descriptive image

Hidden Hornbooks

The humble hornbook:

Margarita Philosophica by Gregorius Ileisch (1504), depicting a hornbook

Long used as a primer in children’s education, the hornbook originated in England in the 15th century. The books commonly take the form of a wooden paddle inscribed with the alphabet or a piece of text, which is protected with a transparent sheet of horn. The materials of construction can vary, with the paddle made of wood, bone, leather, or stone. The text can be printed or in manuscript, on parchment or on paper. The protective transparent sheet might also be made from mica. The hornbook is referenced in literature as early as Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost  and is a format that was often used in both English and the American education until the late 18th century.

Woodcut vignette from the title page of Hornbyes Hornbook by William Hornby (1622)

We learned all this and more when a special edition of Andrew Tuer’s History of the Horn-Book came through the lab recently for boxing. The publisher’s use of the hornbook’s iconic shape in the decoration on the front cover and the spine label is quite appropriate.

Front cover of parchment covered book.

But while this parchment case binding looks fairly ordinary, it contains quite a surprise. The front section of the book has been glued into a solid block, which is quite heavy.

Adhered section at the front of the book

The blocked section features a textile flap along the tail edge of the front flyleaf.

cover of the hidden compartment with a label describing the contents.Opening the flaps reveals a hidden compartment with three facsimile hornbooks!

Small facsimile hornbooks in the hidden compartment.Don’t you wish every history book you picked up included little artifacts hidden inside a secret compartment? Thanks to Rachel Penniman for snapping some photos of this amazing object before it returned to the stacks in its new enclosure.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *