Did moveable type make type "theory" possible?

jlg4104's picture

I must have read this idea somewhere. If anyone could suggest where, let me know. The idea is this: The variations in appearance of script over the centuries prior to the invention of moveable type (in the European West, that is) were due to a number of factors (e.g., what was considered appropriately "official"), but NOT to any overt theory of visual "ideals."

Then along came moveable type, and in fairly short order (the decades immediately following 1440) the mechanical possibility of creating many different kinds of very sharp, tiny and delicate lines and shapes-- something not really possible when writing by hand but very much within the capabilities of somebody good with the tools and skills of a jeweler, goldsmith, machinist, etc. And along with this, the ability to lay those fine lines and shapes on paper quickly.

This shift in what could be accomplished mechanically, so the argument goes, actually created the conditions which made it possible for type "theories" such as rationalism and romanticism (and later, modernism) to emerge and flourish. So, and here's the clincher, if any of this makes any sense: the mechanical technologies made the theories possible. That's just such a sweet conclusion, but I am afraid maybe it's a little bogus.

Thoughts?

dmajor's picture

Elizabeth Eisenstein and Adrian Johns might be of interest to you. They are a pair of book historian who spar academically over the whether the printing press was as a causal, revolutionary force in history (making possible, as you mentioned, critical type theory) or simply part of a natural evolution. That's putting it crudely. Eisenstein's most popular book is called "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change."---I think she'd be making the argument to which you refer.

It's an interesting argument. I would say that manuscript-era "theories" existed but in more nuanced, non "ism" form. Certainly visual ideals existed, as plainly as pleasure did---why else illuminate? Why use the golden ratio? I could hardly think that it was because of any official demand.

William Berkson's picture

G. Noordzij in 'The Stroke' argues that changes in writing drove changes in type styles, at least through the early 19th century. And a number of people have pointed out that a lot of new types of the 19th century, including slab serifs and sans were developed first by sign painters. So I doubt that you will win type historians to your point of view as far as letter styles go.

I'm sure that punch cutting instead of writing, and designing a fixed shape alphabet in metal also had big effect on actual execution, and was responsible for key innovations. But as far as it being the dominant driving force in changes in style, I don't think that will fly.

DTY's picture

As another example of application of an overt principle to lettering before type, I might point out the use of stoichedon spacing in classical Greek inscriptions. But for the most part I suspect the theorization of type design has more to do with the convergence of art education and typography, starting toward the end of the nineteenth century.

Nick Shinn's picture

but NOT to any overt theory of visual “ideals.”

"In the morning, at the height of my powers, I sowed the seed in Britain, now in the evening when my blood is growing cold I am still sowing in France, hoping both will grow, by the grace of God, giving some the honey of the holy scriptures, making others drunk on the old wine of ancient learning..." --Alcuin, c.800

The Classicism of Alcuin, which fit nicely with the Imperialism of Charlemagne, was a theory that informed his calligraphy, idealizing Ancient Rome. In the Renaissance, humanist scribes subscribed to the same theory, with Poggio's hand, for instance, guiding that of Jenson.

enne_son's picture

One could say, couldn't one, that the writing books of the late medieval, humanist, mannerist and baroque writing masters theorize writing?

They codify instructions, an elementenlehre and ideals perhaps originating in scriptoria.

Nick Shinn's picture

The mistake has been to confuse the Modern movement, a discete historical phenomenon of the 20th Century, with Modernism as a general occurrence. In Post-modern theory, Modernism is paradoxical, because it supposes a break with an organic, pre-modern past; the paradox is that whatever point in time one chooses, the break has already occurred, so the concept is infinitely expandable.

Perhaps the most "rational" of visual theories is that of mathematical, linear perspective, attributed to Brunelleschi in the early 15th century, before the invention of moveable type.

Nonehteless, the technology of moveable type was strongly deterministic, in many ways. For instance, empirically: it may be argued that the ability of type to represent words with greater clarity produced a more profound understanding of a page of text. Economically: the printer's reduction of alternate sorts and standardization of editorial proofing, served to create a more logical orthography. Metaphorically, the mechanical systematization of typography is extremely suggestive. And of course, the proliferation of books made possible societies which are almost completely literate, totalizing intellectual synergy.

jlg4104's picture

Thanks for the useful responses so far!

I would agree that any human practice embodies some sort of "theory," if by that we mean a network of values and assumptions about how that practice out to be done. I guess the argument (not mine, just whatever it was that I'd picked up) was framed more in terms of the "isms" and how they play out specific typeface designs-- most specifically, the developments of stroke-width variations and geometrical relationships under "rationalism" and the sort of counter-intuitive (in light of where we seem to be now) view of fraktur under "romanticism" (e.g, that the little nooks and crannies reflect something like organic growth and naturalism, rather than anything dark and "scary"). Nick's last post is especially eloquent and substantive as usual (not to knock the others, which are all helpful).

Anyway, I knew this was the place for a reality check. Any more thoughts are more than welcome! Thanks.

Maurice Meilleur's picture

Actually, this sounds like, or at least related to, Robin Kinross's argument in Modern Typography: that 'modern' typography does not exist until printers and typecutters began to rationalize what they were doing in the form of theories and manuals, including disquisitions on style and artistic judgment. Kinross's is not a causal argument, though, as I recall; if it were, it would be a circular one.

eliason's picture

When did people start to talk about Modern (i.e. Didone) types as "rationalist"? or fraktur as "romantic"? What's the timeline of this "isms theory" that you're talking about?

Interesting thread!

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