culture, history

A Brief History of Fraktur

𝕻𝖔𝖕 π––π–šπ–Žπ–Ÿ: π–œπ–π–†π–™ π–Žπ–˜ π–™π–π–Š π–“π–†π–’π–Š 𝖔𝖋 π–™π–π–Žπ–˜ 𝖋𝖔𝖓𝖙?

At first glance, many folks in the English-speaking world would probably call it “Old English,” but that name isn’t really accurateβ€”the Old English language predates this style by a few centuries, and the calligraphic hands used to write Old English were entirely different. Its real name is Fraktur, a style of handwriting and typeface with a long and interesting history.

Fraktur is part of the blackletter family, a variety of scripts used throughout Europe beginning sometime in the middle ages. There are various claims as to blackletter’s precise origins. Italian historian Flavio Biondo claimed in 1474 that the Germanic Lombards living in Italy had invented the style as early as the sixth century. While blackletter is strongly associated with Germanic cultures, most German-speaking regions were relatively late to adopt it. But regardless of when blackletter was invented or by whom, its widespread use started to decline sometime in the 1600sβ€”at least outside of Germany.

Around the beginning of the sixteenth century, Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I commissioned the creation of a new font for book printing. Existing German typefaces were either unattractive or difficult to read. The resulting designed by calligrapher Leonhard Wagner was called Fraktur, a typeface more elegant than its predecessors while still being recognizably “German” in character.

A German copy of the Iliad, printed in 1789

Fraktur rapidly surpassed other typefaces for popular printing, in part thanks to large amounts of printed materials distributed during the Reformation. While most other European countries shifted toward clean and legible Antiqua-style fonts, Fraktur became more ingrained in German cultural identity, with its use continuing well into the twentieth century.

Still, holding its mantle wasn’t without challenges. The Antiqua-Fraktur dispute divided nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany. While more modern typefaces like Antiqua had strong associations with Latin and Catholicism, they were also both easier to print and easier to read than the bold and blockish Fraktur. Amidst a growing desire in the nineteenth century for a unified German language and culture, the importance of a distinct German typeface was hotly debated. Works for the common folk continued to be printed in Fraktur; high-brow intellectual and scientific works shifted toward modernized fonts.

A copy of a Karl May novel printed in the 1950s

Eventually, use of Fraktur did begin to decline. Beginning in the early 1900s, many Germans came to be more accepting of external influence, and by the mid-century, the German people had shifted away from Fraktur. Today, it is scarcely used in Germany outside of beer labels and and signs for small-town bed and breakfasts.

Although many modern Germans associate Fraktur with nationalism, it was far from the most popular typeface in nationalist circles. The decidedly nationalist Gebrochene Grotesk (“Broken Grotesque” or “Broken Gothic”) fonts did have their origins in blackletter, but the use of Fraktur itself was actually banned by the Nazi party in 1941, as was the earlier Schwabacher style. Both typefaces were accused of being Jewish in origin, and therefore unacceptable as a German typeface, though there is no actual evidence of either style having a Jewish background. In actuality, the decision might have had something to do with the people of occupied nations struggling to read Fraktur.

Various attempts have been made to revive Fraktur and restore its tainted reputation. While generally an acceptable font outside of the German-speaking world, it remains controversial in Germany. Many wish to do away with the font entirely. Although it is unlikely that Fraktur would ever find widespread use againβ€”it is bulky to print and often difficult for the untrained eye to readβ€”there are many proponents of using the font for decorative or artistic purposes. And of course, it is important to remember that Fraktur is more than its most recent history. It is part of a cultural and artistic heritage that should be preserved, regardless of how it may have been abused in the past.

You can download various authentic Fraktur fonts for free from the Walden Font Co.

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