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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Hornbook

Object 81 - How would the young William Shakespeare, attending Stratford-upon-Avon’s grammar school, have learned to read and write? This post describes the use of the hornbook.

Stephanie Appleton
SBT 1993-31/652 Hornbook
A Hornbook (SBT 1993-31/652)

This week’s 100 Objects blog comes from Stephanie Appleton who is a Doctoral Researcher in the History Department at Birmingham. 

How would the young William Shakespeare, attending Stratford-upon-Avon’s grammar school, have learned to read and write? As might be expected, Shakespeare makes reference to the practice of schooling in his works, and we find one such example in Love’s Labours Lost:

‘Moth: Yes, yes, he teaches boys the horn-book. What is ‘a, b’ spelt backward, with the horn on his head?’ (5. 1. 42 – 43)

Hornbooks were a key educational tool at this time, and were used in helping children to learn the basics of the English language. The one pictured here, in the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, dates from the sixteenth century and rather intriguingly is inscribed with the letters ‘WS’ on its reverse. These learning aids first appeared in England in the middle of the fifteenth century and were usually made of wood, leather or perhaps bone. (The Victoria and Albert Museum actually holds one of a later date made of silver). Rectangular in shape, the handle at the bottom – which looks like it has been broken off in the SBT’s example – allowed for easy grasping by young hands. The face of the hornbook would have a sheet of either vellum or paper pasted or tacked onto it, which would display the alphabet (upper and lower case letters) and in most cases probably also the Lord’s Prayer. This would then be protected by a thin layer of bone or horn, which is of course where the hornbook gets its name.

In comparison with our teaching methods today, early modern children would not be taught to read and write at the same time. Instead, being taught to read was the first priority, and they would use their hornbook as an aid to help them learn and memorise the alphabet and the Lord’s Prayer. Only once they had learnt to read would they then be taught the art of writing. This peculiarity of the education system helps to explain why gauging literacy levels for ordinary people (i.e. those below the nobility and gentry but above the very poorest people) of Shakespeare’s England is so difficult: some children may have attended school long enough to learn to read basic texts, but may have had to leave before they had been 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 to a friend.[i]

There were several practical advantages to using hornbooks in schools up and down Shakespeare’s England. They were both durable and reusable: able to withstand years of use and the inevitable rough treatment at the hands of young boys, they were a solid investment. But perhaps most importantly, at a time when vellum and paper were expensive commodities, hornbooks provided an affordable means for children to learn the essentials of the English language. Nowadays recent advances in technology have moved us away from reliance on the printed book in education with results that could be seen to mirror the teaching practices of the early modern period; the advent of portable ‘tablet’ computers means that some of our youngest children are learning to read their ABCs long before they get to grips with pen and paper.

[i] For more on this see David Cressy, Literacy and the Social Order: Reading and Writing in Tudor and Stuart England, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.