Learning to write the alphabet

Learning to write the alphabet is one of the first stages of writing literacy. For early modern English children, this meant first learning to read the letters of the alphabet (printed in black letter) from a hornbook.

hornbook

Hornbook (London?, 1630). Folger Shakespeare Library STC 13813.5. Click on the image (and all other images) to view a larger version.

They then learned to write the letters of the alphabet in one or both of the two main handwritten scripts, secretary and italic. For this, they relied on manuscript or printed copybooks or exemplars, usually supplemented by instruction from a writing master at a writing school, a private tutor or family member, or usher in a grammar school. ((See Herbert C. Schulz, “The Teaching of Handwriting in Tudor and Stuart Times,” The Huntington Library Quarterly (4), August 1943: 381-425.)) 

Below are two plates from Jehan de Beau-Chesne’s and John Baildon’s A booke containing diuers sortes of hands, as well the English as French secretarie with the Italian, Roman, chancelry & court hands (London, 1602 [first ed. 1570]) (Folger STC 6450.2) that depict versions of secretary and italic hand:

“The secretarie Alphabete”

“The secretarie Alphabete” from Jehan de Beau-Chesne and John Baildon, A booke containing diuers sortes of hands (London, 1602). This was the first English-language writing manual, first published in 1570.

Italic hands alphabet

“Italique hands”

On both of these leaves, someone has tried to imitate the letter forms. In the top example, the brand new writer got through some of the minuscule and majuscule forms of the letter A (“a a a A A [upside down!] a a a”) before smudging out his or her work. Further progress is made on the “Italique hande” leaf, where the letters A through J (and perhaps an attempt at the letter K) are awkwardly and painstakingly formed underneath the exemplar. (By the way, the aphorism on this leaf is from Cicero.)

Children learned their letters by repeatedly tracing and copying strokes, letters, alphabets, pangrams (sentences that contain all the letters of the alphabet), and aphorisms. Beau-Chesne’s copybook was not the only one to contain the verse instructions, “Rules made by E.B. for children to write by,” that describe the ideal quill, ink, and posture for a child’s first experiences with writing. The instructions even advise on how the teacher should prepare the paper:

… Scholler to learne, it may do you pleasure,
To rule him two lines iust of a measure:
Those two lines betweene to write very iust,
Not aboue or below write that he must:
The same to be done is best with blacke lead,
Which written betweene, is cleansed with bread.
Your pen from your booke, but seldome remoue,
To follow strange hand with drie pen first proue:
(copied from Folger STC 6450.2)

That is, use a graphite pencil to rule a piece of paper with sets of double lines for the child to write between. Then write some exemplar letters for the child to copy. He or she can trace them with an inkless quill in the first instance, and then proceed to use ink. The pencil lines can be erased with bread.

The result might be something like below, in which one Stephen Poynting, possibly a student at the Free School in Gloucester, practices a pangram, “Job a Righteous man of uz waxed poor Quickly” (i/j and u/v counting as single graphs). He writes it twenty-one times, and his spacing between words grows larger and larger so that he can no longer fit the last word of the sentence (he appears to be writing one word of the sentence at a time, in columnar format). If you look closely at the piece of paper, you can see that it is blind-ruled; that is, guidelines have been made with an inkless quill to help him write in a straight line.

Poyning-pangram

Stephen Poynting, “Job a Righteous Man.” Handwriting practice. Folger Shakespeare Library MS X.d.243

by Heather Wolfe @hwolfe

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About Heather Wolfe

Heather Wolfe (Zooniverse handle @hwolfe) is principal investigator of EMMO (Early Modern Manuscripts Online) and curator of manuscripts at the Folger Shakespeare Library. She loves being knee-deep in old manuscripts.

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