The Humble Hornbook – an early Teaching Aid

17th May 2017 — 6 Comments

The hornbook has been available since the 15th century or earlier, and was perhaps the original teaching aid lasting over 400 years, designed to introduce young children to reading. But it wasn’t really a book at all!

It consisted of a sheet of parchment or paper lesson or alphabet pasted on a paddle shaped piece of wood, something akin to a tennis bat. The name derives from the leaf of horn, made from sheep and goat horn that was softened and then boiled in water to produce true horn that could be pressed and cut into sheets and attached to the board by tacks.

1661 – Young lady holding a hornbook – from Tuer’s History of the Hornbook.

Detectorists sometimes find oblong pieces of lead, which they often discard as ‘the usual junk’, failing to see the alphabet or pattern incised in the metal. The detectorist known as ‘Huntsman’, recently found an inscribed tablet with markings, and recognised it as a ‘lead hornbook.’

Lead hornbook © Huntsman

The detectorist ‘lead hornbook’ is a slightly misleading name. True hornbooks are as I explained earlier. The lead tablets are far smaller, and would probably have been either toys or cheaper versions of the full-size hornbooks. A great find, nevertheless. If you have rolled up pieces of lead, go check them out as soon as possible. You could be in for a surprise!

© PAS LANCUM-4A4EC2 – Recorded as a ‘TOY’.

Brian Hooley in a Searcher magazine article of 1993, boasts that he had found three. He said:

Until three years ago only four metal ‘hornbooks’ were known to exist. Made during the 16th and early 17th centuries with the letters ‘J’ and ‘U’ omitted …. four examples known show the ‘hornbook’ to be extremely rare … ‘

That was in 1993. More have been found since, of course. I counted at least 30 on the PAS database – and this is due to detectorists diligently recording their finds, thus adding to our knowledge of our history and heritage. Here’s one of Brian’s examples:

© The Searcher magazine

“Hornbooks were particularly personal and often formed part of a child’s wardrobe, being attached by a string or thong to a belt. The hornbook’s physical intimacy both mirrors and promotes the child’s internalisation of the alphabet.” – Patricia Crain The Story of A.

Courtesy of the BM – Horn-book; rectangular black oak frame with solid flat back and projecting handle in middle of one end; face with sheet of horn fixed by tacked leather edging, covering printed sheet with Lord’s Prayer in metrical version, embelleished in red ink, set to music; brass diamond-shaped mount on back with Tudor Rose. Alphabet in red capitals alongside left and right edge (written).


Brian Ridley reminded me of this information sheet that appeared in The Searcher magazine of February 1997. Thank you, Brian!




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6 responses to The Humble Hornbook – an early Teaching Aid

  1. interesting john me old mate

  2. I had never heard of a hornbook John… So much more for me to learn.. so little time,

    Thank you for another great lesson


  3. Bruce D Campbhell 17th May 2017 at 4:29 PM

    Thank you for both the lesson and the reminder John. It truly is best to double check each item found before discarding them.

  4. Very interesting John.
    I wonder which letters might have been used in place of the letter ‘j’ and ‘u’ in those days?

  5. Thank you John, something else learned today. I had read about the inscribed lead pieces, but not the ” true” hornbook.
    This is why you have to live for another 500 years, and teach those the rest of us never did.

  6. Informative article. I always love to learn something. new .

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