Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments, a Digital Edition

Plate 1.2: The Horn of Ulf

Plate: Engraved by George Vertue (1684-1756) after [B M] in 1718. Though the engraving is undated, the Society of Antiquaries Minute Book records that it was ordered on 23 April 1718 (SAL Minutes I.94). Vertue was paid on completion of the engraving on 18 June and again for reprints in 1719 and 1721 (Alexander 2008, 273). 

Object: Early eleventh-century elephant tusk carved by Islamic craftsmen in Salerno, with silver mounts added in the seventeenth century; 29” long and 15 ½” in circumference at the “great end” (Gale 1770, 182). The horn was given to York Minster by Ulphus or Ulf Toraldsson—not to be confused with Ulf Thorgilsson, the vassal of King Canute (d. 1026)—as a token or “conveyance” when he endowed the cathedral with substantial landholdings about 1036. The horn was plundered or sold during the Reformation, perhaps during the Civil War, when it was acquired by General Thomas Fairfax, whose son Henry restored it to the cathedral in 1675 (as recorded on the silver mounts transcribed in the engraving under A and B). Currently, the horn is held in the Treasury of York Minster.


Above the Horn: Cornu antiquum Icone hac duplò undique ad amussim majus, in Templo D. Petri. Ebor. asservatur A.D. MDCCXVIII. Ecclesiӕ, uti creditur, sub initio Sӕculi XI oblatum.


Center, Right

Bottom: Ex Collectione Samuelis Gale. / Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariӕ Lond


Above the Horn: An ancient horn in all respects exactly twice the size of this image, in the Church of St Peter, York. Recorded in the year 1718. It is believed to have been bestowed on the minster at the beginning of the 11th century.

Center, Left: Ulf, ruler of the western region of Deira, gave [the Church] this horn—which for a time was lost or stolen—together with all his lands and incomes.

Center, Right: Henry, Lord Fairfax, eventually restored it. The dean and chapter decorated it anew in the year 1675.

Bottom: From the collection of Samuel Gale. / At the expense of the Antiquarian Society Lond[on]

Commentary by Noah Heringman: According to the Minute Book of the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL), “it was unanimously ordered” that this drawing “be printed” on 23 April 1718, evidently with the purpose of publishing it in the new print series (SAL Minutes I.94). As noted in italic script at the bottom of the image, the drawing belonged to Samuel Gale (1682-1754), at that time treasurer of the SAL. George Vertue’s delicate engraving emphasizes the contrast between ivory and silver, the two materials composing the horn, while the pronounced shadow along the bottom one-fourth of the horn highlights the carved work at the large end. Countless parallel lines between the ribs of the horn emulate the grain of the ivory, while heavy contrast brings out the reflective surface of the silver mounts added to the horn when it was restored to the cathedral, replacing medieval mounts most likely stripped off when the horn was taken from the minster during the Reformation (Gale 1770, 182).

Presumably following the original drawing by B.M., concerning whom nothing is recorded, Vertue leaves out the supports on which the horn would have had to be resting to face the viewer in this manner, along with any other visual background. The artifact floats instead in empty space, nearly filling the frame in the manner of other scientific and antiquarian illustrations. Through its monumentality, this visual presentation helps to underwrite Gale’s description in his “Historical Dissertation” on the horn, which calls it a “venerable piece of antiquity” (Gale 1770, 168). Gale, a son of the dean of York Minster, presented this account orally on 31 December 1718 (SAL Minutes I.18), but it did not appear in print until long after his death. (Under the directorship of John Ward (1678/9-1758), the SAL began publishing such accounts in letterpress along with the prints in Vetusta Monumenta.)

Unlike the lamp depicted in Plate 1.1, which the antiquaries handed around at one of their early meetings, the horn itself never “came into their hands” (SAL Minutes I.3). The brief note in the minutes suggests that admiration for the drawing partly motivated their decision. Gale’s “Dissertation” provides some direct evidence concerning his motivation for commissioning (or buying) this drawing, but we should also take the fact that it circulated at a meeting, along with real artifacts, as circumstantial evidence. With the exception of Plate 1.1, most of the objects engraved for the first volume of Vetusta Monumenta were either not moveable or not in the possession of the SAL; many, including the baptismal font at St. James’s (Plate 1.3) and the portrait of Richard II (Plate 1.4), were permanently situated in churches, and others were built works or ruins from farther afield. Visual documentation expanded the scope of antiquarian research, and the distance between London and York further supported the rationale that the engraving would give access to many antiquaries who would not otherwise have it.

Whereas the SAL commissioned not only the engraving work for the next two plates but also the drawings on which they were based, in this case an individual had already taken the trouble and expense to secure the drawing, and the label on the image, "Ex Collectioni Samuelis Gale," indicates the value that antiquaries placed on collecting artifacts as well as drawings of artifacts. In this respect, the print series was a logical outcome of more informal practices of antiquarian visual communication.

It is not immediately obvious what makes this horn a “venerable piece of antiquity,” in Gale’s words, nor is it obviously a “monument” at all, as Maria Grazia Lolla has observed (1999, 28). Gale’s use of this phrase provides a glimpse of the rhetoric used by the early antiquaries to bestow a dignity on British antiquities that would make them commensurable with classical remains. Although admiration, as Lolla suggests, is certainly an important motive, Gale’s “Dissertation” is only one of several pieces of contemporary scholarship advancing quite substantial claims for this historical importance of these horns and the practice of “cornage” that they were held to illustrate. At least two of these authors use this term to signify “land tenure conveyed by horn” (Milles 1775, 28-29; Pegge 1775, 11n), but this definition is not accepted by the OED, which cites other “erroneous explanations” of the word—which properly refers to rent based on the size of a herd of cattle. The title of Samuel Pegge’s (1704-1796) “Of the Horn, as a Charter or Instrument of Conveyance”—one of a cluster of seven articles on horns in the third volume of Archaeologia (1775)—conveys the essence of this argument. A long abstract of Pegge’s paper, which traces the use of charter horns into the early modern period, survives in the minutes of the SAL, indicating that substantial time was spent on the subject (SAL Minutes IX.392-400). 

Modern scholarship confirms Pegge’s conclusion that three different kinds of horns were used as charter horns—“drinking Horns, Hunting Horns, [and] Horns for summoning the People” (IX.397)—and authorizes the continued use of “cornage” in the sense contested by the OED (Backa 2015, n.p.). Pegge and his colleagues, however, show little interest in the provenance or craftsmanship of these horns, focusing instead on archival sources documenting their use in English institutional and political history. According to Backa, ivory horns like the Horn of Ulf were widely known in the middle ages by the name “oliphant,” and at least one other surviving example (out of seventy-five) can be traced to the same artisan as the York example. The motif of fantastic creatures on this horn, and the style of carving, have led the curators at York Minster to attribute the horn to Islamic craftsmanship (“Horn of Ulf”). Backa points out that the materials and the motifs evoke the very long legacy of Mediterranean cultural exchange, citing Byzantine and Syrian influences among others. (Differing from Pegge on its use as well, Backa describes this one as a “calling horn,” pointing to primary source evidence concerning its use on holidays.)  In this context, it becomes clearer that the eighteenth-century antiquaries framed this object deliberately as a monument of British antiquity by placing less emphasis on its origin and workmanship.

Gale’s “Dissertation,” one of several archived papers that Richard Gough (1735-1809) assembled for inclusion in the first volume of Archaeologia (1770), documents the historical functions that account for the elevation of such an apparently mundane piece of material culture as a drinking horn. He cites numerous medieval manuscript sources on the Danish and Saxon practice of presenting a drinking horn to confirm or formalize a transfer of property. Several of these describe Ulf’s investiture of York Minster with his lands (supposedly because of a conflict among his sons), including a medieval Latin manuscript poem discovered by Gale in the Cottonian Library. In parsing this and many other Latin texts, as well as in his many laudatory citations of earlier antiquaries including William Camden (1551-1623) and William Dugdale (1605-1686), Gale uses the occasion of the horn to assert the validity of British antiquities as a learned field of study. Frazier Wood (2017) confirms that charter horns served this function in other early modern and eighteenth-century contexts.

The main justification, however, which may also explain the prominence of this print in Vetusta Monumenta, is that this symbolic practice, predating written charters, is an “ancient usage and custom” (Gale 1770, 177). As Pegge points out in his essay, “this custom of conveying sine scriptis, and by means of these symbols” (1775, 4) lends the horns very significant status as historical and even legal evidence in cases where “there are no charters . . . to be consulted or referred to” (7). In light of antiquarian scholarship, then, this print may be seen as an early document of the antiquaries’ abiding interest in ethnography and material culture, and their dedication to basing reconstructions of the past not only on written records, but also on objects and visual documentation, including the drawing by “B. M.” reproduced by Vertue’s engraving. Gale does not entirely neglect the aesthetic merits of the horn, however, and the aesthetics of the print deserves our attention as well. Gale notes that the builders of the fourteenth-century Minster at York “gratefully perpetuate[d]” Ulf’s eleventh-century “donation” by “causing the horn to be carved in bas-relief over the great arches of the nave and choir of the cathedral” (1770, 180). He concludes with a visual description that provides a fitting gloss on Vertue’s engraving of the drawing from his collection: “As to its present condition, its beauty is not in the least impaired by age, it being of ivory: The carving is very durable, and is ornamented in the circumference at the larger extremity with the figures of two griffins, a lion, unicorn, dogs and trees interspersed, in bas-relief, and where the plates are fixed, with a foliage after the fashion of those times” (182). Vertue, the antiquaries, and even the builders of York Minster must have been inspired to some extent by the sheer elegance of the workmanship on Ulf’s horn.

Works Cited:

Alexander, David. 2008. “George Vertue as Engraver.” The Volume of the Walpole Society 70: 207-517.

Backa, Rachel. 2015. “A Viking Treasure: The Horn of Ulph.” In 1414: John Neuton and the Re-Foundation of York Minster Library, edited by Hanna Vorholt and Peter Young. History of Art Research Portal (University of York).

“cornage, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Frazier Wood, Dustin. 2017. “Charter Horns and the Antiquarian Imagination in Early Modern England.” Studies in Medievalism 26: 67-86.

Gale, Samuel. 1770. “An Historical Dissertation upon the Ancient Danish Horn, Kept in the Cathedral Church of York.” Archaeologia 1: 168-83.

“The Horn of Ulf.” History of York. Web. 2019.

Lolla, Maria Grazia. 1999. “Ceci n’est pas un monument: Vetusta Monumenta and Antiquarian Aesthetics.” In Producing the Past: Aspects of Antiquarian Culture and Practice, 1700-1850, edited by Martin Myrone and Lucy Peltz, 15-34. Aldershot: Ashgate.

Milles, Jeremiah. 1775. “On Lord Bruce’s Horn.” Archaeologia 3: 24-29.

Pegge, Samuel. 1775. “Of the Horn as a Charter or Instrument of Conveyance.” Archaeologia 3: 1-12.

Society of Antiquaries of London. 1718-. Minutes of the Society’s Proceedings.

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