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Black-letter style: 11th - 15th century

In the later Middle Ages, the clarity of the Carolingian script becomes lost. A much darker and denser style evolves in northern Europe from the 11th century. It is known as 'black letter', because of the almost oppressive weight of dark ink on each densely packed page.

This medieval style derives partly from an aesthetic impulse (there is drama in dark pen strokes and in the angular ends left by a broad nib), but it is above all a matter of economy. Parchment is expensive. Books are much in demand, particularly with the growth of universities. If the letters in a word and the words in a sentence are squashed more closely together, less pages are used and the book is cheaper.

The black-letter style is the convention in German manuscripts when printing is developed there in the 1450s. It therefore becomes the type face used for the earliest European printed books, such as Gutenberg's Bible. Angular letters of this kind remain the normal convention in German books until the early 20th century.

But within the first century of printing there is a reaction in Italy against this heavy style. Italian humanists of the Renaissance associate it with all that they consider dark and barbarous about the Middle Ages. Like medieval architecture, it is given the dismissive name of Gothic.

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