A brief prehistory of writing systems:

Before beginning to qualify the history of typefaces in the Common Era, a brief history of writing systems is required to illustrate the direction of the evolution of written language.

The description of a writing system is a symbolic system used to convey ideas and concepts understood with language. This means that there are a couple types of writing system: the kind that uses images or symbols immediately recognizable by the reader and not requiring any kind of understanding of language. These Logographic writing systems, like the ancient cave paintings at Lasceaux in France, would eventually evolve into more complex forms of written language designed to transcend the spoken word.

Cave Paintings - Lasceaux

Two examples of the earliest forms of written language are the Sumerian Cuneiform and the Egyptian Hieroglyphs.

Cuneiform is the earliest know form of written expression, used from 3000BC to roughly the first century. Comprised of pictographs of up to 1000 characters, but later developed to about 400. Cuneiform was written on clay with a blunt reed making impressions to form the images.
Sumerian Cuniefrom - 3000B.C.

Hieroglyphs combined both a logographic and alphabetic structure and have been dated as far back as the 30th century B.C. It is suspected that it is derived from the Sumerian Cuneiform. Hieroglyphs were typically produced on Papyrus or wood and were phonetically ambiguous, meaning that some symbols would have several homonyms and required additional characters to distinguish the intention of the writer.

Egyptian hieroglyphs - 30th Century B.C.

While these two examples of writing systems are the earliest forms of true writing, they began as a far cry from literature or expressive written language. They were predominantly used as record keeping devices initially and scholars seem to disagree when it comes to defining a time frame when language did evolve into true writing.

For an excellent article about the origins of alphabetic language check here or here.

For a timeline overview of the development of written language see here.

History of Type

0 B.C. - 1300 B.C.

Typefaces of the era and their origins.

A map showing the evolution of the Alphabet

Trajan's Collumn - Roman Square Capitals

“Typesetters have long considered Trajan's column to be the gold standard of Roman capital letters. Every printed word in a Western language owes a little something to this bit of Second Century political adulation.” - Valerie Maltoni - 2011

Roman Square Capitals (also called Capitalis Monumentalis or Capitalis Quadratta) are one of the earliest examples of Serifs, derived from stonecutters using flat brushes to paint on the letters before inscription. These letters were evenly spaced apart and equal in height, were written in all capital letters and primarily used as inscriptions in public displays or on official monuments. There was very little (if any) space between the words.

Roman Cursive

Roman Script was used as a more common everyday typeface. Used for its ease of writing compared to the Roman Square Capitals, Old Roman Cursive was accessible and informal, if difficult to read.
Old Roman cursive was used until about the 3rd century when it developed slowly into New Roman Cursive with smaller ligatures and simpler characters. This is believed to have been a catalyst in the development of the Unical throughout the following centuries.

Rustic Capitals

Rustic Capitals were similar to the Square Capitals only used more frequently with parchment or papyrus and written with ink as opposed to inscribed into stone. The script is freer, has fewer straight rigid lines and includes descenders that extend below the baseline.

Book of Kells A.D. 800 - Uncial Script

Uncial scripts are the basis of the decoration and evolution of script towards the minuscule letters we recognize today. Taking advantage of the newer, smoother vellums surfaces being made throughout the 3rd to 8th centuries, Uncials developed much curvier and more decorative letterforms. Named for the latin “inch high” these new typefaces employed ascenders and descenders and began to become more expressive. They are only one of the strongest examples of early Caligraphy in the latin alphabet.

“The history of uncials and half uncials is part of the history of the Christian church from the fourth century through the ninth; they were essentially "church letters." The association has been so strong that it has limited the usefulness of both designs to work having to do with ceremonies or festivities of a religious nature”
Alexander Nesbitt, The History and Technique of Lettering.

Particularly in the United Kingdom, where isolation from mainland Europe meant language could evolve unaltered, the Uncial scripts developed strong decorative figures.

Irish Uncial
English Uncial

The onset of these typefaces also saw a massive expansion of styles from all over the known world. Several other examples of early calligraphy are the Visigothic Script, Benevetan Script and the Merovingian Script. Most notably, these typefaces provided a stepping stone to the minuscule letterforms of the Carolingian Renaissance of the 8th Century.
Merovingian Script
Beneventan Script
Visigothic Script

Carolingian Minuscule

The Carolingian Minuscule was established by Alcuin of York, under Emperor Charlemagne’s rule, as an accepted standard for printed texts so the literate class could easily interpret it. There exist over 7000 manuscripts and texts from the 8th and 9th centuries with examples of the Carolingian minuscule. Borrowing heavily from the Uncial scripts decorative calligraphic form, it used a lowercase letterform in connection with capital letters. It also saw the inception of some more common punctuation like the Question mark.

The Carolinginan Minuscule would eventually become overruled by the Gothic Blackletter typefaces, though it would see a resurgence in the Italian Renaissance as it was interpreted to be of ancient Roman descent, more so than the Gothic styles were.

Gothic Blackletter would become a necessity as an increasingly illiterate Europe required more and more texts and manuscripts throughout the 10th and 11th centuries. However, the nature of the gradual shift from the “beautiful legible bookhand” to the “darker, more condensed, angular, ligature-ridden, closed forms of the Gothic scripts” is still mostly undiscovered.

An example of the gradual evolution of Carolingian texts to Gothic

Tools and Surfaces.

The Earliest forms of tools used for writing and communication were bones, shells, bamboo slips, metal and stone tablets and the first surfaces used were papyrus, parchment, wax plates, and engraving on stone.

Papyrus: A fibrous plant that grows wild by the Nile River. Stocks are cut and soaked in water until they begin to rot; they are then laid out in crossway layers. The stocks are then pounded until they mash together, left to dry and form a paper like substance. 3100BC -3rd Century, by 1000 BC western Asia began to buy and use papyrus.

Parchment: Used around the 6th Century. It was made from calfskin, goatskin or sheepskin. It was not waterproof and was sensitive and reactive to changes in humidity.

Vellum: A finer quality of parchment. Europeans in the medieval ages preferred this surface.

Woodblock Printing: Dated to before the 2nd century and used until the 4th century. This method was popular in China and Egypt. A wood block is a relief matrix, the areas that are to be white are cut away with a knife or chisel. The block would then be inked and pressed firmly to cloth or paper. This method was difficult when dealing with text, as the block would have to be cut as a mirror image.
Chinese Woodblocks 4th Century
Moveable woodblocks

Block printing was also made from non-wood materials such as tin, lead and clay.

Quill Pens were introduced around 700AD and used the feathers of a goose, swan, eagle, crow, owl and turkey. However, they did not last long and had to be replaced weekly, and had a long preparation time.

The first reservoir pen dates back to 953 AD, when Ma’ad al-Mu’izz, Caliph of Egypt demanded a pen that would not stain his hands or clothes, so I pen was provided to him that held ink in a reservoir.

Moveable woodblock

Woodblock moveable type: China, 1040 AD, created by Bi Sheng this method created more uniform lettering, which will eventually lead to typography and fonts.

Moveable woodblock printing fades and out is replaced by clay to eliminate the unevenness and the presence of wood grains.

Metal Moveable type: started being used in the beginning of the 12th Century. The technique used for bronze casting (used to make coins, statues etc.) was modified and adapted to making metal type. Letters were made by cutting forms into beech wood, and then pressed into a trough filled with fine clay sand. This creates negative impressions of letter molds, and molten bronze is poured over filling the molds. Excess is then scraped and filed off. This method was very labor intensive and expensive.

In ancient China 1600BC – 236AD, bamboo was used as a substrate. Strips were sewn and rolled together into scrolls. Silk called chih was also used although very expensive.

Chinese Paper

Paper was invented in 105 AD in China. It was made using mulberry, bast fibers, fishnets old rags and hemp waste. These ingredients were soaked, beaten to pulp then dried on a stretched out tightly woven cloth.
Paper was not used in other parts of the world due to Chinese secrecy, but it reached Japan in about 700AD, and was brought to Spain by the Arabs shortly after, but was not used in medieval Europe until the late 14th Century after paper mills were built.

Chinese ink: 256BC was made using soot and animal glue, a solid that when ground against a mortar with a small amount of water, created a dark liquid.

Around 400AD, a very popular ink recipe was created that was used for centuries to come. It was made of iron salts (iron & sulfuric acid) and was mixed with tannin from gallnuts, which grew on trees. A thicken was added and it produced a bluish black ink, that over time faded to a dull brown color.

Similar ink was being used in the 12th century, this one being made of hawthorn branches that were cut and dried. Bark was pounded from the branches then soaked in water for 8 days, and then boiling the water until it turned thick and black. Wine was added and the ink was then poured into special bags and hung in the sun to dry. Once dried it was mixed with more wine and iron salts, producing the final ink.

India ink, used around the 4th Century, called masi was made of burnt bones, tar, pitch or lamp oil, and was mixed with the gelatin of donkey skin and musk.

Cultural and Political climate

0-700 CE Cultural and Political Climate / Key Players

To explore the cultural and political climate during the 1st and 7th Centuries, it is necessary to define the culture and politics of the Roman Empire, which rose to supremacy in this time period, and has left undeniable traces on our language, writing, and what we now know as type.

The Roman Empire was about expanding and refining culture: they wished to expand the area and population of the culture, while refining the culture itself. The Republic of Rome had crept outwards, and the new Roman Empire, established as the first century began, pushed strongly onwards, driven by a succession of Emperors intent on conquering.

Emperor Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD was called the Augustan Age) concentrated on developing Latin as a written and spoken language. Before his time, it's complete structure had not yet been developed, and is barely legible, even for historians. http://www.encyclopediaofauthentichinduism.org/articles/15_roman_civilization.htm

Emperor Augustus

“Two thousand years ago, the world was ruled by Rome. From England to Africa and from Syria to Spain, one in every four people on earth lived and died under Roman law.” http://www.pbs.org/empires/romans/empire/index.html

Under Emperor Trajan’s rule, the Roman Empire had achieved vast boundaries by the end of the 1st century.

In the midst of what was most certainly a turbulent time of war and struggle the Romans were determined to define a culture that produced many articles of beauty, grandeur and astounding workmanship. They relished in record keeping and law making. The Romans created with an artistic sense of proportion and form, and their grasp of letterform and the alphabet were no different.

The Latin alphabet, borrowed from the many cultures engulfed by the empire, most predominantly Greek; the stone carved letters of Ancient Rome set the foundation for our modern alphabet and created an archetypal style. One of the key movements of the era, was the implementation of some Greek teachings into Roman education. It was seen as posh for the upper class to be learned in Greek ideals, and therefore the alphabet would have been more readily accepted having Greek characteristics.

The Greek Alphabet

The Latin alphabet represented a defined switch to established letterforms. Letters, words and sentences were incorporated into public monuments. Formal education existed in the Roman Empire, though usually for the upper class only. Education could begin around the age of seven, and would be administered by a tutor or at a private school.


The literacy rate, compared to now, would seem considerably low, however it must have been substantial enough that leaders would convey messages through the written word, and expect for it to be understood. Emperors would conquer, and wish to tell the story of their victories in typical Roman fashion, with splendor and precision. This included monuments with written accounts. The alphabet was used as another vessel to spread the Roman culture— a mission held very dear to many in the Roman Empire. The letters were standardized and could be recognized as Roman.

Emperor Marcus Ulpius Trajanus (CE 52 - CE 117) was the first Emperor not to come from Italy, as he hailed from Spain.

He erected one of the most impressive monuments with a staggering amount of script. It stands today as a symbol of the Roman Empire's obsession with grandeur and precision, and demonstrates how this directly extended to their use of type. The Trajan tower that he erected in the name of his victories during the Dacian Wars encompasses the beauty and impact of the origins of the Latin alphabet.

Trajan's Column completed in 113 CE commemorating victory in the Dacian Wars

The Roman Empire during this time was an innovative culture. As more people were becoming literate, and it held a higher standard than before, personal writing instruments were developed. A new answer to the scroll, bound pages or a ‘Codex’, were being used for convenience. Along with this progression, came the evolution of the Roman Capitals, to a free flowing and casual style, which were for daily use. By 100 CE, the Roman Empire had a flourishing book industry. This was a major movement which propelled the sharing and recordings of information through type. http://www.citrinitas.com/history_of_viscom/alphabet.html

Early Codex

~700 - 1300 CE

This period in time was very active when looking at cultural and political changes that would influence the history and development of language and typography as we know it today. A few centuries earlier, the Western Roman Empire had finally fallen, which left much of the known western world largely divided and unprotected. This gradual decline and eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire gave a lot of time and space for various leaders and groups to build their forces and increase their power and influence.

Islamic Presence - Umayyad Caliphate

The orange sections denote the extent of the Umayyad Caliphate.

The first of these rising powers would be the Islamic Umayyad Caliphate. The conquest of the Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania by the Umayyad Caliphate took place from 711 – 718 CE. In 711, the Islamic forces departed from northwest Africa and landed in Gibraltar and continued to campaign northwards. In 712, the Umayyad Caliphate led by Tariq Ibn Ziyad fought and won a decisive battle against King Roderic’s Visigothic army. This victory was crucial in the Islamic conquest of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain, Portugal, Andorra), creating the province of Al-Andalus. The Muslim ruled province of Al-Andalus would remain largely intact until the 11th century when Christian forces led a conquest to regain the Iberian Peninsula.

This extended Islamic presence in Al-Andalus had a great impact on the culture and politics of the region. Under Muslim rule, these areas saw a great increase in cultural exchange and greater cooperation between Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The city of Cordoba would also become a great centre for learning, culture, and economy.

An example of Al-Andalusian script.

Carolingian Empire – Charlemagne

Map of the Carolingian Empire.

Another rising influence during this time was Charlemagne and the Carolingian Empire. Charlemagne was the King of the Franks from 768 and Emperor of the Romans from 800 to his death in 814. Other than being known for his military pr
owess, Charlemagne also was a leader who strongly supported learning and the arts.

As a result of his support of learning and the arts, Charlemagne was instrumental in the standardizing of a lettering style throughout the Carolingian Empire. To help facilitate this standardizing of lettering, Charlemagne appointed Alcuin of York, an English monk scholar, to oversee the copying of many ancient texts and manuscripts. Alcuin gathered a large team of letterers and brought them to the Palace School of Charlemagne in Aachen in 789. Together, they chose a hand very similar to Celtic uncials as the lettering style of the empire. Alcuin also helped introduce the liberal arts to Charlemagne and improved the standards of Palace School.

During Charlemagne’s reign, many secular texts were also copied by scribes who were employed by book merchants. These book merchants pressured the scribes to write and copy with greater speed, which in turn helped create different variations of the Carolingian hand.

Influence of the Viking Raids

Depiction of Viking ships on their way to a raid.

Typography would have continued to grow and improve during this time, but the Viking raids beginning in 793 at the Lindisfarne Monastery and continuing throughout the 8th to 11th centuries would not allow it. The Viking raids often targeted schools and monasteries because of the many valuables they held. These monasteries and schools were the places where monks, scholars, and scribes would work on copying texts and practicing their lettering styles and since they were frequently raided, it made it nearly impossible for the Carolingian hand to continue to develop cohesively. These barbarian raids forced Charlemagne to divide the empire into three for each of his sons, which made typographical development and visual standards slow down even further and eventually revert back to regional versions of different hands.

The Viking expansion not only had an effect on typographical elements, but also had a hand in effecting the modern English language that we know today. Since the Vikings conducted many raids in and around the area now known as the United Kingdom, it is no surprise that quite a number of English words can have their roots traced back to Old Norse origin (see Additional Points of Interest).

A map showing Viking expansion.


The pyramid of feudalism.

After the Carolingian Empire became decentralized (c. 888 CE), feudalism soon followed. Feudalism, in short, was a societal structure organized around relationships where serfs or peasants would offer their services and labour in exchange for protection and some land to live on or off of.

Influence of the Crusades

Map of the Crusades.

During the 11th to 13th centuries, a number of Crusades took place. The majority of the Crusades were religiously sanctioned military campaigns called on by the Pope to regain Christian control of the Holy Land. The main conflicts of these Crusades were between Roman Catholic forces against Muslims. Throughout the many campaigns, the Western European Crusaders discovered and learned much of the wide range of knowledge that Islamic culture had been developing. These vast discoveries accelerated the desire to learn and in turn helped spark the following period known as the Renaissance.

Key players/movements

~700 – 1300 CE



  • Supported learning and the arts
  • Decreed for a standardized lettering style through the empire known as Carolingian hand
  • Appointed Alcuin of York to oversee copying of ancient manuscripts
  • Support of learning progressed the manufacturing of books by book merchants and produced by commercial letterers

Alcuin of York

Alcuin of York (middle).

  • Responsible for gathering the team of letterers at Charlemagne’s Palace School
  • Influential in choosing the Carolingian hand (similar to Celtic uncials)
  • Introduced the liberal arts to Charlemagne

Francesco Petrarca

Francesco Petrarca (also known as Petrarch).

  • Considered the ‘Father of Humanism’
  • First to combine classical culture with Christian philosophy
  • Did not see a conflict between realizing human potential and having religious faith
  • Inspired the humanist philosophy which helped start the Renaissance

Additional points of interest

For a website with medieval fonts for download click here.

Some examples of English words with Old Norse origin:

  • angr ("=trouble, affliction"); root ang (="strait, straitened, troubled"); related to anga, plural öngur (="straits, anguish")
  • English provenance = c 1250 CE

  • - the first element is from Old Norse öfugr ("=turned-backward"), the '-ward' part is from Old English weard

  • bǫllr" (="round object")

  • berserkr, lit. 'bear-shirt', (alt. berr-serkr, 'bare-shirt') frenzied warriors

  • kaka (="cake")

  • kalla (="cry loudly")

  • egg (="egg")

  • from Old Norse fok through Danish fog, meaning "spray", "shower", "snowdrift"

  • geta, gat (> got), gittan (> gotten)

  • gift (="dowry")

  • from Old Norse Gunnhildr (female name, both elements of the name, gunn and hildr, have the meaning "war, battle")

Hammer (noun)
  • hamarr (="tool with a stone head")

  • husbondi (="master of the house")

  • hreindyri

  • saga (="story, tale")

  • uggligr (="dreadful")


http://ancientscripts.com/alphabet.html - Ancient Scripts.com
http://www.historian.net/files.htm - Fonts


Cultural/political climate and key player movements(0-700 CE):

Cultural/political climate and key players movements (~700 - 1300 CE):

Examples of English words with Norse Origin: