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  • Hornbooks
  • Merridee L. Bailey (bio)

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An undated hornbook with the distinctive covering of thin horn. The outer edge has a thin band of metal nailed to the board. It was discovered in the late-nineteenth century during the demolition of houses on High Street, Oxford, to make way for the new façade of Brasenose College. It measures 4 1/10 inches × 2 3/10 inches. AN1887.2561 Horn Book, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

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We know hornbooks were used in England from the sixteenth century onwards as teaching aids to children grappling with the skills of learning the English vernacular alphabet. These single-sided tablets distinctively covered in a thin sheet of animal horn, giving them their name hornbook, were the later versions of the wooden alphabet tablets in use in England and the Continent from the thirteenth century. Hornbooks were usually made of a printed sheet attached to a wooden board with a small handle at its base suitable for being held by a young student or in the hand of an older teacher. A drilled hole allowed them to be attached to a belt by a piece of string or rope. The thin horn covering that became increasingly common in England in the late-sixteenth century improved their longevity in children’s small and less than careful hands (figure 1). A range of basic lessons were printed onto the paper, usually beginning with the cross “+”; alphabet; a table of vowels; and fundamental religious precepts, usually the Lord’s Prayer. The sheet was then pasted onto the wooden backing board. In size they varied between three or four to six inches but rarely exceeded this.1

Hornbooks are associated with basic literacy skills and with young children, probably those in the later phase of infancia up to the puericia life stage. For girls puericia was reached between the ages of seven to twelve, for boys between the ages of seven to fourteen.2 This common distinction between the life stages of girls and boys reflects ecclesiastical ages of marriage, and is an indication of a gendered alertness in the cultural understandings of childhood.

Hornbooks laid out the lessons of the “Abecedarium,” the elementary method of teaching used from Antiquity to the Middle Ages where letters of the alphabet were taught by rote. If children were indeed taught basic English vernacular literacy from these hornbooks, the question arises as to whether it was more common for boys or for girls to come into contact with them and in what environments these hornbooks would have been found.

The impact imagery and illustrations could have upon young minds was acknowledged by some medieval and early modern European pedagogues [End Page 5]


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Figure 1.

An undated hornbook with the distinctive covering of thin horn. The outer edge has a thin band of metal nailed to the board. It was discovered in the late-nineteenth century during the demolition of houses on High Street, Oxford, to make way for the new façade of Brasenose College. It measures 4 1/10 inches × 2 3/10 inches. AN1887.2561 Horn Book, © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

who understood and wrote about reading and learning as an act which could be made more enjoyable by the use of imagery. In 1529 the humanist Erasmus accredited visual imagery as a distinct apparatus in educating young children. Translated for an English audience by Richard Sherry in 1550, Erasmus suggests that visible cues encourage children to go further with their studies and [End Page 6] that seeing painted pictures can be used to introduce lessons in naming objects and animals in Latin and Greek: “The litle chyld laugheth at the syght of thys straunge paintynge, what shall the master do then? He shall shewe him that ther is a greate beaste called in Greeke an Elephante, and in Latine lykewyse.”3 In 1570 John Hart published A Methode or comfortable beginning for all unlearned, whereby they may bee taught to read English, in a very short time, vvith pleasure, which functioned within this framework. While intended for both...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1941-3599
Print ISSN
1939-6724
Pages
pp. 3-14
Launched on MUSE
2013-05-08
Open Access
No
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