The Life of a Dead Typeface: The Origins of Civilité | Newberry

The Life of a Dead Typeface: The Origins of Civilité

In the preface of a 1558 edition of Walter of Chatillon’s Latin epic poem on Alexander the Great, the schoolmaster Robert Constantin writes:

The novelty and strangeness of these letters will certainly surprise the reader, but I dare say he will be as much delighted by their clearness and elegance. … In point of beauty and elegance these letters are not outdone by others, and they are familiar to us because they imitate the written hand. What is printed looks like writing, and it may be hard to tell that the page is printed with type.

The strange and novel letters on which Constantin was commenting comprised a set of metal type created by the French punchcutter, printer, and bookseller Robert Granjon (ca. 1513- 1590). This type came to be known as “Civilité” because one of the first books it was used to print was Erasmus’s De Civilitate Morum Puerorum Libellus [A Handbook on Good Manners for Children]; many French translations of the work, usually given the title La Civilité puerile, were also printed using the typeface.

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The Civilité typeface first appeared in the 16th century in Erasmus’s De Civilitate Morum Puerorum Libellus [A Handbook on Good Manners for Children]. Later French translations, like this 1785 edition, of the work also used Civilité.

Granjon’s type was based on a style of French handwriting—similar to English secretary hand—and often called “letter courante” or “letter françoise.” First appearing in the late 14th century, there were many variations of this hand: the French writing master Pierre Hamon included several models in his 1566 writing manual, including one called “Commune ou Courante” [Common or Current].

This practice of designing a type based on popular handwriting of the period was not unusual, for most early typefaces were based on manuscript hands; Italic type, for example, first cut for the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius, was based on a 15th-century Italian hand often used for poetry.

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Robert Granjon based his design for Civilité on a style of French handwriting called “letter courante”, illustrated here by the French writing master Pierre Hamon.

Granjon set out to cut a distinctly French alphabet; and though it is difficult for us to believe now, Civilité was used for children’s books because it was believed to be easier and more appropriate for French children to read—a sort of typographical nationalism. In his 1558 edition of Erasmus, Granjon claimed that he had printed the book in Civilité so that young people might benefit “not only from that instruction but from the letters too, as being the writing proper to their language and not borrowed from another people.”

Although it came to be known for its use in children’s books, school books, and conduct books, Civilité was also used to print all kinds of forms, receipts, and documents, the idea being that even if one learned to read only a single style of handwriting as a child, he or she would still be able to negotiate the documents necessary for everyday life. In fact, documents in a collection from the Collignon family, printers in Metz, France, throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, are largely printed in Civilité.

Civilité might have been easy to read, but it was difficult for printers to use. For one thing, they needed a lot of type: the first Granjon typeface had 138 sorts (or individual pieces of type), compared to about 120 sorts needed for Roman or Italic typefaces, as well as 30 ligatures (letters that are joined together, like ae or ss). Civilité also had no small capitals and generally no numerals, so printers would have needed additional sorts to print those, meaning that printing a book in Civilité required a fairly significant initial financial outlay by a printer.

Over time, Civilité became less utilized for books, as Roman typefaces became the accepted standard and copperplate engraving allowed printers to reproduce all kinds of script hands and other decorative elements.

Changes in handwriting styles also played a role in the demise of Civilité: by the mid-17th century, a different type of script called “round hand” became popular, often incorporating calligraphic figures and knots (see for example, Edward Cocker’s 1661 Penna Volans, or, The Young Man’s Accomplishment).

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A kind of script called “round hand,” as exemplified in Edward Cocker’s 1661 Penna Volans, or, The Young Man’s Accomplishment.

While Civilité continued to be used until the early 19th century, it is now what one might call a “dead” typeface, used only to conjure up a specific place and moment in time. Nevertheless, the beauty and complexity of Granjon’s original type—and those that followed—allow for a fascinating glimpse into the typographic past.

By Jill Gage, Custodian of the John M. Wing Foundation on the History of Printing

Related Listening

The Rise and Fall of a Typeface by Shelf Life, from the Newberry Library

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