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Funding for this project generously provided by Overdeck Family Foundation


Derby Museum Hornbook

Primer for study

In William Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, one character asks another, "Yes, he teaches boys the hornbook. What is a, b, spelt backward with the horn on his head?" Shakespeare is referring to a hornbook or a crib book, which is a device that serves as a primer for study. Usually, the hornbook is in the shape of a paddle with a handle. One side contains study materials, while the other side is either blank or decorated. Hornbooks typically had a hole in the handle for a leather thong that could be attached to one's belt.

Derby Museum Hornbook

Hornbooks could have only the alphabet, as in this instance, the alphabet plus numbers or the Lord's Prayer and phonetics in some cross pattern. As an educational tool, the hornbook became popular in England as early as the 15th century. Often illustrations in manuscripts, such as one in Gregor Reisch's Margarita Philosophica (1503), show a student holding a hornbook or having a hornbook at their hip.

Artifact origin

Derby, United Kingdom

Current artifact location

Derby Museum and Art Gallery, Derby


MathematicsEducation timeline babylonian-scribe-school-multiplication-tablet Rhind Papyrus Slate with Numeral Frame Derby Museum Hornbook North American Hornbook Wood Hornbook with Abacus Maria Agnesi's Analytical Institutions Midshipman's Cyphering Book Samuel Fay's Cyphering Book Lincoln's Cyphering Book Orville Wright's Arithmetic Textbook New York State Regents Exams in Mathematics

Interactive Content

Computational Explanation

Additional Reading

  • Plimpton, G. "The Hornbook and Its Use in America." Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society, Vol. 26, pp. 264–272, 1916.
  • Tuer, A. W. History of the Horn-Book. London: Leadenhall Press, 1896.

Image Credits

Wikimedia (cropped, background adjusted, contrast enhanced)