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The History of Calligraphy

Reading up on the history of calligraphy will help your understanding of the ancestry of different symbols and scripts. Calligraphy has a long and colourful history that spreads around the world, so it’s hard to know exactly when and where it all began, as writing and language have been around for thousands of years.

We will begin our journey in Ancient Egypt. It’s important to note that thousands of years ago, the ability to read and write was a luxury so calligraphy was an elite pursuit. In Ancient Egypt, all writing was conducted by scribes and the literacy rate is believed to be below 1% of the population. Hieroglyphics have been found on papyrus scrolls or carved into tombs and pillars of palatial residencies. If you look at hieroglyphics you can see how it could be considered to be the start of calligraphy. The methods were very different but there is a case that these texts have a sense of rhythm, integrity and harmony.

However, it is often said that the first piece of calligraphy comes from China in 200 BC. This early Chinese calligraphy was usually done with ink and a brush. Some disagree with this and say that Islamic calligraphy found in the 10th Century is where it all began because of the Chinese empire’s insular tendencies. However, Chinese calligraphy laid down the roots of the tradition in Korea, Japan and Thailand.

Before we look at calligraphy in the Islamic tradition, we should look to the south of Asia as there was a distinctive style of calligraphy being developed there. Like a lot of Eastern calligraphy, it was closely related to religion in the region. In around 500 AD is when it started to take off with frequent visitors in the shape of missionaries, travellers, merchants and colonists. From the 16th Century onwards is when Sikhism then started to play a big role in the development of calligraphy in South Asia. Their holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib is often handwritten and given an almost luxurious finish.

Islamic calligraphy is also known as ‘Kufic’ and has a deep connection with the religion of Islam. This calligraphy was the only way to sufficiently honour the Qur’an. Calligraphy was esteemed as the highest form of art and as such was taken quite seriously in the Islamic tradition. Again, this is still a time when literacy rates were really low all over the world, calligraphy was still an elite pursuit and craft.

Now we travel westwards for the origins of the calligraphy that we are more familiar with. Whilst the ancient Greeks began creating the first writing systems of the western world, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that we see calligraphy really begin to surface. The writing systems that were in place were simply functional instead of decorative. Through trading with the Middle East, the art and practice of calligraphy began to permeate through to Europe.

In Middle Ages Europe, it was largely only monks that were able to read and write. They created the gothic style of calligraphy. This is the style of calligraphy the western world will be able to recognise easily. It’s the kind of calligraphy that can be found in old bibles and tomes. A good contemporary example of calligraphy in the Middle Ages would be Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440 and this was disastrous news for the art of calligraphy and writing in general. Where books had been painstakingly written out by hand, the printing press could produce books on a much quicker and larger scale. Calligraphy began to lose its place in the western world but was still esteemed highly in Asia.

The Renaissance bought about the rebirth of calligraphy. Technological advances in writing and language had swept calligraphy to the side. This is why it’s important to note the low literacy rate as it would go some way to explain why calligraphy could fall by the wayside quite easily. It didn’t have an inexorable link to Western religions, where it did in Asia, and very few people had even seen it in the first place. The vast majority of Europeans were peasants and it was only after the advent of the printing press that literature had become more accessible to the people.

The Renaissance bought functional beauty back to literature. However, calligraphy was still facing challenges in the form of new pens and writing instruments that were being invented. Fountain and steel pens were limiting people’s ability to create calligraphy, but the artist William Morris created the flat edge pen which made it much easier for people to learn the craft. This pioneered a revival of the art form.

We’re really only scratching the surface of the history of calligraphy, it has a storied past that is told in countries all over the world. If this is something that interests you, there’s plenty more out there to learn. You can also look at different examples of this calligraphy and try and track the ancestry of symbols. For example, does the Kufic calligraphy of the 10th Century have its roots in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics? And how closely related are Kufic and the Gothic style championed by European monks?