Back to exhibition

VocalEyes - Shakespeare's Birthplace

Hornbook, 1666-1700.



Hornbooks were educational tools, designed to help children learn the basics of how to read and write. They first appeared in England around the fifteenth century and usually were made of leather, wood, bone and animal horn or mica [MY-ka].

This one was made between 1666 and 1700 from one piece of wood. It resembles a hand-held mirror, with a flat rectangular top, about 6 centimetres wide, and a small handle at the bottom. From top to bottom it measures just over 11 centimetres.

The face of the hornbook has a sheet of paper attached to the wood. It's yellowed with age, marked with brown patches, and in places has been torn. On it is the alphabet - two rows of lower case letters, followed by two rows of upper case. Beneath these are vowels, and some simple words that demonstrate vowel sounds - either before a consonant such as "ad, ed, id, od, ud" - or following the consonant, such as "ba, be, bi, bo, bu".  The main part of the Hornbook is taken up with the Lord's Prayer.

The name of the Hornbook comes from the fact that the face is protected by a thin, translucent piece of horn or mica. On this example it's attached to the wood with a thin metal frame. Their durability meant that Hornbooks were often passed down from child to child.

In grammar school during this time, such as the one Shakespeare attended in Stratford-upon-Avon, children would have been taught to read through the use of hornbooks. The hornbook would also have helped them memorise the Lord’s Prayer. At the time children were taught to read first, and only later how to write. This means that some poorer children would have attended school only long enough to learn to read basic texts, but may have had to leave before being taught how to write. Others may have got as far as writing their initials or maybe even their whole name, but would have been unable to compose a letter.

In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Act V, Scene I, Moth refers to Hornbooks:

“Yes, yes; he teaches boys the hornbook.  What is a, b, spelt backward, with the horn on his head?”