Friday, February 10, 2012


I've admitted to being a collector here before; we have, stashed in various places around the house, all sorts of things roughly organized into loosely defined collections: books, glass and pottery, ephemera, folk art, and so on--even a few paintings.  It's always a great treat, then, to find an object that fits easily into more than one collection, as does the tiny (less than two-inch) late-medieval pewter badge shown here in the shape of a hornbook (complete with "abc"!), which fits both into a collection of books and into my collection of late medieval religious and secular badges. I got hooked on badges after seeing a number of them on display in the Cluny, the Parisian museum of the middle ages. The badges, both secular and religious, were the cheapest sort of personal adornments and/or tourist souvenirs from the late middle ages, and now they are an invaluable record of material culture from the lower levels of society, and they literally survive by the thousands.

Hornbooks, of course, were small wooden paddles, covered on one side with a see-through section of cow horn, behind which lay a printed or manuscript text of some sort, usually an alphabet and the most rudimentary elements of a primer. Hornbooks were often the first book in a child's literacy education. Real hornbooks, of course, like most early books intended for children, are virtually impossible to find these days, both because early collectors did not value them and because kids literally wore them out. If we can judge by an analogous example, the earliest American children's book, The New England Primer, apparently was first printed in 1689 or 1690.  It went through literally hundreds of editions in the next century and a half, and yet not a single eighteenth-century copy is available for sale on the ABEbooks site, and only a dozen or so copies from before 1830 can be found there. Charles F Heartman's bibliography of 1930 could not locate a single copy surviving from before 1727, though providing evidence for at least five earlier printings.

Excited as I recently was to find and buy the horn-book badge (which probably dates from around the fifteenth century), it was an especial treat since, many years ago, at an antique show in Greeley, I had bought a single-sheet hornbook page, although I've never been certain about just how old it is.  About the size of an index card, and printed on only one side, on good old-fashioned laid paper, with visible chain lines and everything, it has all the look of an original from the eighteenth century or earlier, but I've never been able to fully banish from my mind the possibility that it might be a nineteenth-century replica or souvenir of some sort. But the two-forms of the letters r and s, and the treatment of u and v as alternative forms of the same letter (to say nothing of the old-style "and" symbol after the lower case z) give it a very old black-letter look indeed. Early seventeenth century?  Could be, but I can't be at all sure.

And that's one of the great pleasures and frustrations of collecting things so old: they tell us so much with their very presence and realness, but there's often so much that still demands research.

1 comment:

ej said...

I hate to admit it, but I have never heard of hornbooks before Tom! Now I'm even more excited about your next book. So much I don't know about the Middle Ages. And I love, love, love the badge. Great find.