Black Letter and the Broadside Ballad

by Gerald Egan (2007)

“My collection of ballads, begun by Mr. Selden, improv'd by the addition of many pieces elder thereto in time; the whole continued to the year 1700, when the form till then peculiar thereto, vizt, of the black letter, with pictures, seems (for cheapness sake) wholly laid aside, for that of the white letters, without pictures.” –Samuel Pepys

In this note that introduces his ballad collection, Samuel Pepys attaches particular importance to the visual properties of the ballads, particularly the black-letter type in which they were printed and the pictures that illustrate them. The tenor of Pepys’s note suggests his preservationist bent: he has improved Selden’s original collection by adding many “elder” pieces; the form “peculiar thereto” is one that dates to the sixteenth century, “black letter, with pictures.” Finally, Pepys finds it unfortunate that this format was abandoned by 1700” (for cheapness sake) wholly laid aside.”

Pepys’s note raises at least two questions about the printing of broadside ballads: First, and most basically, what is black letter and why did Pepys attach such value to it? Second, if broadside ballads were set in black letter by English printers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, does this material fact tell us anything about the ways in which these ballads were read or appreciated, that is, the cultural uses to which they were put?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines black letter as a “name (which came into use about 1600) for the form of type used by the early printers, as distinguished from the ‘Roman’ type, which subsequently prevailed. A form of it is still in regular use in Germany, and in occasional use (under the name of ‘Gothic’ or ‘Old English’) for fancy printing in England.”1 As the OED’s definition suggests, black letter has come generically to identify “fancy printing in England,” but its evolution and use are more complex than this explanation indicates. Black letter and roman are both descendants of the Carolingian minuscule, the style of writing that Charlemagne decreed be used in all church books in 780. The Carolingian minuscule—a spacious, rounded style of calligraphy similar in appearance to modern roman—“spread throughout France, had a profound influence in Italy, Spain, and England, [and] became the dominant handwriting of western Europe.”2 Over time, however, scribal styles began to diverge regionally, and a new style of calligraphy began to appear in the ecclesiastical documents produced in the medieval monasteries of England, France, and Germany. These new styles looked different from the rounded Carolingian: the letters were more angular and closer together, the pen strokes thicker. The typographer Stanley Morison describes the reasons for this scribal change as practical and economic: busy scribes in monasteries and scriptoria needed to write quickly and condense letters to save parchment or paper. Under pressures of time and economy these scribes began to use a “frankly hurried version of the minuscule,” one in which “condensation becomes obvious.” The need to write quickly and in as little space as possible results in a “thickening of the strokes . . . with consequent deepening blackness of aspect in the page.”3 This “deepening blackness” is the scribal antecedent of black-letter print, and the varied economies of writing practiced in English, French, and German monasteries were eventually formalized in styles like textus quadratus and textus precissus. Morison writes that the first type engravers employed by Johannes Gutenberg—the German goldsmith traditionally credited with the invention of movable type and the printing press in Europe in about 1450—cut their letters in textus quadratus, and the first printing houses that appeared in England in the latter quarter of the same century imported French versions of the same typeface.

What can this capsule history of black letter tell us? First, it suggests that the earliest European printed documents emulated hand-written or scribal manuscripts. Historian of print and typography Leo Olschki observes that “the discovery of typographic printing did not all at once produce . . . a radical change in the aspect of the book. The first works which left the hands of the printers were astonishingly like the manuscripts of the same period. . . . The letters of the printed text present the same characters as those which were written by the calligraphers.”4 More specifically, this capsule history indicates that the earliest products of English printing houses—like that of William Caxton, who started the first English printing press in 1476—were set in textus quadratus, and that they thus employed a style of lettering already widely used in pre-print England for formal, ecclesiastical documents and for less formal, commercial postings. For English audiences of early print—for upper-, middle-, and lower-order readers at varying levels of literacy—black letter would have had legitimacy. Due to the universality of textura script in manuscripts and signs, due also to its ecclesiastical associations and its legacy in England for centuries before print as the “English” scribal style, it would have seemed the appropriate style of lettering for the first printed English documents.

Black letter was not universal in English print for long, however. Although it “was commonly employed throughout the sixteenth century, and until the end of the seventeenth century,” the first books printed entirely in roman type appeared as early as 1518 in England. 5 Mark Bland describes how roman type supplanted black letter as the dominant English typeface in the 1590s: “Black-letter . . . remained the predominant English language typeface until a combination of Italianate fashion, economic prosperity and type replacement finally changed the typography of literary publications in the years between the Armada of 1588 and the plague of 1593.” According to Bland, an English printer of the time “might have twenty or more fonts available for composition,” including both roman and black letter.6

Why, then, when fashions in typography had changed and alternatives were available, did English printers continue to print broadside ballads in black letter for another hundred years, until approximately 1700, as Pepys’s introduction to his ballad collection indicates? Commentators on the use of black letter in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English print have raised possibilities that we might consider in light of broadside ballads. Charles Mish, for example, proposes that in seventeenth-century print, black-letter type is used in works intended for relatively unsophisticated, middle-class audiences (into which Mish folds the lower orders), while roman is used in works intended for a more sophisticated, upper-class readership. Mish writes that “black letter in the seventeenth century can be used as a determining criterion . . . to decide for which audience, upper- or middle-class, a given work was produced.”7 In a similar vein, Keith Thomas writes that black-letter type was used in Tudor England for the most elementary texts: hornbooks, primers, catechisms, and psalters. Citing and building upon Mish, Thomas concludes that “black letter was the type for the common people. . . . Black-letter literacy . . . was a more basic skill than roman-type literacy.”8

Since we know broadside ballads were the cheapest print products of early modern England, and since we might thus confidently assume that they attracted an audience that included middle- and lower-class readers, Mish’s and Thomas’s arguments mapping black letter to the social classes of audiences for particular texts are persuasive and have proved influential. However, a more recent approach put forward by Bland, Zachary Lesser, and others, has made the case that the visual appearance of black letter itself conveys meaning. According to this argument, black letter is an actual vehicle for cultural significance, a formal property of a text that means something. Bland, for example, commenting on the persistence of black letter in the early seventeenth century in popular books such as Euphues and his England and A Paradise of Daynty Deuises, writes of “how typographic conventions might continue older traditions into a period where cultural change had taken place, and must, in part, testify to the status of such books as popular classics.”9 Lesser proposes that as early as the seventeenth century black letter had a specific cultural meaning, that it both constructed and evoked a nostalgia for a traditional, communal English past. “One of the dominant meanings of black letter in this period,” Lesser writes, “was the powerful combination of Englishness (the ‘English letter’) and past-ness (the ‘antiquated’ appearance of black letter by the seventeenth century).”10 One of Lesser’s points is that later scholars and antiquarians have tended to find the “popular” and “popular culture” in black letter without recognizing that “part of the function of black letter [for contemporaries] was to create this (imagined) popular culture and make it available for study.”11

Might these two competing ideas about the significance of black letter in the seventeenth century be made to work together? Might the one approach—that black letter in seventeenth-century English print was a “social discriminant” intended for a largely middle-to-lower order of readership—supplement and enrich the other—that black letter was a “bearer of semiotic meaning” as Lesser puts it in his essay, a system of visual signs that, for a highly literate audience, evoked a traditional, if mythical, English past? 12 In a definitive early essay that surveys the production and consumption of ballads in seventeenth-century England, Hyder Rollins draws upon contemporary accounts to describe how a ballad singer’s audience might consist of two distinct classes of listeners: the “common people,” who Rollins asserts “loved ballads,” and, “on the outskirts of the crowd . . . some fine gentleman who sardonically adventured his ears for the mere recreation of seeing how thoroughly the bystanders were affected by the singer.”13 Although Rollins’s division of ballad listeners and readers into two oppositional classes now seems simplistic, his essay suggests that the audiences for ballads were complex and mixed, that listeners and readers appropriated the visual, aural, and textual properties of broadside ballads in a variety of ways. These varied acts of cultural consumption by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century English readers and viewers of ballads would have included responses to black letter, whether as the appropriate typeface for cheap entertainment for the lower orders, as a nostalgic reference to a traditional, English past, or as both.

1Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press, 2004 <>), 1.

2 Daniel Berkeley Updike, Printing Types, Their History, Forms, and Use: A Study in Survivals (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962), 50.

3 Stanley Morison, 'Black letter' Text (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1942), 10-13.

4 Quoted in Updike, Printing Types, 39.

5 Updike, Printing Types, 88.

6 Mark Bland, “The Appearance of the Text in Early Modern England,” TEXT: An Interdisciplinary Annual of Textual Studies 95 (1998): 94-99.

7 Charles C. Mish, “Black Letter as a Social Discriminant in the Seventeenth Century,” PMLA 68 (1953): 630.

8 Keith Thomas, “The Meaning of Literacy in Early Modern England,” The Written Word: Literacy in Transition, ed. Gerd. Baumann (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 99.

9 Bland, “The Appearance of the Text,” 95.

10 Lesser, Zachary, “Typographic Nostalgia: Playreading, Popularity and the Meanings of Black Letter,” The Book of the Play: Playwrights, Stationers, and Readers in Early Modern England. ed. Marta Straznicky ( Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006), 107.

11 Lesser, “ Typographic Nostalgia,” 114.

12 Lesser, “ Typographic Nostalgia,” 122.

13 Hyder E. Rollins, “The Black-Letter Broadside Ballad,” PMLA 34 (1919): 291; Sir William Cornewaleys, Essayes, 1600, quoted in Rollins, “The Black-Letter Broadside Ballad,” 291.

Works Consulted

Bland, Mark. “The Appearance of the Text in Early Modern England.” TEXT: An Interdisciplinary Annual of Textual Studies 95 (1998): 91-154.

Febvre, Lucien and Martin, Henri-Jean. The Coming of the Book: The Impact of Printing, 1450 - 1800. Trans. David Gerard. Atlantic Highlands: Humanities, 1976.

Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2004 <>.

Lesser, Zachary. “Typographic Nostalgia: Playreading, Popularity and the Meanings of Black Letter.” The Book of the Play: Playwrights, Stationers, and Readers in Early Modern England. ed. Marta Straznicky. 99-126. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006.

Mish, Charles C. “Black Letter as a Social Discriminant in the Seventeenth Century.” PMLA 68 (1953): 627-30.

Morison, Stanley. 'Black letter' Text. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1942.

Rollins, Hyder E. “The Black-Letter Broadside Ballad.” PMLA 34 (1919): 258-339.

Thomas, Keith. “The Meaning of Literacy in Early Modern England.” The Written Word: Literacy in Transition. ed. Gerd. Baumann. 97-131. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Updike, Daniel Berkeley. Printing Types, Their History, Forms, and Use: A Study in Survivals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962.

Watt, Tessa. Cheap Print and Popular Piety, 1550 - 1640. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1991.