I can’t read this!

The banality of Gothic. Widespread, though very difficult to read, almost every word is abbreviated. This is a German manuscript from the 14th century written in letters which would’ve been very familiar to Petrarch (Basel, Universitätsbibliothek / B IV 8)

In one of his letters, the 14th-century Italian poet and proto-humanist Petrarch complained that he found it hard to read the Gothic writing of the manuscripts of his generation. His grievance was not against some local scribes whose handwriting made reading slow and painful. Petrarch articulated an objection against the evolution of Latin script towards illegibility, just like he had previously described the period between the fall of Rome and his own time – our ‘Middle Ages’ – as ‘surrounded by darkness and dense gloom’.

Any book script is a reflection of its own age. According to Petrarch, the ‘Dark Ages’ had produced illegible writing, not ‘neat and clear letters’ (littera castigata et clara), as he would have hoped to find in the manuscripts with which he surrounded himself.

Petrarch lived at a time when book letters (or hands) had never been more uniform across the Latin West. The dominant type of letters in circulation was what he now refer to as Gothic script, and which though easily recognisable as ‘Gothic’ from as far away as the Moon, the letters were – and still are – incredibly difficult to read. The letters were packed together tightly, the space between them was minimal and they were heavily abbreviated according to ‘codes’ which were becoming increasingly more labyrinthine. All in the name of space saving.

But Petrarch didn’t care about economics. His point was simple: books need letters which are easy to read, instantly ‘decodable’ and, above all, beautiful – and beauty was a function of legibility. He and later generations of humanists found the letters they were looking for in old manuscripts that they had set out to rescue from destruction and oblivion. Inspired by Petrarch, the humanists’ mission was to recover the writings of classical antiquity preserved in manuscripts which had fallen out of circulation and were languishing in European monasteries. The oldest books they were hoping to find had been copied in the 9th and 10th centuries. The irony is that these manuscripts were themselves ‘medieval’, the letters having been developed during the period known to us – and not to Petrarch or later humanists – as the Carolingian Renaissance. The letters the humanists thought Roman, were in fact medieval, dark-agey. That Petrarch and his book-hunters never knew this spared them a lot of anxiety and disappointment.

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