The previous post showed the development of the letter A from its beginnings as a pictogram of an ox's head to the Roman capital A we're all familiar with today. Most of the letterforms in that post were chiseled in stone, but handwriting did exist! It was from handwritten cursive and calligraphy that lowercase a came into being.
Handwritten cursive was used to write quickly and casually on rough papyrus, the letter forms were different from carefully stone-inscribed letters (just as our handwriting doesn't quite look like Times New Roman). Shortcuts were taken, sometimes strokes went missing, some angles turned into loops. It's from these loops that the story of lowercase 'a' begins...
With the introduction of nice smooth parchment and vellum, cursive handwriting developed into formal calligraphic scripts that became widely used throughout Europe. The cursive 'looped' form of the letter A stuck around in most of these scripts. They looked a bit like our modern lowercase 'a', but they were still capital letters ('lower/uppercase' wasn't really a thing yet).
Carolingian minuscules were developed around the 8th century in the Holy Roman Empire under Emperor Charlemagne (whose Latin name was Carolus, hence, Carolingian). The small, rounded letters (minuscule) were based on Latin scripts and paired with Roman capital letters (majuscule) – kind of like today's lowercase and uppercase letters, but with fewer rules.
By the 12th century many more Europeans were able to read and write, academia was on the rise – the people needed more books and they needed them fast. Carolingian scripts evolved to become more vertical, angular and condensed – which meant they could be written less precisely and take up less space. It eventually turned into an entirely different script called Blackletter.
Start the Press!
Blackletter was still in fashion when the movable type printing press was invented in Germany*, so it was natural that some of the earliest mass produced books contained typefaces that mimicked Blackletter calligraphy. Blackletter scripts were used for several centuries (well into the 20th century in Germany) but its use in modern typography is limited due to a) its lack of legibility compared to other typefaces; b) nationalistic and ideological reasons; and c) the Renaissance...
* Movable type and the printing press were truly first invented in China and Korea, but because of the complexity of written Chinese they were quite different from the European press invented by Johannes Gutenberg, it was this machine that spread across the globe.
During the Italian renaissance many humanists – people who practiced the 'humanities' or liberal arts – had come to think of Carolingian as a classic Roman script, whereas Blackletter had come to be considered uhh not so good (they called it Gothic, which for them was a synonym for 'barbaric'). So renaissance typographers, who were keen on all things old and Roman, based their typefaces on the older Carolingian style.
Two 'A's, One Typeface
Some typefaces had multiple styles including Roman (normal) and Italic (slanted, for emphasis). Roman 'a' could look a bit messy when slanted, especially at smaller sizes with runny ink. To keep things tidy Italic 'a' was given a bigger loop and most of the arc was ditched except for its stem (just like cursive handwriting and the Half-Uncial A shown previously).
A New Century
Italic 'a' had a great geometric shape – one circle and one vertical line – it was perfect for the constructivist and minimalist design movements of the early 20th century. Sans-serif typography grew in popularity and the use of Italic 'a' as a regular 'a' quietly increased and eventually became common.
Today the two types of lowercase 'a' are sometimes referred to as double-story 'a' and single-story 'a' and they are considered pretty much interchangeable – few people see them as being different for any practical reason, it's more of an aesthetic choice. In fact, single-story 'a' is often thought of as the "normal" 'a' because it's similar to the cursive handwritten form we're taught to write as children.
I guess that covers the basics! From its beginnings as an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph to the various forms we have today, the story of the letter A is also a story of complex human history. As I mentioned in Part One, I'm not a historian nor a philologist, just a design nerd, so I've kept this short and sweet, which means I may have glossed over a few of the finer details for the time being. Be on the lookout for more of these 'research' posts in the future!