the Normans of Normandy and those of Puglia) due to the common characteristics of broken writing (brisée); Luigi Schiaparelli (Schiaparelli, Note) demonstrated that the tracing of the strokes is different because Gothic is characterized by curves and Beneventan by shafts; Jacques Boussard (Boussard, Influences) pointed out that this type of pen, and broken writing, was already in use in the 11th century in insular monasteries and it is from here that the origins of Gothic may be found. The prevailing hypothesis, however, and the one that is most supported in scholarship is that Gothic is a direct derivation of Caroline.

The shape of the letters remains that of Caroline, but is nevertheless executed with a different technique, due precisely to the use of the pen cut on the left. The result is a much more compact and heavier script, apparently far from the lightness and the airiness of Caroline. Although many variations developed over time and in the different European regions, the graphic style of Gothic maintains some constant general characteristics:

  • angularity and broken aspect of the curves;
  • tight and narrow appearance of writing on the line, with letters written very close to each other and with lines also very close;
  • small development of the top of the shafts and brevity of the few at the bottom;
  • uniform flow of the lower strokes that rest on the baseline, with a lengthened endstroke or dash turning to the right;
  • some other features such as: the simple e in place of the diphthong ae/oe, use of thin serifs on the i, a high number of abbreviations.

Other special features include:

  • use of majuscule s (instead of high) at the end of the word;
  • use of high v at the beginning of the word;
  • use of ç (c with cedilla) for the z;frequent use of the sign C conversum (a kind of inverted c) for con/cum;
  • use (ordinary from the second half of the 12th century) of q2 per quia;
  • particular majuscule alphabet (exaggerated forms with increased dimensions and duplication of stokes from the Uncial alphabet and some elements of Capital script).
Alfabeto gotica (
Gothic alphabet (Vat. lat. 588)

In order to recognize the Gothic script, W. Meyer (Meyer, Die Buchstaben) specified three rules, which are always respected in the most formal and rigorous examples of this type of writing):

  • after all the letters that end with a convex curve to the right (e.g. o), we do not use the lowercase straight r, but “round” r, or r rotunda, made in the form of a 2 (e.g. or, formed by a fusion of the O and R Capital letters, already present in late Caroline);
  • if a letter ends with a convex curve to the right (o) and the following letter begins with a convex curve to the left (e.g. c), these two curves are not executed separately but overlap by merging one on top of the other (known as “biting” e.g. bo);
  • the d has two forms: the ascender is curved to the left (like in Uncial) when followed by a letter with a bow (e.g. a, o, e); and d with a straight or vertical shaft (lowercase type), before straight letters (e.g. u).

S. Zamponi (Zamponi, Elisione) has added a fourth rule:

  • “Elision”: when the last stroke of a letter finishes at the headline and the following letter has an approach stroke that is also at the headline, these two strokes “elide”, that is, one is eliminated.