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Typography

The pages of the earliest European printed books in the decades after 1450 can hardly be distinguished from contemporary manuscripts, where the form and functions of books had been established. This was not a matter of printers trying to disguise their wares: script and print 'were, simply, ways of making books'.1

Printers composed text from cast metal type, each piece (or sort) bearing a character in relief. They set up all the type needed to print a sheet in a body called a form, which they could then ink and press, usually to paper. Early type fonts were modelled on the scripts familiar to different local and occupational readerships: a complicated variety of hands can be broadly divided into the angular, dense gothic (also called black letter or textura), descended from the script reformed under Charlemagne from 789 CE, the rounded roman (also called antiqua) conceived as a return to the script as first reformed, and the less formal cursive varieties of both.

These fonts were designed to reproduce the abbreviations, ligatures (tied letters), and variations between letters in different positions found in contemporary scripts, such that Johannes Gutenberg's first font comprised around 300 distinct types. However the complexity of type manufacture – each type at each size had to be cast in lead alloy, from a brass or copper matrix, made with a punch cut in steel – forced 'a rapid simplification of script forms'2 in which these features were largely abandoned in favour of independent, uniform letters.

Some elements of the page were not at first typeset: the pen remained 'an assumed part of the production process',3 being used to add for example headings, initials, catchwords, signatures, numbering, and colour (called rubrication, since red was used principally). In the pursuit of economy, most of these elements were incorporated into the printer's form from the 1490s.

The printing process could not, however, practically accommodate the colour that decorated and organized the manuscript page. To reset each page and reprint it with accurate registration in another ink was difficult and expensive, and 'after 1500 colour disappeared'.4 Instead printers drew on their enhanced control of space, using blank space and variations in type size and font 'to highlight divisions in the text and guide the reader's eye'.5

The new art might be practised within strict confines: the printers of 'books of information' (understood to mean cheap staples such as almanacs, calendars, and catechisms) would save on paper stocks by 'narrowing the spaces between lines and the margins between columns' so that they could '[pack] more words on a page'.6 Nevertheless the broad tendency from 1500 was for a 'whitening' of the page, as printers increasingly used roman instead of heavier gothic fonts and began to organize texts into paragraphs:7 the book historian Henri-Jean Martin sees the latter innovation as 'the definitive triumph of white space over black type'.8


1. David McKitterick, Print, Manuscript, and the Search for Order, 1450–1830 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 36. 2. Lotte Hellinga, William Caxton and Early Printing in England (London: British Library, 2010), 48. 3. McKitterick, Print, Manuscript, 33. 4. Ann Blair, 'Managing Information,' in The Oxford Illustrated History of the Book, ed. James Raven (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 179. 5. Blair, 'Information', 179. 6. Blair, 'Information', 179. 7. Multigraph Collective, Interacting with Print (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 261. 8. Henri-Jean Martin, The History and Power of Writing (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 329, cited in Multigraph Collective, Interacting, 261.