A Hornbook

Curio B9

This month’s curio is a Hornbook. These were used as primers by young children learning to read and write. Typically they were a piece of written or printed material pasted onto a board (often made of wood, ivory or lead) and covered with a sheet of transparent horn. The horn covering protected the text from tears or marking. Sometimes the back board was also decorated. The handle made them easier to hold, leaving the other hand free to write. Horn books usually displayed the alphabet in upper and lower case, sometimes also followed by numbers and the Lord’s Prayer.

All that remains on the Trinity hornbook is a fragment of the Lord’s Prayer. The alphabet would have originally been displayed above this on the upper half of the paddle. The horn covering was usually edged with brass or leather. On this hornbook, you can see the marks where the edging of the horn would originally have been held down with tacks or nails. The hole on the handle would have allowed a cord to be threaded through it, allowing the book to be fastened to the body.

Visual evidence of the use of hornbooks dates back to the 14th century (see, for example, here) and they are referred to in 16th century literature, but the oldest actual survivals are 17th century. Hornbooks were produced quite cheaply and in large numbers but not many have survived. Later hornbooks were also produced in gingerbread.

Horn was also sometimes used to cover book labels. We have a few examples here in the Library. The first (B.4.24) is on a velvet binding with the title recorded under horn nailed down with green silk ribbon.

B.4.24, front cover

There are two similar bindings in the Library of Corpus Christi College. These bindings are characteristic of the ‘Old Royal’ Library of Henry VIII. Another example (O.4.42) has a label on the lower right hand corner of the back cover with a handwritten title (probably 13th century) under horn held down by nails. Labeling such as this probably indicates ownership in a well-ordered and organised Library. This manuscript was owned by Abbey Dore in Herefordshire.

O.4.42, back cover

B.15.2 has its original label pasted to the inside front cover. You can see the holes where the nails held it in place. This label indicates that it is from the library of Syon Abbey, Middlesex. The Abbey had an extensive library prior to the Dissolution which was divided into two collections: one for the monks and one for the nuns. The label records the book title (divisiones thematum super epistolas et evangelia dominicalia cum aliis), 2nd folio (miam et) and original donor (Bracebridge). Medieval cataloguers would often use the first few words of the second folio to distinguish between different copies of the same text.

B.15.2, inside front

Finally, B.16.13 has a horn label (early 16th century) on the back cover which records that it was a gift from Thomas Traver, vicar of Walthamstow in Essex. There are also indications of chain marks at the bottom of the first leaves. The library to which this volume was given has not been identified with any certainty, but labels on outer covers (rather than on the spine) make more sense in a chained library where the books might be displayed on reading desks: see, for example, the chained library at Zutphen in The Netherlands.

B.16.13, back cover
B.16.13, f.1r

The hornbook and volumes B.15.2 and O.4.42 are currently on display in the Wren Library during public opening hours.

 

 

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