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« Dictionary Index « Definitions under B

Black Letter

Black letter is the name now applied to the Old English or Modern Gothic character, which was introduced into England about the middle of the fourteenth century, and became the character generally used in manuscript works before the art of printing was publicly practised in Europe. On the application of that art to the multiplying of books, about the middle of the fifteenth century, the Block Books, and, subsequently, those printed with moveable types, were in this letter, to imitate writing, and were disposed off as manuscripts.

When the first William Caslon commenced the business of type founding he made great improvements in their shape, and his Gothic or black letter remains unequalled, viewing it as an imitation of ancient writing, the purest shape for the character originally intended for a counterfeit manuscript. I am sorry to see our present founders giving way to a barbarous caprice of fancy, by introducing arbitrary shapes, which were unknown to our ancestors when this character was in general use; for it appears inconsistent to call the following Letters Old English, or Gothic, Black letters

The Alphabet

Black letter alphabet

Astle, in his Origin and Progress of Writing, says, “The Modern Gothic, which spread itself all over Europe in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, is improperly so called, because it does not derive its origin from the writing anciently used by the Goths and Visigoths, in Italy and Spain, but this Modern Gothic is the most barbarous or worst kind of writing; it took its rise in the decline of the arts, among the lazy schoolmen, who had the worst taste; it is nothing more than the Latin writing degenerated.

This writing began in the twelfth century, and was in general use (especially among monks and schoolmen) in all parts of Europe, till the restoration of the arts, in the fifteenth century, and longer in Germany and the northern nations: Our statute books are still printed in Gothic letters.” Astle's work was published in 1784.

Blacks in the British Founderies

  • Ten Line Pica. —— Caslon.
  • Five Line Pica. —— Caslon.
  • Four Line Pica. —— Caslon.
  • Two Line Double Pica. —— Caslon.
  • Two Line Great Primer. —— Caslon. Wilson.
  • Two Line English. —— Caslon.
  • Double Pica. —— Caslon. Figgins. Wilson.
  • Great Primer. —— Caslon. Figgins. Wilson.
  • English. —— Caslon. Thorowgood & Besley, formerly Wolf's. Figgins. Wilson.
  • Pica. —— Caslon. Thorowgood & Besley. Caxton. Figgins. Wilson.
  • Small Pica. —— Caslon.
  • Long Primer. —— Caslon. Thorowgood & Besley. Figgins. Wilson.
  • Bourgeois. —— Caslon.
  • Brevier. —— Caslon. Wilson.
  • Nonpareil. — Caslon. Wilson.

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