The ‘hornbooks’ we record through the PAS are post-medieval lead-alloy alphabet panels, whose name refers to far larger, and better made, tablets, generally wooden, with or without a handle. True hornbooks had printed text on vellum or paper protected by a thin sheet of transparent horn. These usually showed the alphabet or the Lord’s Prayer; the presence of the alphabet on most of the lead-alloy panels, split over four or five lines, suggests that they might have been intended as writing aids. However, Lewis (2012, 99) argues for use instead as a toy, given such mistakes on the panels as reversed letters and mixed cases.  Their distribution is centred on the North and the Midlands (Lewis 2012, 101); see the database search below.

PAS object type(s) to be used


PAS object classification to be used

Use hornbook in the Classification field


Do make sure that any inscription is noted in the Inscription field as well as Object Description. Normally these ‘hornbooks’ will be cast in a lead alloy, unless you have grounds for another manufacture method or primary material. Most examples are rectangular, but circular examples are known.


The dating of these lead-alloy alphabet panels is thought to centre on the late 17th century (Forsyth with Egan 2005, 29).  Dated examples recorded on the PAS database include ones from 1670, 1682 and 1691.  An example apparently depicting King Charles II would as such date to or post-date 1660. The absence of the letter J on most examples suggests that none would have dated after c. 1740.


Post-medieval toy hornbook (YORYM-FA8FF1)
Post-medieval toy hornbook (YORYM-FA8FF1) Copyright: York Museums Trust; CC-BY licence)

Search for all examples of hornbooks

Key references

Lewis 2012