Miss Campion holding a hornbook, 1661. From Tuer's History of the Horn-Book.

A hornbook (horn-book) is a single-sided alphabet tablet, which served from medieval times as a primer for study,[1] and sometimes included vowel combinations, numerals or short verse.[2] The hornbook was in common use in England around 1450,[3] but may have originated more than a century earlier.[4] The term (hornbook) has been applied to different study materials in different fields but owes its origin to children's education, represented by a sheet of vellum or paper displaying the alphabet, religious verse, etc., protected with a translucent covering of horn (or mica) and attached to a frame provided with a handle.[5]


Leather hornbook in the Cary Graphic Arts Collection

Horn books, battledore books and crisscross books were all tablets designed primarily to teach the alphabet to children[6] laid out as an abecedarium, the elementary method of teaching used from Antiquity to the Middle Ages where letters of the alphabet were taught by rote.[7] An illustration of a hornbook from 1326 appears in a richly illuminated vellum manuscript (Liber de Officiis Regum, by Walter de Wilemete) but the earliest recorded reference (to a "boke of horn") is in 1450.[8] Wooden hornbook primers were in common use by children from the mid-15th century to late 18th century, evolving in to battledore books (mid-18th to mid-19th century), crisscross books, finally displaced by cardboard ABC books in the 19th century.[1][6]

Hornbooks consist of a lesson sheet illustrating the letters of the alphabet, mounted on a paddle of wood, bone, leather, silver, lead alloy[9] or stone and protected by a thin sheet of translucent horn,[n 1] or mica,[n 2] held in place by narrow brass strips (latten) tacked through the horn to the paddle to protect the lesson sheet.[10] The paddle often had a handle with a hole for a cord or ribbon suspended from the child's girdle at their waist. The lesson sheet, which was first of vellum and later of paper, were typically inscribed with a large cross,[n 3] followed by alphabet letters,[n 4] numbers and in later version, short verse.[13] Hornbooks displayed letters of the alphabet, a syllabary and prayers for novice readers. Andrew Tuer described a typical hornbook with a line separating the lower case and capital letters from the syllabary. This syllabarium or syllabary, likely added to the hornbook in 1596,[1] taught pronunciations of vowel and consonant combinations.[14]

ab eb ib ob ub ba be bi bo bu

These syllables are possible ancestors to the modern instructional practice of new readers working with onsets and rimes in word families. From the first hornbook, the alphabet format cemented the learning progression from syllables to words. The inscriptions appear either in block print (illustrated upper left), best suited for learning to read or hand-written (illustrated lower right), best suited for learning to write.[15]


A 19th-century replica of a Late Tudor oak Hornbook

The memory of "hornbooks" in modern culture has faded partly because of the extreme scarcity of original exemplars as they fell out of use.[n 5] Hornbooks were educational tools for children, but children had other uses for hornbooks, which contributed further to their dearth.[16][17] By the time that antiquarians had realised their lack in the 19th century, it was too late; most had been destroyed.[18] Those few authentic hornbooks in existence today are preserved either because of their intrinsic value (their owners were rich and famous e.g. Queen Elizabeth I), or because they were mislaid by their owners, lost beneath floor-boards, behind panelling, lodged in thatched rafters,[1][6] or more recently buried, in various states of preservation.[12][13] The rarity of hornbooks increased their value in the 19th century, which when combined with gaps in knowledge, opened the doors to counterfeit.[19][20] Even the name itself (hornbook) has been appropriated, becoming synonymous with child education (e.g. The Horn Book Magazine), as a benchmark for essential education (e.g. Hornbook (law)), or used as a pejorative term (e.g. poorly educated). Today, there are certainly many more "spurious" hornbooks in circulation than genuine but, in the absence of verified exemplars, skilled counterfeit can be hard to discount.

Memory preserved in art

Images of hornbooks are variously preserved in the margins of old manuscripts,[21] as a prop in portraiture (illustrated above) or referred to in verse:

ARMADO. [To HOLOFERNES] Monsieur, are you not lett'red?
MOTH. Yes, he teaches boys the hornbook. What is a, b, spelt backward with the horn on his head?
HOLOFERNES. Ba, pueritia, with a horn added.
MOTH. Ba, most silly sheep with a horn. You hear his learning.
HOLOFERNES. Quis, quis, thou consonant?
MOTH. The third of the five vowels, if You repeat them; or the fifth, if I.
HOLOFERNES. I will repeat them: a, e, i—
MOTH. The sheep; the other two concludes it: o, u.
CORVINO: ... And yet I hope that I may say, these eyes
Have seen her glued unto that piece of cedar,
That fine well-timber'd gallant; and that here
The letters may be read, through the horn,
That make the story perfect.

Even so the Hornbooke is the seede and graine
Of skill, by which we learning first obtained :
And though it be accounted small of many,
And haply bought for twopence or a penny.
Yet will the teaching somewhat costly be
Ere they attain unto the full degree
Of scholarship and art.

Use in United States legal education

Main article: Hornbook (law)

In United States law, a hornbook is a text that gives an overview of a particular area of law. A law hornbook is a type of treatise, usually one volume, which could be a briefer version of a longer, multi-volume treatise. Students in American law schools often use hornbooks as supplements to casebooks.


  1. ^ Opaque horn was worked to make it translucent
  2. ^ Historically, writers referred to mica as "talc". The sheet mica used in hornbooks are likely to be Muscovite, or Muscovy-glass, a name given to the mineral in Elizabethan England due to its use in medieval Russia (Muscovy) as a cheaper alternative to glass in windows
  3. ^ from which the hornbook was called the Christ Cross Row, or criss-cross row.[11]
  4. ^ early hornbooks lack the letters "J" and "U"[12]
  5. ^ When technological advances displace utility objects, their value in advancing that technology is often lost as better and more desirable utilities replaced them. Even as early as 1651, some educationalists scorned the use of hornbooks (Bailey, 2013, p11), so it is not surprising that few contemporaries recognise the value of incipient posterity


  1. ^ a b c d Tuer, Andrew W. (1897). History of the Horn-Book. London: The Leadenhall Press. pp. 1–486. ISBN 9780405090356.
  2. ^ Pinto, Edward H (1969). TREEN and other wooden bygones - An Encyclopaedia and Social History. London: G. Bell and Sons Ltd. p. 416. ISBN 9780713515336.
  3. ^ Huey, Edmund B. (1908). The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading. New York: The MacMillan Company. p. 244.
  4. ^ Plimpton, George A. "The Hornbook and Its Use in America". Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 26 (1916): 264-72.
  5. ^ Definition of hornbook from dictionary.com
  6. ^ a b c Folmsbee, Beula (1942). Little History of the Horn-Book. Boston, Massachusetts: Horn Book, Incorporated. pp. 1–57. ISBN 9780876750858.
  7. ^ Bailey, Merridee L. (2013). "Hornbooks". Journal of the History of Childhood & Youth. 6 (1): 5–14. doi:10.1353/hcy.2013.0000.
  8. ^ Tuer A.W, Op. Cit., p 453
  9. ^ Lewis, Michael (2011). "Report of the Portable Antiquities Scheme 2009". Post-Medieval Archaeology. 45 (2): 325–336. doi:10.1179/174581311X13135030529476. S2CID 163954347.
  10. ^ Folmsbee, B. Op. Cit., pp 5-14
  11. ^ "Horn-book" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 13 (11th ed.). 1911. p. 708.
  12. ^ a b Burnett, Laura; Webley, Robert (2020). "Report of the Portable Antiquities Scheme 2018". Post-Medieval Archaeology. 54 (2): 229–236. doi:10.1080/00794236.2020.1812301. S2CID 224913823.
  13. ^ a b Patterson, Annette, Joyce; Cormack, Philip, Anton; Green, Philip, Charles (2012). "The child, the text and the teacher: reading primers and reading instruction" (PDF). Paedagogica Historica. 48 (2): 185–196. doi:10.1080/00309230.2011.644302. S2CID 142772041.((cite journal)): CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  14. ^ Bailey M.L, Op. Cit., p 10
  15. ^ Tuer A.W, Op. Cit., p 11
  16. ^ Bailey, M.L. Op. Cit., pp12-134
  17. ^ Folmsbee, B. Op. Cit., p 4
  18. ^ Tuer A.W, Op. Cit., p 7
  19. ^ Tuer, A.W. Op. Cit., pp 178-190
  20. ^ Pinto, Edward H (1949). TREEN or Small Woodware throughout the Ages. London: B.T. Batsford. pp. 50–51.
  21. ^ Tuer, A.W. Op. Cit., p453
  22. ^ "Complete Works: Death and Doctor Hornbook: A True Story". Burns Country. 1785.