A medieval picture-word game


A rebus is a device that uses pictures to represent words or parts of words by their sounds, particular for names of people and places. Up until about 150 years most people could not read or write and most communication was by word of mouth. If you wanted to communicate other than by word of mouth you had to use pictures. This was difficult to do for names, and so a rebus was often used. Pictures of two local examples are attached.

The first is a bench end, currently in Leake church, but originally from the Priory Church. This shows a picture John Hompton. He was Prior of the Bridlington Priory from 1510 to 1521. With his right hand he is pointing to an open book in his left hand. The markings indicate this is St John’s gospel, and hence we have his first name. The first part of his second name defies the rebus makers. They have just written “Homp” in a scroll. He is shown standing on a barrel. A “tun” is the largest size of barrel used to transport wine and hence a barrel usually stands for “ton”. His name is now complete, “John” “Homp” “ton”.

The second example is the Bridlington customs stamp which is thought to date from the late 1600’s. It shows a thistle or “burr” “on” a “tun”. This translates to Burlington, the commonly used name for Bridlington at that time. For those who can read, the words around the periphery written in reverse confirm this. Of course the words will be the right way round when stamped onto the sealing wax.

Suggested activities.

  1. Design a rebus for other nearby towns of villages, or teachers’ names, or pupils’ names, or the names of famous people.
  2. Look at dingbats and links to homophones