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.
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. 1
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:
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. 2
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.
In two competing pamphlets printed within weeks of each other in 1591, the early writing masters William Panke and Peter Bales provide detailed instructions for learning to write the letters of the alphabets in terms of breaks (the individual strokes that make up each letter) and joins (the strokes required to connect letters to each other if one is writing in secretary hand). 3 Breaking and joining instruction disappeared from copybooks in the first half of the seventeenth century, but was revived by Edward Cocker in the 1650s.
The example below shows how one Thomas Robinson, in 1698, used Cocker’s plate of “The Breakes of sett Secretary Letters” as a worksheet, completing the unfinished letters in ink, and making it up to the letter K in his imitation of the sample alphabet at the bottom of the leaf.
The number of surviving copybooks from the Elizabethan and Jacobean period is tiny, with scholars assuming that they were genres that were either “used to death” or discarded once they were no longer needed. Most surviving examples of alphabet practice appear on blank spaces in printed and manuscript books and are usually not noted in catalog records. An advanced search in Hamnet for “alphabet” under “All notes” led to some good examples of what the very earliest attempts at an alphabet look like. 4
This notebook from a barrister riding on the Midland circuit in 1610 includes alphabet practice by a member of the Jeffreys family of Acton, Denbighshire, ca. 1650-ca. 1660, on three separate leaves (Folger MS V.a.489). All examples are minuscule secretary letters, except for the initial majuscule A.
Thomas Blakesley’s secretary alphabet, copied in 1613, is slightly more practiced than the previous example. He practices in a heavily annotated copy of Girolamo Ruscelli’s The secretes of the reuerende Maister Alexis of Piemount. Containyng excellente remedies against diuers diseases, woundes, and other accidents, with the manner to make distillations, parfumes, confitures, diynges, colours, fusions and meltynges. … Translated out of Frenche into Englishe, by Wyllyam Warde (London, 1558) (Folger STC 293 copy 2). It is possible that the alphabet of minuscule and majuscule secretary letters was copied and spaced so that a younger learner could practice in between the lines.
Jeremiah Milles has added his alphabets and practice sentences to the backs of the front and rear covers and the endleaves of William Gouge’s Panoplia tou Theou. The vvhole-armor of God or The spirituall furniture which God hath prouided to keepe safe euery Christian souldier from all the assaults of Satan. First preached, and now published for the good of all such as well vse itt (Folger STC 12122 copy 2). His four attempts at the alphabet are either incomplete, or, as in the second example, missing the letter “p.” This causes problems for him in the fourth image, his transcription of Psalm 124 from the King James Bible, where he clearly thinks that the letter “q” is a “p”: see the words “up” (“uq”) and “proud” (“qroud”), for example. And in the third image, Milles’ transcription of the opening lines from John Fell’s The life of the most learned, reverend and pious Dr. H. Hammond (London, 1661), he somewhat corrects his initial confusion, although he still writes “attempted” as “attemqted.”
Another alphabet appears in a Folger copy of the 1605 edition of Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countesse of Pembrokes Arcadia (London, 1605) (Folger STC 22543 copy 4), but in this instance it is acting as a key to a rather unsophisticated cipher.
For any of you who have taught young children to write, now is the moment to acknowledge how little has changed in handwriting instruction in the past four hundred years (well, except that early modern children had the added challenges of having to learn to cut a quill nib and make iron gall ink). Worksheets from the Zaner-Bloser handwriting program illustrate the order in which the strokes are made and how the letters are joined together, and provide top, bottom, and middle guide lines. Modern handwriting programs such as Zaner-Bloser, Handwriting without Tears, and the Peterson Directed Method, encourage tracing letters before forming them freestyle, just like “Rules made by E.B. for children to write by” from 1570. 5
I happen to live with a four year old who is just learning to write her name and the alphabet. Just like Elizabethan children, she had to learn to grip her pencil correctly, in the “dynamic tripod grasp,” a new-fangled phrase for the second hold on the left, below.
I created double-ruled guidelines for her and an exemplar alphabet. She gamely copied the letters below, after tracing my lightly-written A and B. The results are one of those moments when the early modern and modern worlds seem to collide.
- See Herbert C. Schulz, “The Teaching of Handwriting in Tudor and Stuart Times,” The Huntington Library Quarterly (4), August 1943: 381-425.
- By the way, the aphorism on this leaf is from Cicero.
- Simran Thadani’s recently defended PhD dissertation, Penmanship in Print: English Copy-Books and their Makers, 1570-1763 (University of Pennsylvania, 2013), provides an account of the battle for authority between these two writing masters
- I’m sure there are many other instances that haven’t yet been recorded, and that if one searched all the examples of “pen trials” under “All notes,” other examples of letter-formation practice would be revealed.
- Despite the fact that the Common Core Standards no longer require elementary school students in the U.S. to learn cursive handwriting, many states are still opting to include it in the curriculum, and research highlights the many benefits of learning to write (in both print and cursive hands), in terms of cognitive development, motor skills, and reading comprehension. For a good general overview of the debate, see here and here, as well as the recent New York Times debate, “Is Cursive Dead?”