Gothic Textura Quadrata

In Gothic Textura Quadrata the individual letter design has become wholly subservient to the design of the word; particularity is subsumed in the “weaving” together of the letters, as suggested by the word “textura,” which is echoed in the modern Italian word “tessitura,” meaning precisely that. This is true oftentimes to such an extent that the individual minims, proceeding one after another in a endless marching line, are the only discernible characteristic when an example of the script is glanced at swiftly. The compelling need, brought about by the blossoming of universities, for speed and the economizing of space with regard to the mise-en-page led to the compressing and alteration of the Carolingian style in this manner; rather than shortening the height of the letters in order to get more lines on each page, and using a narrower pen point, scribes chose to keep the height and narrow the letter width. This was an unaccountably arbitrary choice.

Some of the characteristics of initial Gothic writing that are carried forward into the elaborate and intricate textura period are the tucked-back leg of the “x”, the “biting” or touching of bowed letters, the narrowness (sometimes quite extreme) of letter shapes, and occasionally split ascenders.

By the end of the twelfth century, angularity and uniformity of line were dominant and constituted the most visually arresting elements of the Gothic style. This period is referred to as the High Gothic, or sometimes simply as “textura,” and in some extraordinarily ornate examples of this writing style, any distinct identifying characteristics of a letter are only to be found in the upper half; the result of this is that the uniformity of the lower halves of the letters imparts a pleasing pattern to the entire word. It would be possible to cover the lower half and simply read the line by looking at the tops of the letters; such a calligraphic element to the script is a clear indication, of course, that scribes have taken it well beyond its very functional beginnings as a speedy and space-economizing mode of writing.

There are two basic types of textura, those with feet and those without feet. Distinguishing between Gothic Textura Quadrata, possessed of feet, and Gothic Textura Prescisus vel sine Pedibus, which did not have them (as the name, translated from Latin, would suggest), is one way of nominally making the categorization; however, basic statements like this can always be challenged (even if this one in particular is fairly widely accepted), and in fact there are innumerable and endlessly contested names for the various types, patterns and modes of Gothic writing, textura and otherwise; some names are lettre de forme, fraktur, blackletter, littera gothica cursiva anglicana documentaria media, and so on to sometimes Byzantine effect, as demonstrated by the last example. There are a number of qualities that can be pointed out across all these types that will aid the student in identifying examples of this mode of writing: the dash-based precursor of our modern dotted “i”; German hooking of the “u” to distinguish it from the “n” as a result of the sustained optical terror of the minims (the same situation gave rise to the just-mentioned practice of “dashing” the “i”); the space between vertical strokes being exactly the same width as the vertical minims, as well as the space between words being twice that; the conjoining and precise overlapping of letters (for example: oc, be, bo, po, og); the closing of the lower loop of “g”; the permanent addition of the letters “w,” “y,” and “z” to the Latin alphabet; the acquisition by “t” of a pointed top; ,the usage of the half-“r” and the uncial “d”; the appearance of “u” as “v” at the beginnings of words while the bowled form was kept in central positionings of the letter, even within the same word; the proliferation of the long “s” at the beginnings and in the middle sections of words, and the concomitant usage of the 8-shaped “s” at the ends; the usage throughout northern Europe and the British Isles of the ligature for st, while at the same time that for “ae” disappeared and those for “et” and “ct” become increasingly more rare; and the usage of punctuation such as the question mark, dashes to indicate split words at line ends, the punctus elevatus and the raised punctus.

In the Gothic period as well the development of what are called “versals” is worth noting. These capital letter forms, as might be expected, have their roots in the Carolingian period, from which the Gothic script style itself developed. They are used at the headings of lines and paragraphs and very often employ Roman Square Capital, Roman Rustic, or Uncial, exaggerating the serifs and round strokes (sometimes to such an extent that the open spaces would be closed off by extended serifs) as well as attenuating the vertical strokes. The development of these capitals progressed to a sometimes quite containedly elaborate extent as the Carolingian period evolved through the Romanesque and into the Gothic period. Sometimes the enclosed areas created by the extended serifs were filled in with pen decorations, and other decorations were used to develop the outer shape of the versals; these outer decorations occasionally expanded linearly up and down the left margin of the page.

Gothic textura quadrata script (France, 15th century)
From New Palaeographical Society 1905
(Source: gothictexturaquadrata3.jpg
Rubbing of an inscription on a funerary brass of 1460 in Bishop Burton church, Yorkshire.
Textura prescissa as displayed in the 14th century Luttrell Psalter, now in the British Library. (From New Palaeographical Society 1904)
Page from a fourteenth century Psalter (Vulgate Psalms 93:16-21)
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