Written by Francis Ramel  |  July 28, 2022

The design of Carolinéale, a humanist sanserif inspired by medieval chant books

Carolinéale is a typeface family whose design I started at the end of 2014, when I integrated the Atelier National de Recherche Typographique, in Nancy (FR). I had then the project to work on a typographic version of Carolingian musical notations. The alphabetical typeface associated with this work has evolved since then. Thanks to the support of the Centre National des Arts Plastiques (FR) and the sharp eye of Alejandro Lo Celso, I was able to create a complete typeface family. On the occasion of its publication by PampaType, I would like to come back to the principles that guided the design of its forms.

Table of Contents

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A source

The Carolingian manuscripts of Gregorian chant present on their pages mysterious signs, inscribed above the Latin text. These are the earliest forms of melody notation. These more than thousand-year-old signs, called neumes, are still used today. Their computer-assisted composition is a real typographical challenge, our digital tools not being at all adapted to this type of inscription. When I started my post-Masters at the ANRT, my project was to find a typographic solution to resolve this situation with elegance and consistency.

A double page of the manuscript MS. 239, called “Graduel de Laon”, copied around 950. Text in Latin [Caroline minuscule] and melodic notation in neumes called “Messins”.

I then proposed a more contemporary typographical interpretation of musical signs (more precisely of the signs known as “Metz” and “Saint-Gall”), inspired by the Carolingian layout, but also by their current version, most often drawn in felt-tip pen or in a ballpoint pen. I then digitized everything, integrated the thing into a typographic file respecting a precise nomenclature, in order to be able to compose with the character in a software dedicated to the engraving of scores: Grégorio 1.

Left: some musical signs designed at the ANRT in 2015 [St-Gall notation system]. Right: Carolingian signs traced with a contemporary tool; a whiteboard used during a Gregorian chant course, Metz.

In the same movement, I decided to accompany the neumes with an alphabetic character based on similar principles: historical structure, monolinear approach. Both a Caroline minuscule and a sanserif (“linéale” in French); it was the birth of Carolinéale. 2

A script

The text of the ninth-century chant manuscripts is written in remarkable form. The calligraphy used is relatively recent for the time. It is called Caroline minuscule, since it is Charlemagne who is at the initiative.

Page from the Versicularium, Hymnary, Tropary, Sequentiary, copied around 930, St. Gallen, Stiftsbibliothek, Cod. Blood. 381.

Developed slowly, the Caroline minuscule only found its stability in the 9th century, gradually getting rid of the presence of Merovingian characters. With the rise of the Carolingian scriptoria, writing improved its readability and spread beyond the borders of the empire. The calligraphic origin of this scriptural form draws its sources from the uncial and semi-uncial writings that precede it.

The Caroline minuscule at its height is alternately accompanied by roman and rustica capitals and uncial letters. The period is sometimes placed halfway up the x-height, there is no dot over the i, but the question mark, the quotation marks and the comma are integrated. Left: folio 438 of the Granval Bible, copied in the Abbey of Saint Martin of Tours between 825 and 850. Image taken from Claude Mediavilla, Caligrafía, Campgràfic, Valencia 2005 [p.141].

A roman

The roman font of Carolinéale is based on the most symptomatic forms of the Carolingian minuscule. More precisely, is based on the writing of the scriptoria manuscripts of the Rhine basin, produced between the 9th and 10th centuries.

First digital sketches : April 2015 - ANRT, Nancy.
Fine-tuning of italics, St. Gallen, November 2017.

I tried to offer a monolinear and subjective interpretation, which seeks to keep its DNA, while remaining as stable, readable and contemporary as possible. The Carolineal glyphs all have in their constructions a more or less present trace of a handwritten origin. Each sign seeks to find a satisfactory point of balance, somewhere between the vocabulary of a contemporary sanserif and that of medieval calligraphy.

Carolinéale Regular with some ligatures.
Some strong characteristics of the Carolingian design have been preserved. For example, the diagonal angle of letter a is very pronounced, and the design is clearly stopped at the height of the x. The g also remains medieval in its construction, unfolding “against the grain” of a modern binocular g in its lower part. Finally, it should also be noted that letter e retains a protruding crossbar, a pen stroke often absent from sanserifs.
Other more discreet Carolignian elements are also integrated: the ascenders and descenders are slightly marked at their ends, as are the shafts of certain letters at the x height.
The capitals of Carolingian manuscripts are based on uncial or Merovingian lines, Carolinéale prefers a humanist and modern model, totally anachronistic, but much more familiar to the contemporary reader.
Some letters are streamlined to better match 21st century standards: t is completed, r is quieted, etc.
The alphabet is also supplemented with extrapolated forms that were not present in the medieval Latin alphabet. These letters remain deliberately discreet in Carolinéale.
The 'a' is equipped with a horizontal termination if necessary, to suitably accommodate all the accents of the extended Latin character set of PampaType.

The calligraphic traces of Carolinéale are also balanced by more current forms. I tried to find a balance between lines that could seem relatively experimental and more stable elements. I then paid particular attention to the rhythm of the blanks, in order to allow Carolinéale to be both very comfortable for reading long texts and also stimulating for the eyes, when used in large body.

A family

Carolinéale has several carefully distributed and differentiated weights, ranging from thin to black, in order to respond to all editorial situations. The addition of these weights also moves the character away from its historical sources: while the existence of “dark” Carolingian lower case letters is undeniable, a thin version is more fanciful and does not particularly find a medieval equivalent. The same goes for bringing everything together as one and the same family, one and the same whole.

Carolinéale roman and italic, in all its weights.
Drawing the Black weight was a particular challenge. The development of this extreme weight constantly requires finding the best formal compromises to maintain legibility in small bodies while preserving the character's DNA.
Following PampaType’s inclusive policy, Carolinéale acquires the extended Latin character set, exceeding 1400 glyphs.

An italic

Strictly speaking, italics are absent in the Middle Ages. 3 In order to imagine an italic for Carolinéale, I therefore had to base myself on a purely speculative thought exercise : What could have been the form of an italic for the Carolingian minuscule if it had also emerged in the 9th century? And from this uchronic italic, what could I keep to draw my own italic?

The Carolinéale italic is thought of as a companion to the roman. It seeks to distinguish itself and bring a new voice at the sentence level, while preserving harmony and coherence at the paragraph level. Each member of the duo seeks to express their own tone and to be immediately identifiable, without breaking the rhythm of the reading. I tried to ensure that the letters of Carolinéale italic express themselves in their own logic, resulting from a more vivid, organic and lively form. The texts composed with the italic of Carolinéale therefore seem more fluid and more rhythmic than their Roman equivalent.

Some capitals incorporate cleaner calligraphic strokes, while others are more informal than their Roman equivalent.
The Carolinéal lowercase italic letters often require fewer pen strokes to draw. The entries and exits of letters are calligraphic whenever possible and their structure is derived from a faster tracing of strokes.

Finally, Carolinéale italic is even more openly anachronistic than the roman. Its inspirations come in particular from the Anglo-Saxon humanist cursive sanserifs of the early 20th century. 4 Above all, I tried to ensure that the italic conveyed a certain feeling of sympathy, joviality, warmth.

A chorus

Ultimately, I sought in designing the different styles of Carolinéale to find a point of balance between the calm and stability of contemporary linéales and the energy and warmth of Carolingian calligraphic writing. It is this point of balance that has driven every decision in the design of the entire typeface family.

At the time of their publication, it seems to me that the various styles of Carolinéale do indeed sing in chorus, just as the Carolingian cantors sang together. I believe that their different voices complement each other and form a singular proposal: a humanist sans with contemporary elegance and historical flavor.

I hope that this proposed type design, matured over seven years, will resonate with some minds, and that it will be able to express itself on a few screens, a few pages, a few walls or some other medium that I still dare not imagine. Bon voyage.

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Francis Ramel, French graphic and type designer, co-runner of ramel.luzoir, a graphic and typographic design bureau based in Strasbourg (FR) focusing mainly on cultural and visual identity projects. Formerly co-founder and partner at Nouvelle étiquette. More info at

  1. Two musical notations (Metz and Saint-Gall) have been considered in this framework. An update of Carolinéale integrating these signs is envisaged in the more or less near future.

  2. I owe this name to Gerard Unger, the renowned Dutch type designer, who slipped it to me while he was attending my presentation at the end of my post-Masters at the ANRT.

  3. The concept is purely typographical and was introduced at the very end of the 15th century by Francesco Griffo da Bologna.

  4. One thinks in particular of the work of Frederic W. Goudy on his Goudy Sans.

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