Once apon a time, in a kingdom far far away ....(with an illuminated capital and fancy fonts)

Those wishing to produce newsletters etc. for historical/re-enactment societies face a number of problems, but I shall concentrate here on 'cosmetic verisimilitude' (for want of a better term). To get into the spirit of things, it is often considered desirable to make the 'look' of such a document as old-fashioned as the subject matter, but there can be numerous pitfalls.

One (which can also apply to other society activities, such as costuming) is choosing the period (or periods) to emulate. If one aims for a 'look' from before printing became prevalent, then perhaps calligraphy should be used instead of printing, but that can make editing much more difficult and time-consuming.   'Psuedo-calligraphic' typefaces can be used, but even the best of them doesn't entirely look like the real thing (unless a font with sufficient alternatives to allow the same word to look slightly different each time were used and that would be horrendously complicated for something of any length - OpenType may have overcome this problem, but I haven't had an opportunity to try it out yet).

Another problem (worse for some chosen periods than others) is legibility for a modern audience.   Something which often crops up in this context is the use of different forms of the letter "s".   For a long time (until far more recently than most people would think), it was common practice (probably for aesthetic reasons) to use " Capital letter S " for proper names and the first word in a sentence, " lower case letter S " at the end of a word and " lower case letter S that's old fashioned and looks like an f but without the horizontal bit across the middle " everywhere else.   A lot of readers (whether inadvertently or for comic effect) confuse " lower case letter S that's old fashioned and looks like an f but without the horizontal bit across the middle " with " lower case letter f ", leading to some very odd readings indeed. If you start throwing in things like an archaic "w" (= " the archaic W, which looks like a stylised p - or like the thorn letter but without the top third "), "thorn" (= " the thorn letter, which looks like a stylised p or hybrid between a lower case b and lower case p - vertical line to the top and a 'tail' down below the 'writing line', and a semi-circular loop attached at its right ") and "eth/edh" (= " the eth/edh letter - sort of crossed sword symbol with a circle swinging off it? or lowercase d with a stroke through the tail ")...

Of course, they are just a few unusual letter-forms in what may otherwise be a fairly clear typeface and could be deduced from their context, but extra effort would be required on the part of readers and they may decide that that makes the exercise sufficiently less pleasurable that they give up even trying to read something that might be very interesting if presented in a different way.

But it can be far worse than that, depending on the chosen period. Whilst what we tend to call the Roman alphabet (though the classical Romans only gave us capital letters) has been the basis for writing and printing in most European countries (including Great Britain) for most of recorded history (leaving aside things like Ogham and 'Futhorc' runes), there have been a number of variant forms popular in different areas at different times and some of them can be quite hard going for all but the most determined modern scholars.

To illustrate the point, here are a few examples:

Text reads 'Mary had a little lamb, its fleece was white as snow and everywhere that Mary went, the lamb was sure to go.  But the quick brown fox jumps over a lazy dog'  The font is Junius Rough

Text reads 'Mary had a little lamb, etc in Courthand font

Text reads 'Mary had a little lamb, etc in JSL Blackletter font

Unless you are an enthusiastic palaeographer, would you really want to wade through page after page of any of these? Perhaps it is no coincidence that very few people could read and write when such scripts were popular…

However, nil desperandum (oh no! it’s those pesky Romans again!) – whilst peculiar ways of writing things came in and out of vogue, something like what we might consider ‘normal’ letter-forms were always ‘in the wings’ waiting to come to the fore again and again when enough people got fed up trying to cope with barely legible squiggles.   Compare, if you will, the following:

Text, on a smudgy background, reads 'EXTERNI. .XenocratediZen ....  and so on
Text, on a clean background, reads 'EXTERNI. .XenocratediZen ....  and so on.  Font is JSL Ancient

The first one is a facsimile of a fifteenth century original (itself based on ancient Roman majuscules and Carolingian minuscules), the second uses a typeface based on seventeenth century examples, but developed very recently for computer use by the very talented Mr Jeff Lee (website at www.shipbrook.com/jeff/typograf.html).   Others have done similarly. Using the ‘long-s’ is optional, not compulsory, so it is indirectly possible to use a reasonably authentically old typeface which is easily readable by a modern audience e.g.:

Text reads 'Mary had a little lamb, etc in JSL Ancient font

This would only have been slightly different in 1668 or even 1470:

Text reads 'Mary had a little lamb, etc in JSL Ancient font

Apart from the typeface, what about the language?   At the moment, I am writing in English, but then (as far as he was concerned) so was the author of this:

font is 'JuniusStandard; Text reads 'Nap nihtscua,                 noržan sniwde,  
hrim hrusan bond,          hęgl feol on eoržan,  
corna caldast.                  Foržon cnyssaš nu  
heortan gežohtas,            žęt ic hean streamas, 
sealtyža gelac                  sylf cunnige;  
monaš modes lust           męla gehwylce  
ferš to feran,                   žęt ic feor heonan  
elžeodigra                       eard gesece.  

Or what about:

Text reads 'Že kynng was aboue yarmed wyž haubert noble & ryche,
wyž helm of gold on ys heued, (nas nour hym ylyche)
Že fourme of a dragon žeron was ycast.
Hys sseld, žat het Prydwen, was žanne yhonge wast
Aboute ys ssoldren, and žeron ypeynt was and ywort
Že ymage of our Lady, inwan was al ys žoht.
Myd ys suerd he was ygurd, žat so strong was & kene,
Calybourne yt was ycluped, nas nour no such ye wene.
In ys ryht hond ys lance he nom, žat ycluped was Ron,
Long & gret & strong ynow, hym ne myht atsytte non.' in JuniusStandard font

which was written hundreds of years more recently?

Most people today who are aiming for an old-fashioned sound seem to settle for what might be termed ‘Hollywood Shakespeare’, with a few obsolete words and phrases thrown in here and there (though hopefully not too many).   That can serve well enough, but anyone attempting it should at least try to get their “thee” and “thou” in the right places. If in doubt: ask a Quaker!

As I hinted at the beginning, there are numerous other problems which can be encountered by the editor of a ‘creatively anachronistic’ publication, but I hope that my comments will prove more help than hindrance to anyone intending to embark on what can be a most enjoyable undertaking. As I have found myself: one can sometimes strive too hard for historical accuracy – a little goes a long way and the principle of Occam’s Razor is usually a good one to apply.

Text reads 'And with that: “adieu gentles all”, quoth he.' in JSL Ancient font, just for effect

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Copyright - Andrew A. P. Butler - January 2003
Page updated August 2009