By: Ava Clarke
Typeface is the design of writing which includes variations of size, weight, slope, width and other factors; each of the variations of typeface is a font. It seems like a pretty basic thing that a lot of people might not give much thought beyond what they do or don’t like, and the reason doesn’t matter.
Typeface is an interesting concept when asking why different fonts even exist in the first place. Looking at my previous post, it is clear that different Gothic fonts were even used for different purposes and were therefore held in different regards: littera textualis formata, the finest and most calligraphic, was used for biblical writings whereas littera rotunda was used for more legal and medical writings (Tesnière, 2020, 328). Gothic fonts that were the most aesthetically pleasing were those used for more important writings because legibility didn’t exactly seem to be a main concern.
When looking at how typeface can affect how we read something, this can include a variety of different factors: how memorable something is, how likely it is to convince the reader of its argument, the emotional stimuli, the authority it conveys, and the reader’s familiarity with the font. When addressing the fonts of medieval script, the two factors we will be looking at are authority and emotional stimuli.
In research done by Katherine Haenschen and Daniel Tamul, they look into how fonts can affect the political message of campaigning candidates. Signs created to self-advertise often convey information about the image and personality of the person based on colour choice, logos, and font, though relatively little research has looked into the effect of font (Haenschen and Tamul, 2020, 244). With the research that’s been conducted, researchers have found that typefaces “have different perceived ideological ratings on a liberal-conservative scale” because they convey certain ideological representations that include personality attributes and sentiments (Haenschen and Tamul, 2020, 244-5).
The successful use of a font often depends on what it’s being used for as empirical work suggests there is typeface “personality” which can include its friendliness, masculinity, or seriousness, which are features not lost on readers (Haenschen and Tamul, 2020, 246). For example, Haenschen and Tamul’s research shows trends where serifs are viewed as more conservative than sans serifs; blackletter is the most conservative; scripts are slightly more liberal than serifs, and; the cartoonish display typeface is perceived to be the most liberal (Haenschen and Tamul, 2020, 252).
The significance is that those fonts which are more rigid and angular, which are more “masculine”, and are associated with conservative political ideologies are those also associated with authority. Conservative parties have always been the right-wing, traditional, historical parties, those whose authority is grounded in the past and has a well-established foundation, therefore are associated with fonts that reflect those same qualities. On the other hand, liberal parties are usually seen as progressive, free-thinkers who tend to look to the future rather than the past, and as such, are associated with less rigid fonts, or even cartoony typefaces in this study.
Serving as a connection to Gothic script, the tendency to assign human attributes to typeface is not something unique of the 21st century, otherwise there would have been no purpose to differentiating the font used for a Bible from that used for medical notes. Haenschen and Tamul’s research supports that it’s likely medieval scribes, and for that matter society as a whole, accepted certain fonts for biblical writings in part because it conveyed a sense of authority.
It’s possible that the authority came from one’s ability to read it. Those able to read and write already held a certain stature in society, however those who could read the intensely calligraphic script may have been seen at an even higher status.
The importance of aesthetics in medieval script was also very important, and like our perceptions of authority, these same personality attributes and sentiments can be applied to our initial like or dislike of a given typeface. In a study by Rui Lia, Ruilin Qina, Junsong Zhanga, Junjie Wua, and Changle Zhoua, the effect of typeface on the aesthetic appeal of Chinese characters is approached through empirical neuroaesthetic research (neuroaesthetics is the study of how aesthetic perception, production, judgment, appreciation, and emotional response are produced and experienced from a neurobiological basis).
By looking at how the brain reacts, the researchers focused on two stages: (1) early visual information focuses on the immediate and initial stimulus and the brain’s initial reaction to the typeface of the character, and; (2) late positive potential associates the character with a deeper and more logical aesthetic preference (Lia et al, 2015, 59 and 61). The results of their research indicates that in the first stage, most people have rapid recognition and dislike of different typefaces, and the authors suggest that this is largely due to emotional stimuli (Lia et al, 2015, 58 and 62). In the second stage of their study, the results show that preference is strongly driven by dislike: “the typeface of dislike-characters have emotional valence and influence on the human preference processing” (Lia et al, 2015, 62).
Since aesthetics can be shown to occur as common neurological brain functions, it would then clearly apply to those medieval scribes and patrons who decided which script they preferred for different writings, as well as which script would become the standard for general production. Fonts that were aesthetically pleasing would be practiced and regularly used, and those that were not would quickly disappear.
It would be in addition to or as a constituent to how we perceive authority that can affect our aesthetics, and the kind of aesthetic value we give it. While legal or medical script would possibly be more rigid, the spiritual authority that comes from the Church may endeavor to be authoritative yet beautiful.
Haenschen, Katherine & Tamul, Daniel. “What’s in a Font?: Ideological Perceptions of Typography.” 2020 Communication studies 71:2, 244.
Lia, Rui; Qina, Ruilin; Zhanga, Junsong; Wua, Junjie & and Zhoua, Changle. “The esthetic preference of Chinese typefaces – An event-related potential study.” 2015 Brain Research 1598, 57.
Tesnière, Marie-Hélène. “Gothic Script in France in the Later Middle Ages (XIIIth-XVth centuries)” in Frank T. Coulson and Robert C. Babcock, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Latin Paleography (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), 328.