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For the magazine about children's literature, see The Horn Book Magazine.
Miss Campion holding a hornbook, 1661. From Tuer’s History of the Horn-Book.

A hornbook is a book that serves as primer for study. The hornbook originated in England as long ago as 1450,[1] or earlier.[2] The term has been applied to a few different study materials in different fields. In children's education, in the years before modern educational materials were used, it referred to a leaf or page displaying the alphabet, religious materials, etc., covered with a transparent sheet of horn (or mica) and attached to a frame provided with a handle.[3]

Use in United States legal education[edit]

Main article: Hornbook (law)

In United States law, a hornbook is a text that gives an overview of a particular area of law. A law hornbook is a type of treatise, usually one volume, which could be a briefer version of a longer, multi-volume treatise. Students in American law schools often use hornbooks as supplements to casebooks.

Use in early childhood education[edit]

In childhood education from the mid 16th century to the late 19th century, a hornbook was a primer for children consisting of a sheet containing the letters of the alphabet, mounted on wood, bone, leather, or stone and protected by a thin sheet of transparent horn or mica. Sometimes the sheet was simply pasted against the slice of horn. The wooden frame often had a handle, and it was usually hung at the child's girdle. The sheet, which was first of vellum and later of paper, contained first a large cross, from which the horn-book was called the Christ Cross Row, or criss-cross-row. The alphabet in large and small letters followed. The vowels then formed a line, and their combinations with the consonants were given in a tabular form. The usual Trinitarian formula – "in the name of the Father and of the Sonne and of the Holy Ghost, Amen" – followed, then the Lord's Prayer, the whole concluding with the Roman numerals. The hornbook is mentioned in William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, act 5, scene 1, where the ba, the a, e, i, o, u, and the horn, are alluded to by Moth:

ARMADO. [To HOLOFERNES] Monsieur, are you not lett'red?
MOTH. Yes, he teaches boys the hornbook. What is a, b, spelt backward with the horn on his head?
HOLOFERNES. Ba, pueritia, with a horn added.
MOTH. Ba, most silly sheep with a horn. You hear his learning.
HOLOFERNES. Quis, quis, thou consonant?
MOTH. The third of the five vowels, if You repeat them; or the fifth, if I.
HOLOFERNES. I will repeat them: a, e, I-
MOTH. The sheep; the other two concludes it: o, U.

It is also described by Ben Jonson in his play Volpone, act 4, scene 2:

CORVINO: ... And yet I hope that I may say, these eyes
Have seen her glued unto that piece of cedar,
That fine well-timber'd gallant; and that here
The letters may be read, through the horn,
That make the story perfect.

Robert Burns in his poem Death and Doctor Hornbook refers to a local schoolmaster with a sideline as an apothecary, as Doctor Hornbook.


  1. ^ Huey, Edmund B. (1908). The Psychology and Pedagogy of Reading. New York: The MacMillan Company. p. 244. 
  2. ^ Plimpton, George A. "The Hornbook and Its Use in America". Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 26 (1916): 264-72.
  3. ^ Definition of hornbook from dictionary.com

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainChisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Horn-book". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 

External links[edit]