The common letters
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.
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 academia.edu.)
More Useful Links
ABC-Clio’s Dictionary online has excellent definitions, linked to physical examples from major collections. http://www.abc-clio.com/ODLIS/odlis_t.aspx
A 6thC Greek tabula with its stylus and eraser is in the Schøyen Collection, MS 608. http://www.schoyencollection.com/scribes-collection/tools/wax-tablet-stylus-eraser-ms-608
David Kelsey’s folio at pinterest presently has an excellent collection of images, properly referenced. https://au.pinterest.com/historicconnect/wax-tablets/
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//www.bl.uk/eblj/1994articles/pdf/article1.pdf
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.
- details of the Folger exhibits with historical notes http://folgerpedia.folger.edu/Technologies_of_Writing_in_the_Age_of_Print#Tools_for_Writing
Alphabets – Pattern books:
Henry Shaw, The Hand book of Medieval Patterns and Devices (1856). The whole is available for download through archive.org
Two fifteenth century Pattern books are in the British Library:
- Sloane MS 1448A: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=1265&_ga=2.241141254.460686798.1499657196-1360658103.1487516170
- B.L. Add MS 88887, known as the ‘Macclesfield Pattern Book‘. http://www.bl.uk/manuscripts/FullDisplay.aspx?ref=Add_MS_88887