On the day when the people of Scotland vote on independence from Britain, some might like to reflect on a piece of literature from the mid 17th century. A Perfect Description of the People and Country of Scotland was first published in London in 1649 and reappeared in various forms over the next decade. Its authorship is open to question. Some historians attribute it to Oxford graduate and minor writer James Howell, better known for coining the phrase “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”. Others believe it was written by Anthony Weldon, a scheming courtier to Charles I. Whoever was responsible for its creation, A Perfect Description is unabashed propaganda, filled with anti-Scottish jibes and stereotypes. The people of Scotland, it claims, are lazy and incompetent farmers; they would “rather go to taverns” than cultivate the land around them. They are also coarse and uncultured and will “stop their ears if you speak of a play”. They fornicate as a “pastime”, laugh at blasphemy and wink at murder.
The writer reserves particular acrimony for Scottish women, of whom it claims “there are none greater [fatter] in the whole world”. Further, they have appalling personal hygiene and make terrible wives:
“Their flesh abhors cleanliness, their breath commonly stinks of pottage, their linen of piss, their hands of pigs’ turds, their body of sweat [while] their splay feet never offend socks. To be chained in marriage with one of them [is] to be tied to a dead carcass and cast into a stinking ditch.”
Most printing in early modern and 19th century Germany used two font families: Antiqua and Fraktur. Both were ornate, old style typefaces that replicated calligraphic handwriting. Antiqua was employed mainly for printing Latin texts, while Fraktur was used more in German language documents. During the rising nationalism of the 1800s, many came to see Fraktur as a ‘German’ typeface and pressured the government and private printers to use it more. Otto von Bismarck refused to read books in ‘un-German fonts’ and Kaiser Wilhelm II also disliked them. When the Nazis emerged in the early 1920s they also opted for Fraktur and its derivatives. The cover of Hitler’s Mein Kampf used a hand-drawn Fraktur font; official Nazi documents and letterheads also employed it. This continued until January 1941 when there was a remarkable shift in Nazi attitudes to typography. In an edict signed by Martin Bormann, the Nazis called for a ban on the future use of Judenlettern (Jewish fonts) like Fraktur:
“…I announce the following, by order of the Führer:
It is false to regard the so-called Gothic typeface as a German typeface. In reality, the so-called Gothic typeface consists of Schwabacher-Jewish letters. Just as they later came to own the newspapers, the Jews living in Germany also owned the printing presses… and thus came about the common use in Germany of Schwabacher-Jewish letters.
Today the Führer… decided that Antiqua type is to be regarded as the standard typeface. Over time, all printed matter should be converted to this standard typeface. This will occur as soon as possible in regard to school textbooks, only the standard script will be taught in village and primary schools. The use of Schwabacher-Jewish letters by authorities will in future cease. Certificates of appointment for officials, street signs and the like will in future only be produced in standard lettering…
Signed, M. Bormann.”
Ironically, Bormann’s memo went out under Nazi Party letterhead – which was itself printed in a Fraktur font. The reason for the Nazi turnaround on typefaces has never been definitively explained. One theory is that Hitler had a personal dislike of more ornate Gothic fonts; his increased reading workload in 1939-40 may have tripped his fuse and prompted the ban on Fraktur