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Where is the Horn That Was Blowing?  

A beginner’s search for the early-medieval hunting horn.1 

by Dyfn ap Meurig, mka Buck Marchinton

  

The horn, variously known as the hunting horn, blast horn, winding horn, or sounding horn, is common enough in medieval documentation and fiction.  Tolkien, who crafted his tales from the bones of early medieval myth and from whom I took the title of this essay, used horns extensively as a device to hearten the flagging ally and put fear into the minions of darkness. Contemporary literature and archeological evidence makes it clear that horns served many purposes: to alert watchmen, to announce one’s presence in friendly territory, to guide hunting dogs, to signal troops, or even simply to check up on a friend in the next valley.  My interest in the hunting horn began early on with an antique hunting horn in my family’s keeping, and bloomed when I read The Lord of the Rings, a story rife with hills ringing with horn music. Taking an old, unused cow horn, I scraped and drilled and cut until I held in my hands a hunting horn that would actually make a loud noise (and which I could blow without fear of being stampeded by a lovesick moose).  After taking a class on horn and bone carving, I decided to carve it with designs appropriate to what my tenth century Anglo-Welsh persona would carry.  It was there that I hit a snag.  This article follows my early search for the answer to my design questions, and the results of that endeavor. 

What is Horn?

The horns of bovines are actually composed of three parts: a core of bone encased in a spongy pulp, which in turn is covered by a sleeve of material not unlike hair or fingernails in composition; generally we only use this outer outer shell.  After removal and cleaning, one is left with a mostly-hollow object suitable as a container (for grease, gunpowder, or the ubiquitous drink) or protection (thumbguards, helm plates, etc).  Horn was also used in utensils, bow nocks and many other items2; in short, it was a material which formed the basis of a thriving hornworking industry3 from antiquity until horn was supplanted by plastics and other synthetics4.  My chief interest is the blast horn, where the pointed end of the horn is cut away and a mouthpiece attached (either using an existing mouthpiece or carving the proper shape into the end of the horn).  A serviceable blast horn is fairly easy to make; and several web sites describe the process in more detail 5.   

Extant Examples

There is no question that blast horns saw extensive use in the middle ages (not to mention well before and up to this day in some places).  But the heart of this essay regards what early-period horns looked like – how were they ornamented, whether they were decorated with carvings, and how were they carried? Unfortunately, almost no early period natural horns exist, since horn decays more easily than bone.  In many cases, such as the famous burial at Sutton Hoo, the existence of horn implements can only be inferred based on the shape and position of metal fittings bound to the horn6.  Surviving medieval sounding horns are rare enough to be noteworthy, so I shall briefly describe three examples provided by Hardwick 7.

  One of the best-preserved sounding horns is the (presumed) seventh century horn attributed to St. Hubert8.  The oxhorn is unfortunately in poor condition due to damage caused by the heavy ornamentation applied in the fifteenth century. Even with most of the newer metalwork removed, no engraving can be seen, only deliberate scoring (possibly to hold the adhesive for the metalwork). 

  Another pre-Conquest horn resides in Ripon, England9. The horn is said to date from AD 886.  Though Hardwick spends his time discussing the use of the horn rather than its characteristics, incising would probably have merited mention.  Instead, the oxhorn is bound in silver at both ends with four bands along its length.10

  Of later vintage was the elder Bainbridge horn11, reputedly used in the 12th century to call woodcutters home on winter nights.  From the single photo I was able to find, the item had no fittings or designs and only an integral mouthpiece.

In addition to extant horns, we have illustrations from contemporary sources.  Among the more famous is the Book of the Hunt, written by Gaston Phoebus in the 15th century12. Many of the hunting scenes include hunters carrying or winding their horns; there is even one scene of Phoebus teaching a group how to sound their horns13.  In this picture, the horns appear plain and curved, with bands in the center of the horn attached to lanyards of rope, or chain. Each horn seem to have a raised but integral mouthpiece at the end of the tapering neck, unlike most sounding horns I’ve seen floating about the SCA and living history events; some shadowing makes it possible that the last third of the horns are metal or bound in metal, however.  

Beyond the Evidence 

  As we have seen, available evidence suggests that medieval horns – those of nobles at least – were decorated and augmented with metal, although purely functional horns might have no adornment whatsoever.  But absence of evidence isn’t necessarily evidence of absence.  I can’t help but suspect that many sounding horns had designs carved in them. Contemporary winding horns of exotic materials such as elephant ivory were intricately carved14. More importantly, some surviving medieval15 and many post-medieval horn items show etched and incised decorations.  Horn being relatively soft, it has long been an artistic medium for indulging creative urges or staving off boredom.  Both Ritche and Hardwick show many examples of  powder horns, cups and so forth with scenes and patterns both elegant and crude scratched onto their surfaces16.  Why, then, would blast horns not be inscribed in some fashion – especially the horns of those who couldn’t afford precious stones and metals for the adornment of a tool?  Alas, there are too few examples to prove conclusively, yet it is difficult to imagine they did not.

 Conclusion

So, I know a little more than when I started, but with no conclusive evidence of what wished to know.  Details of early period culture are frequently shrouded from our view, and more so the commonplace tools and items that no one bothers to mention or preserve. What I feel can reasonably be assumed are as follows:

1.  Throughout the Middle Ages, sounding horns were fairly common tools in all classes.
2,  Those with wealth, creative inclinations and/or time would decorate and embellish their horns.

  Exactly what those designs were and what sort of embellishments found horns are likely lost to time – to my great frustration. 

____________________

Footnotes

  1.  I make no claim to be an expert on this subject.  I merely compile what I’ve learned so far from my limited resources, in the hopes that this will spark a reader’s interest in the subject, interest that may lead to uncovering more facts and finds.  And if some more learned gentle should guide me to greater wisdom on this topic, I should be most grateful. 

  2  Hardwick, MacGregor.

  3. Archeological sites containing large numbers of cow horn cores indicate centers of hornworking industry (MacGregor, p 51).

   4.   Taylor  , http://www.oregonknifeclub.org/horn.html

  5.  See the general horn webpage, http://www.bmarch.atfreeweb.com/crafts.htm

  6. Incidentally, these were drinking horns made from the horns of an auroch, a now-extinct wild bovine with very impressive headgear.

  7.  Hardwick’s horns, coincidentally, are all to be found in  England; I suspect that outside of this Anglo-centric view other horns have survived from the period, but until I come across them, I can only go by Hardwick’s list.

  8.  Hardwick, pp46-49.

  9. ibid, pp50-55. Actually, it is one of four horns; the second took up service in 1690 and the third in 1865.  The fourth was a presentation to commemorate the city’s thousandth year. The original horn stood in place of a written charter as a symbol of the town’s legal standing.

  10It may be worth mentioning that a recent controversy over plans to carbon-date the horn have resulted in those plans being shelved.  An article in Ripon Today (http://www.ripontoday.co.uk/ViewArticle2.aspx?SectionID=18&ArticleID=755997) suggests that fear of losing a historical point of pride and not concern for the artifact’s safety was the reason for the uproar.  

  11.  Hardwick p43.

12.   Versions of this text can be had, but the illustrations can be seen online at http://www.bnf.fr/enluminures/manuscrits/aman10.htm .  

  13.  http://www.bnf.fr/enluminures/images/jpeg/i5_0028.jpg 

  14. The British Museum displays examples on their website. I have been unable to locate a picture of a finely ornamented huntsman’s horn which is on display at the museum.

  15. MacGregor (pp151-152) describes a Frankish drinking horn with silver-mounted rim, “the remains of a fringed leather band and a leather carrying strap. . .and the horn itself was ornamented near the base with rows of incisions and an area of lozenges.”  

16.  My father has an example of a simple horn made in the mid-20th century for dog-deer hunting in   Florida : a deeply-carved rattlesnake spirals up the horn from the mouthpiece almost to the bell; a hound’s head and some deer tracks also embellish the horn.  It hangs from my folks’ mantelpiece by its original leather lanyard, now cracked with age.

    

References

    Books

  Hardwick, P.  1981.  Discovering horn.  Lutterworth Press,  Guildford . 192pp

  MacGregor, A. 1985.  Bone, antler, Ivory and horn – the technology of skeletal materials since the roman period.   Croom Helm,   London  and   Sydney  , Barns and Noble,   Totowa ,  New Jersey  . 245pp

  Ritchie, C.  Bone and horn carving: a pictoral history.  Thomas Yoseloff Ltd., London, A.S. Barnes and Co.,   New York  .  165pp

    Websites 

General horn-related links, including those referenced in the text, at

http://www.bmarch.atfreeweb.com/crafts.htm

  Carlson, M. 2001. Using and Working with Horn. http://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~marc-carlson/horn/hornhome.html

  Taylor, J.  Horns, Bones, Tusks, Antlers and Hooves. http://www.oregonknifeclub.org/horn.html

Where is the Horn that was Blowing? Copyright 2004 by Forrest Marchinton.  All Rights Reserved. May not be reproduced without permission.