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A hornbook (horn-book) is a single-sided alphabet tablet, which served from medieval times as a primer for study, and sometimes included vowel combinations, numerals or short verse. The hornbook was in common use in England around 1450, but may originate from more than a century earlier.

Note: all of the following quotes are extracted from works in the public domain. Sources for the quotes: Beulah Folmsbee: A Little History of the Horn-book. The Horn Book Inc., Boston 1942/1972; B. F. Stevens & Brown, London 1983. ISBN 0-87675-085-4 Andrew W. Tuer: History of the Horn-Book. The Leadenhall Press, London 1896.


  • I never lov’d a book of horn,
    Nor leaves that have their letters worn;
    Nor with a fescue to direct me,
    Where every puny shall correct me.
    • Nicholas Breton, “A Strange A B C”, in: Melancholike Humours in Verses of Diverse Natures (1600).
  • When little children first are brought to schoole
    A Horne-booke is a necessarie toole.
    • Nicholas Breton, Cornucopiæ; Pasquil’s Night Cap, Or an Antidot for the Headache (1612).
  • Inadventurous, unstirred by impulses of practical ambition, I was capable of sitting twenty years teaching infants the horn-book, turning silk dresses and making children’s frocks.
  • Nor let them fall under Discouragement,
    Who at their Horn-book stick, and time hath spent
    Upon that A, B, C, while others do
    Into their Primer, or their Psalter go.
    • John Bunyan, A book for Boys and Girls; or Country Rhimes for Children (1686).
  • …if I keep sinking from one abyss of ignorance to another, with a velocity proportionable to what I have letely done, I must soon turn back to the first foundation of all human learning, a horn-book.
    • Letter from Elizabeth Carter to Catherine Talbot, from 16th August 1741.
  • …walked abroad with ferule and horn-book
  • Sir W.—“Come, come, let’s see, Man! What’s this! Odd! this Law is a plaguy troublesome thing; for, now a days, it won’t let a Man give away his own, without repeating the Particulars 500 times over: When in former times, a Man might have held his Title to Twenty Thousand pound a year, in compass of an Horn book.”
    • Colley Cibber, Love’s Last Shift, or the Fool in Fashion (1696), Act V. sc. 1.
  • None but imprison’d children now
    Are seen, where dames with angry brow
    Threaten each younker to his seat,
    Who through the window, eyes the street;
    Or from his horn-book turns away,
    To mourn for liberty and play.
  • I have taught my little master to know his letters and spell a little, as well as I could, out of my Bible; for they have given him neither horn-book nor primmer.
    • Daniel Defoe, The Family Instructor (1718), Dialogue 3, Part II, vol. ii.
  • Neatly secured from being soil’d or torn,
    Beneath a pane of thin translucent horn,
    A book (to please us at a tender age
    ’Tis call’d a book, though but a single page)
    Presents the prayer the Saviour deign’d to teach,
    Which children use, and parsons—when they preach.
  • He resolved therefore to answere his humble orator; but being himselfe not brought up to learning (for the divell can neither write nor reade) yet he has been to all the vniversities in Christendom, and thrown damnable heresies (like bones for dogges to gnaw upon) amongst the doctors themselves; but hauing no skill but in his owne Horne-booke, it troubled his mind where he should get a pen-man fit for his tooth to scribe for him.
  • Here
    The letters may be read, through the horn,
    That make the story perfect.
  • Potentially—
    As every christened rogue’s a child of God,
    Or those old hags, Christ’s brides—Think of your horn-book—
    The world, the flesh, and the devil—a goodly leash!
  • And yet God made all three.
    • Charles Kingsley, The Saint’s Tragedy: or the true story of Elizabeth of Hungary (1848), Act IV. sc. 1.
  • Methinks, you and I should have been born under the same roof, sucked the same milk, conned the same horn-book, thumbed the same Testament together; for we have been more than sisters, Maria!
  • What other books there are in English of the kind of those above-mentioned, fit to engage the liking of children, and tempt them to read, I do not know; but am apt to think that children, being generally delivered over to the method of schools, where the fear of the rod is to enforce, and not any pleasure of the employment to invite them to learn; this sort of useful books, amongst the number of silly ones that are of all sorts, have yet had the fate to be neglected; and nothing that I know has been considered of this kind out of the ordinary road of the horn-book, primer, psalter, Testament, and Bible.
  • Quan a chyld to scole xal set be,
    A bok hym is browt,
    Naylyd on a brede of tre,
    That men callyt an abece
    Pratylych i-wrout.
    • From a manuscript in the British Museum
  • Hearkens after prophecies and dreams;
    And from the cross-row plucks the letter G,
    And says a wizard told him that by G
    His issue disinherited should be.
  • Yes, yes, he teaches boys the Horne-booke:
    What is Ab speld backward with the horn on its head.
  • Lo! now with State she utters the Command,
    Eftsoons the Urchins to their Tasks repair:
    Their Books of Stature small they take in Hand,
    Which with pellucid horn secured are,
    To save from finger wet the Letters fair…
  • One day was allowed the child wherein to learn his letters; and each of them did in that time know all its letters, great and small, except Molly and Nancy, who were a day and a half before they knew them perfectly, for which I thought them very dull, but since I have observed how long many children are learning the horn-book I have changed my opinion.
    • Letter from Susannah Wesley to her son, John Wesley, from 24th July 1732.

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