What Made Scribes Laugh?

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Graphic wit

Early graphic wit can be traced back to anthropomorphic animals that were given symbolic guises by renegade social critics, who used them to represent aspects of human folly. However, the earliest graphic design humor originated in early Christian illuminated manuscripts around the eighth century. These are the first examples of the primary graphic design ingredient, the letterform, being seamlessly tied to an image. (For an excellent discussion on this subject, read Letter and Image by Massin [Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1970].) It is in these odes to The Word that

The letter X

scribes made letters from drawing of contorted human bodies as well as zoomorphic cryptograms or animal real, fantastic, and sometimes funny. Some illuminations were serious symbolic interpretations of holy scripture, while others were just grotesque or ridiculous juxtapositions conceived for the scribe’s simple pleasure of constructing a fanciful letter.

Dragons and serpents slithered their way into manuscripts during the ninth century, their scales, tails, and tendrils interweaving with the text in illegible compositions. Likewise, pictures of exotic vegetation and foliage, witty in terms of their placement on the page, began growing like kudzu on other manuscripts of the same period. Eventually, these intricate visual decorations evolved from truly biblical allegories and symbols into nightmarish creatures, including quadrupeds with human heads, two-headed birds or griffins, humans with paws, plants with beaks, and winged cattle – similar to medieval gargoyles, which anticipated nineteenth-century surrealistic imagery. Many of these initials and marginal decorations had no relationship whatsoever to their texts, and it seems that the illuminators (or designers) were not just being comic or playful, but delinquent in their duties. Actually, Massin writes that the scribes and illuminators from different monasteries competed with each other, as if in some obsessively perverse design competition, to see who might achieve the most outrageous visual folly.

The letter A

In the fourteenth century, a backlash against this trend toward visual farce was initiated by the leading clerics, who established a canon for the proper illumination of sanctified manuscripts. And for a short period, graphic humor was controlled, if not eliminated entirely. With the perfection of woodblock and copperplate engraving around the fifteenth century, letterforms once again became comic in theme though rigid in form, in part owing to strictures imposed by the media. Contrasted to earlier outrageous designs, which extended beyond the letterform confines into the page margins and text areas, these subsequent engraved illuminations told an entire visual story within self-contained lettersforms known as casket letters. These initials prefigured the fancy faces and novelty typography of the late nineteenth century.

In the fourteenth century, Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles were mimicked in period letterforms. The former organically wed excessive ornament to function; the latter featured minimal ornament with a purely formal or aesthetic role. With both, however, visual humor of the kind found in architectural decoration was frequently replicated in the letters. During the middle to late Renaissance, the rules of geometry began influencing concepts of beauty, and so governed the infant art of typography, which as one of its tenets rejected overly decorated (and, by extension, humorous) letterforms. Eventually, the Romanesque, Gothic, and later even Baroque modes of decorative lettering became popular in books and other forms of printing, ultimately influencing a style of humorous graphics found centuries later in commercial typography and design.

During the long interval between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, technological and commercial advances significantly altered the role of graphics in society from elitist to populist. Hence, graphic humor became more varied. The communications history of the nineteenth century was heavily molded by the confluence of political, social, and technological advancements. This period of both flowering enlightenment and strict repression had a strong impact on visual humor.

the letter a

In the 1830’s, the development of commercial printing methods, particularly lithography, afforded graphic artists new freedoms of expression and fresh outlets for their talents. Lithography offered greater production flexibility, resulting in low-cost printing for increased quantities. And new distribution methods allowed for greater circulation of what was produced. The most fascinating graphic humor at this time, however, was not found in mass periodicals, as one might expect, but rather in a curious medium: children’s alphabet primers. Progressive educators determined that rather than forcing the study of language on youngsters who were more inclined to play than learn, the inclusion of comic visual “games” in their lessons, including metamorphosed alphabets and rebuses, would provide essential learning aids while children played. Similar typographic playfulness was, of course prevalent in adult-oriented literature in the form of surrealistic and comic initial letters.

[All illustrations from Letter and Image by Massin, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1970.)

letter humor


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