Book 1 Grammar. Section iii. 1-3

The common letters






(detail) Brit.Lib. Harley MS 3035 f.4r (1495 AD). ‘The Etymologies’

(detail) Brit.Lib. MS Additional 60577 f.120r (15th century)

(detail) Brit.Lib. MS Arundel 173 f. 63v Southern France, first half of the twelfth century.

(detail) Brit.Lib. Royal MS 6 C VI f. 33v. letter Q from Ch19 of Moralia in Job. (1st quarter of the 12th century, c. 1108- before c. 1122).
In Practice


A child’s first introduction to letters was through practice on the erasable wax surface of a tabula, usually of wood.  Finer materials used in later life might include ivory.

Met Museum, Cloisters Collection No 66.211a,b (14thC)

Letters of Memory

Isidore’s associating writing with remembering was a trope which survived – just as the tabula did – for centuries after the introduction of paper or printing.

In Elizabethan England, for example,  Hamlet is filled with allusion to these tablets, called ‘tables’, and to other forms of re-usable writing materials.   Swearing vengeance for his father’s murder, Hamlet vows to wipe from his memory all trivial and foolish records; all proverbial sayings from other books, all forms and all past impressions derived from youth and observation, so that unmixed with any baser matter only his father’s commandment will remain. (For the Elizabethan English verses see Hamlet, Act 1 Scene 5 ll, 95–104)

For other forms of erasable writing material see Peter Stallybrass, Roger Charter, J.F. Ranklin Mowery and Heather Wolfe, ‘Hamlet’s Tables and the Technologies of Writing in Renaissance England’, Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol.55 No.4 (2004) pp. 379–419. (Available through

 More Useful Links
(detail) Copenhagen, Det Kongelige Bibliotek, ms. NKS 218 4 f.46v (1150 AD)

ABC-Clio’s Dictionary online has excellent definitions, linked to physical examples from major collections.

A 6thC Greek tabula with its stylus and eraser is in the Schøyen Collection, MS 608.

David Kelsey’s folio at pinterest presently has an excellent collection of images, properly referenced.

Michelle Brown, ‘The Role of the Wax Tablet in Medieval Literacy’, The British Library Journal, Vol. 20, No. 1 (SPRING 1994), pp. 1-16. Available through JSTOR or online as a pdf. https//

Folger Library, ‘Technologies of Writing in the Age of Print: tools for writing’. Record of an exhibition. Includes image (here) of the front of a seventeenth-century tabula.

Alphabets – Pattern books:
detail from the Macclesfield Pattern Book f.24r

Henry Shaw, The Hand book of Medieval Patterns and Devices (1856). The whole is available for download through

Two fifteenth century Pattern books are in the British Library:


‘that the may lerne’ (detail) BL MS Add 60577 fol 56v

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