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Gothic Textualis: Paleography

Section 1: Historical Overview

In the course of the twelfth century, a cluster of changes in the proportions and ductus of Caroline Minuscule gradually transforms the script into Gothic Textualis, the script popularly known as “blackletter.” The changes in script go along with a group of changes in page layout, some of which are aesthetic and some functional.

9th-century Carolingian manuscript

St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Sang. 152, p. 1.

Early-12th century Protogothic manuscript

Walters Art Museum, W.18, f. 11v.
© 2011 Walters Art Museum,
used under a CC BY-SA license.

Late-13th/early-14th century Gothic manuscript

HMML, Bethune Breviary, MS 2, f. 7r.
Used under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license.

“Textualis” means, simply, “bookish.” It is the term applied by modern paleographers to the dense, angular script used in the common book culture of northwestern Europe from the twelfth century to the end of the Middle Ages and beyond. We call it “Gothic” by tradition and because of its association with the broader developments in art and design known to modern scholars as Gothic.

The period of the emergence of Textualis is the period of the rise of the universities, beginning in the first half of the twelfth century, when book production moved, at least in part, from the monasteries to professional scribes and booksellers serving the needs of university scholars. Books increased both in kind and in sheer numbers in this period. Textualis is found in many different grades in books with many different kinds of layouts, according to the demands of the texts and commentaries they contained, and the needs of the ever-increasing population of readers.

In this lesson, we examine the letterforms and layout features that mark the transition from the Carolingian to the Gothic book aesthetic and identify the features common to fully-developed Gothic Textualis. [Note: To read more about the many varieties of Textualis as practiced in the High Middle Ages and to learn how they are classified, see Albert Derolez, The Palaeography of Gothic Manuscript Books (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).]