Survival of the fittest script

Unless you’re a palaeographer or a printer, chances are you won’t care too much about the kind of script being used. As long as it’s legible.

History will tell you that writing, like animal species, evolves in time. Some species die, while others endure. There is a lot of transformation, adaptation and struggle for survival.

Script forms, like writing itself, didn’t fall down from heaven. There is no chirographical deity showering down letterforms. Even those cultures, like the ancient Greeks, who came up with myths about the origin of writing were indiferent to the letter forms used. Script is a natural phenomenon, subject to natural laws.

We no longer live in the formative period of Western writing. We’ve outgrown the troubled centuries of scriptural evolution. With print and electronic media, we seem to have achieved stasis. And also apparent permanence.

But it hasn’t always been the case. The period between the 4th to the 9th century was, for Europe at least, a scriptural struggle. Multiple letter forms co-existed, creating opportunities as well as inconveniences for those things which writing promotes: communication, exchange, intelligibility. The political landscape of the post-Roman West, precarious and fragmented, had a corresponding scriptural situation. There were many types of writing struggling to achieve dominance, to beat other forms and become the gold standard of written communication and record. It was only in around the 8th century that a particular kind of script seemed to take over other types. It had the backing of a powerful state, no less an empire.

The legacy of Emperor Charlemagne was the victory of one letter form over many competing ones. The so-called Caroline minuscule, from which our modern letter forms derive, was the result of quest for survival. Survival of the fittest script. The letter forms developed in the Carolingian centres of learning ā€“ court, cathedrals and abbeys ā€“ were engineered with one purpose in mind: to making writing better. To standardise script so that it can be used widely, with maximum legibility and minimum friction. In that, it succeeded. It survived because it was the fittest for purpose. And in so doing, it drove out most other forms.

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