Chapter 1

The Evolution of Handwriting Styles in Germany
phabet was the Runic alphabet, used by Germanic peoples in about the 4th century A.D. The Runic characters have been found in 28 instances and are believed to have originated in the northern Italian region. There was no successor to this alphabet, and by A.D. 800 handwriting styles borrowed from southern Europe were for all practical purposes the only ones used among German scribes. During the reign of Charlemagne, there were numerous handwriting styles in use among the clerics and bureaucrats in Germany, and during that period attempts were made toward standardization. The so-called Karolingian Minuskel incorporated characteristics from several alphabets and soon became popular in what is now France, Germany, and Northern Italy. Ribbe and Henning define the Minunkel as “varying height of characters in a four-line pattern.”2 Indeed, this alphabet would dominate the German handwriting scene for nearly 300 years.

The alphabet—a set of handwritten or printed characters representing the sounds of a language—may be the most important invention of all time. Handwriting styles have emerged and evolved over millennia. I have chosen to begin this book with a short review of the history of handwriting styles and theories in Germany since the meridian of time. Because fine histories of Central Europe are readily available in both German and English, this book will deal only with those military, political, cultural, religious, and economic events that clearly affected the purposes and frequency of record-keeping. This is but one of several aspects of the identification of specific handwriting styles and the deciphering of individual characters and symbols.

Early Handwriting Styles

For purposes of this study, the term “German handwriting” will be employed with caution. Until the middle of the 20th century the history of handwriting in Germany has seen the involvement to varying degrees of several different alphabets from different languages in parallel or simultaneous use. Just as inaccurate as the suggestion that there was a standard German language before 1900 is the theory that there was a standard alphabet or handwriting style in the German-language regions of Europe centuries ago. The earliest known inscriptions date from the pre-Christian era and are so scarce as to defy generalization.1 The first semblance of a Germanic al-

A sample of the Karolingian Minuskel (8th or 9th Century).

At the end of the Middle Ages in Germany (12th century) a new alphabet was developed and gained popularity: the so-called Gothic script took on a more vertical orientation in contrast to the Karolingian Minuskel (ca. AD 800). The Gothic letters

Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents

tended to be separate rather than joined together, but were written in close proximity. Gothic characters were written in upper case and lower case, and decorative additional strokes became commonplace. The primary strokes were quite distinct, while the secondary strokes were intentionally weak.3 By the 14th century the Gothic style had evolved into the Fraktur script, which featured sharp corners rather than rounded strokes, and involved the joining of letters within words. The tendency of modern authors to use the term “Gothic script” to describe all pre-1900 German handwriting styles is erroneous, as emphasized by Kirchner: The designation “Gothic script” is as nonsensical as the term “Gothic” when ap plied to art history. This term has nothing to do with the Goths, but represents in actuality a term of mockery applied by the Italians in the 16th century to an art form they considered to be inferior.4 At this point it is tempting to contradict other modern authors and use the term Fraktur in describing this alphabet. However, because the term Gothic is dominant in this reference, and because the term Fraktur has recently taken on additional meanings, it would serve no useful purpose to swim against the current.5 I will continue to use the term Gothic below when referring to what Kirchner insists—and I believe—is more correctly called Fraktur.

The Gothic and Fraktur handwriting became the basis of most handwriting styles in Central Europe, although there were no successful attempts to introduce an official standard format (which is not surprising, given the prevailing lack of political unity in the German-speaking territories). The advent of movable type for printing presses in the mid-15th century by Gutenberg contributed to a great degree to the popularity and preservation of the Gothic/Fraktur style. Unfortunately, a discussion of the printed medium is too involved to be included here.

Examples of the Gothic script alphabet.

During the Gothic era several important handwriting academies emerged, the principal one being that of Johann Neudörfer in Nuremberg. His printed primer enjoyed wide circulation under the title Anweysung einer gemeinen Hanndschrift [Instructions for a Standard Handwriting Alphabet]. In 1553 he authored a more extensive work that included instruction in the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets.6 It can be safely assumed that many who completed training in handwriting academies passed on their expertise to successive generations of writers wherever they lived and worked.7 The advent of the keeping of vital records in the 16th century (almost exclusively by religious entities) greatly increased the number and frequency of documents produced, as well as the population of scribes. From the 1520s to 1700 the recording of birth, marriage, and death events in invididual parishes was required throughout the Holy Roman Empire on a region-by-region or kingdom-by-principality-by-duchy basis—with an essentially south-to-north progression over time. Catholic priests, monks, and parish recorders tended to write their entries in the Latin language for many years following the Reformation, but no rule holds for this practice. Modern researchers at times encounter Catholic records in which the German language and German handwriting styles replaced the Latin early on.8

Handwriting Styles After the Middle Ages



An example of Gothic (technically, Fraktur) handwriting.

On the other hand it would be tempting to assume that the German language elements replaced their Latin counterparts where the Protestant faith replaced the Catholic, but exceptions to this rule are also found. Quite common was the tendency of

recorders to use both Latin and German alphabet characters in the same text in which German was the operative language.9 Although in many cases church leaders required scribes to keep records of specific content

A marriage entry featuring both Latin and Gothic alphabet characters (Dorheim, Hessen)


Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents

and format, it is not known to what extent a given set of alphabetical characters or handwriting style was required. The influence of the imperial chancery is emphasized by Gladt, who insisted that “the documents produced at the emperor’s court and subsidiary offices in the early 16th century show unmistakable signs of an attempt at conformity. Of course, any attempt to remove the element of individual style was doomed to failure.”10 Apparently there were indeed tendencies toward standardized handwriting practices before

1618, but according to Gladt, the disastrous effects of the Thirty Years War included “a confusion within the German language and its handwriting conventions.”11 This theory is in line with the statement by Ribbe and Henning that “there were ups and downs in the chronological evolution of handwriting styles, those ups and downs running roughly parallel to cultural and political life.”12 Süß states that the first attempt to introduce a standard handwriting alphabet in the German schools occurred in Prussia in 1714, and a reproduction of that alphabet (primarily attributed to

The Current handwriting alphabet (1749) as reprinted in Süss (used with the kind permission of the Augustus Verlag).



Hilmar Curas) is found in several publications.13 Due to the expanding territorial possessions and the political influence of Prussia in the 18th century, Curas’ alphabet enjoyed some degree of popularity outside Prussia as well. Sturm assessed the fundamental role of this alphabet as follows: The German Current script—summarized for use in the schools and based on the primer published by Johann Neudörffer in 1538—is especially important for the evolution of later script styles, because it constituted the basic and transitional forms of the letters as they were still being written in our [20th] century.14 The term Current refers to the “running” or “cursive” style and still represents the Deutsche Schrift in Austria.

The Sütterlin handwriting alphabet as reprinted in Süss (used with the kind permission of the Augustus Verlag).

In the late 18th century and throughout the 19th century, the incidence of literacy was constantly on the rise and the need for standard handwriting samples in ever greater demand. In the 19th century several handwriting proponents made serious attempts to champion new standard designs of German alphabet characters. Some of these were dictated by the type of writing instrument available to the scribe or the pupil.15 One important factor was clearly the growing belief among German intellectuals that a set of national standards for pronunciation and grammar was needed—especially after the establishment of the German Empire in 1871—and that it would be inconsistent to develop such standards without a uniform style of representing the elements of language in writing.

The Standardization of Handwriting Styles

With the advent of the 20th century, calligraphers such as Rudolf von Larisch in Austria and Rudolf Koch and Ludwig Sütterlin in Germany were successful in promoting handwriting reform in their respective regions. Indeed, the alphabet advanced by Sütterlin became so popular—being introduced in public schools throughout Prussia— that the term Sütterlin has often been inappropriately applied to all school alphabets of the era.16 In reality, the pristine, precisely vertical Sütterlin characters were meant simply as a point of departure for the novice writer and are very difficult to produce. More practical characters were designed by Koch in 1927 and are referred to as the Offenbach script. Revised by Koch’s disciple Martin Hermersdorf, this alphabet was used in German schools as late as the 1950s.17

The Offenbach handwriting alphabet as reprinted in Süss (used with the kind permission of the Augustus Verlag).


Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents

The End of the Gothic Alphabet in Daily Use

While exalting most things Germanic, Hitler’s National Socialist government ruled in 1941 that a Latin-based set of characters was to be taught in the nation’s schools.18 That ruling—conjoined with other measures of normalization introduced by the Allied military occupation forces in Germany beginning in 1945—led to the gradual disappearance of what is now generally called in Germany the deutsche Schrift (the German handwriting alphabet). As a career archivist and paleographer, Gladt lamented this development: It is obvious that the negative results of the removal of instruction in the Current script from the public schools are felt by all those who study German language and history. That unfortunate generation who were in school when the ominous ruling was made [1941] are hardly able to read Fraktur now and are totally helpless when confronted by the Gothic script.19

Today the historic German handwriting alphabet is taught only rarely by public school teachers in Germany, and then most commonly in an attempt to give students a historical perspective. Mastery of the handwriting is rarely the goal. A popular primer available for several decades from the publisher Brause was and resembles most closely the Koch-Hermersdorf style of 1950.20 Some textbooks for German as a foreign language have included samples of the deutsche Schrift, but this feature has essentially disappeared in recent decades.21 The author’s personal observation— formed during years of residence in Germany and Austria— is that fewer than one percent of Germans today can competently read handwriting samples originating prior to 1900.

Determining the Language of the Handwritten Document

As obvious as it may seem, the first step in deciphering and interpreting a handwriting sample— whether a single word or a lengthy text—is determining exactly which language(s) is/are involved. Documents (especially church records) written in German-language territories commonly include or consist totally of Latin, French, Dutch, and even Slavic words, written in a myriad of different alphabetic characters. Many a researcher has spent an hour trying in vain to read a record that was in a language other than the one expected. Here are some tactics to employ in reaching this basic decision: 1. Study available descriptions of the document, such as cataloging data. Archivists tend to be reliable in their assessment of the documents in their collections. Review the title of the document. If it is not intelligible, the text may be as difficult to read. Titles tend be be written in larger, more discernible characters. Caution: some flowery titles were written in Latin or French, with the actual document being written in German.


The Koch-Hermersdorf handwriting alphabet—the Deutsche Schrift (used with the kind permission of Brause).



A baptismal record dated 1650. The title, dates, and some personal names are written in Latin, the rest in Gothic. (Königsberg, East Prussia)

3. 4.


Scan for key words, such as those used to head columns or introduce paragraphs. Look for style changes, such as different alphabets mixed together. Remember that many scribes in the 18th and 19th centuries used Latin characters to write proper nouns, numbers, and foreign words, and German characters for all other terms. Style changes often occurred when a new pastor took over the records. Remember that some scribes wrote in regional German dialects that can resemble lan-

guages other than German (such as Dutch or Danish) in the eyes of a novice. Many native readers can be misled as well. In other words, the text may indeed be German while appearing to be written in another language. 6. Do not assume any grammatical or orthographical (spelling) consistency on the part of the writer of documents written before 1900. 7. Consider the geographical orientation of the document. If from the north, German is more likely than other languages, while Latin is common in the south. West of the Rhine,

Deciphering Handwriting in German Documents

This parish death register from 1690 shows the very different styles of two scribes. The first entry of the second scribe is that of the death of his predecessor. (Kuppingen, Württemberg)

French might have been used. 8. Consider factors relating to religion. Catholic records were more often written in Latin than German, while Protestant scribes switched to German relatively early (usually before 1600). 9. Consider the date of the document, if known. The French influence was very strong during the Napoleonic era, while the frequency of Latin had decreased substantially in church records by 1900. 10. Determine the identity of the author if possible. The scribe with greater education— whether religious or secular—is more likely to have written partially or totally in a language other than German (highly educated scribes even used Greek and Hebrew words on title pages). 11. When reviewing documents on microfilm, remember to identify the proper starting point on the film. A single microfilm might contain records from vastly different authors, time periods, and languages. Remember the inconsistent—indeed unpredictable—nature of language. For example, while it is not common to find entire Latin and French texts written in German alphabet characters, even this is possible.

It should be evident at this point that handwriting styles in Germany evolved within a multi-lingual environment. Given the interaction of numerous languages, cultures, religions, and political systems, it can come as no surprise that an alphabet acceptable to the entire nation was not in existence until only recently. It behooves us as researchers to keep in mind that the great majority of vital records we study were produced years before linguistic consistency was achieved. We must assume the lack of consistency and uniformity in alphabet characters (even from the same scribe) and constantly be on the look-out for non-German alphabet characters and words.


A detailed discussion of each is found in Adolf Bach, sections 29b and 39 respectively. The Helmet of Negau and the Horn of Gallehus have fascinated scholars for nearly 200 years. 2 See Dtv-Atlas zur deutschen Sprache 33 ff. 3 Crous & Kirchner, pp. 10-11, 212.5. 4 Crous & Kirchner, p. 8. Ribbe and Henning echo this sentiment, blaming the misnomer on the Humanists, who favored the Latin-based Antiqua style (p. 307). 5 The term Fraktur is most commonly used in


This parish register was written in a dialect more closely resembling Dutch than German (Weener, Hannover).

reference to the printed alphabet in use in Germanlanguage cultures up until shortly after World War II. The term also applies to an artistic christening or marriage document from the American Colonial period, especially common among the so-called “Pennsylvania Dutch.” 6 Crous & Kirchner, p. 23. 7 Gladt, p. 15. 8 In 1783 Joseph, the Holy Roman Emporer, issued an edict requiring that all church records in Austria be kept in German rather than Latin, ostensibly so that government agents could easily read them in an attempt to identify candidates for conscription. This is only one example of the influence brought to bear on church scribes by secular entities. 9 Fine concise reviews of specific German alphabets are found in Deutsche Schreibschrift by Süß and in Unsere Schrift by Sturm. 10 Gladt, p. 11. 11 Gladt, p. 12. 12 Ribbe and Henning, p. 305. 13 Süß, p. 11. 14 Sturm, Unsere Schrift, p. 129. 15 Great detail cannot be provided here, but the width of the ink impression made by a specific

stroke, that is, the stroke direction, was apparently the deciding factor. Extensive discussions are found among others in Süß. 16 Sütterlin also designed a standard set of characters for the Latin alphabet. 17 Süß p. 15. 18 Der Große Duden, p. 4. 19 Gladt p. 9. Note the careful separation of Gothic and Fraktur styles, the latter being the newer. 20 Brause: Übungsheft für die Deutsche Schrift. The author used an edition from the 1960s to teach himself this alphabet while living in Wiesbaden in 1972. The Brause Übungsheft has essentially disappeared. I recommend Helmut Delbanco’s Schreibschule der deutschen Schrift, available from Bund für deutsche Schrift und Sprache e.V. in Ahlhorn, Germany. 21 Cochran’s German Grammar featured the Koch alphabet (under the title Sütterlin) and a short Schiller poem as an example of the appearance of such handwriting.