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Selector-based HTML templates using Hiccup.


Tinsel is pretty much just Hiccup with a few extra pieces of machinery. Like Hiccup, Tinsel does as much work as possible at macro-expansion time, so it tries to be as efficient as possible at runtime. It's also very much inspired by Enlive and Pure, in that there is no special language for specifying where to receive content in the templates; the template defines where to put things based on the properties of the nodes in the HTML tree. I prefer to write HTML in Hiccup, but Tinsel can also read in HTML and parse it into Hiccup forms transparently to you using hickory.

The main idea is to take an HTML template, with absolutely no special template-oriented markup or scripts in it, and then specify where in the tree of HTML nodes to make replacements and additions in order to render the template. This logic is specified in two types of functions, selectors and transformers. The actual mechanics are a bit more involved, but basically, a selector is a function called on every node in the HTML tree, returning true if and only if that node should have the corresponding transformer applied. A transformer is another function that takes a node and returns a new node that should be inserted in its place before final rendering.

The main new construct is the deftemplate macro. It takes the following arguments:

  1. A name
  2. A sequence of hiccup forms defining the markup
  3. An argument list (for your use in the transformers)
  4. As many selector/transformer pairs as you like (they will be run one after the other in the order given)

As the simplest possible example, consider

(ns tinsel-test-drive
	(:use tinsel.core))

(deftemplate simple-template [[:h1 "Just a Simple Template"]]

This generates a function called simple-template, which can be called with no argument. When you call it, it returns the string

user> (simple-template)
"<h1>Just a Simple Template</h1>"

To make it actually do something interesting, let's make a page that addresses the user by name, assuming that the web server knows the user's name when it services the request.

(deftemplate welcome-template [[:h1#user-welcome]]
	(id= :user-welcome)
	(set-content (str "Welcome " user-name "!")))

Which outputs

user> (welcome-template "Don Draper")
"<h1 id=\"user-welcome\">Welcome Don Draper!</h1>"

Here we made the template take a single argument, user-name, which is a string containing the user's name. We also used the id= selector to select any node with id "user-welcome". Then we gave the set-content transformer some code to generate the string to set the content to. Note that the user-name argument is visible to the transformer. Note also that set-content left the tag and attributes unchanged.

Templates can take any number of selector/transformer pairs, generating as many changes to the document tree as you like. As a slightly longer example, look at the template below:

(deftemplate medium-template
     [:title "Literal String"]]
  (select (or-ancestor (tag= :head))
          (tag= :title))
  (set-content "Times Table for 9")
  (has-class? :example) (set-content text)
  (has-class? :times-table)
  (set-content (for [n (range 1 13)]
                 [:li n " * 9 = " (* n 9)])))

Which outputs

user> (medium-template "9 x 9 = 81")
"<html><head><title>Times Table for 9</title></head><body><div class=\"example\">9 x 9 = 81</div><ul class=\"times-table\"><li>1 * 9 = 9</li><li>2 * 9 = 18</li><li>3 * 9 = 27</li><li>4 * 9 = 36</li><li>5 * 9 = 45</li><li>6 * 9 = 54</li><li>7 * 9 = 63</li><li>8 * 9 = 72</li><li>9 * 9 = 81</li><li>10 * 9 = 90</li><li>11 * 9 = 99</li><li>12 * 9 = 108</li></ul></body></html>"

Now, once your templates start to get this big, you should probably stick them in their own files and load them with functions like html-file or define a var to hold their content.

Here you can see we used three selector/transformer pairs to make the template turn into the output we wanted. The first selector is

(select (or-ancestor (tag= :head))
        (tag= :title))

This makes use of the select combinator. select takes any number of other combinators and combines their output in a search down the document tree. In this case, it will select a title node that has some ancestor that is a head tag. We use this selector to change the title of the page.

The next two selectors use has-class? to select nodes by class and set their content. The final rendered page reflects all the changes.

To load templates straight out of HTML, you can use the functions html-document (for full HTML documents) and html-fragment (for fragments you would find somewhere in the body tag that don't amount to a full document). Both accept strings with the HTML in them, or a Reader that will deliver the HTML. You can then just pass the return value of either as the template argument to deftemplate:

(deftemplate html-template (html-document "<html></html>")
  (tag= :html)
  (set-content [:head [:title (:msg arg-map)]]))

Selectors and Transformers

Selectors and transformers are both functions, and you can supply your own if you like. It's important now to be very clear about what these functions are. That said, writing them is a bit tricky, so hopefully Tinsel will provide a variety of selectors and transformers to suit most purposes without the need for writing custom ones. Still, should it be necessary, you can always go ahead.


A selector is a function of a a zipper of a Hiccup vector that returns a zipper loc for any node it has selected. In the code above, we used (id= :id) as a selector. id= is actually a function that returns another function, and its return value is the function that is actually used as a selector. id= is present simply for convenience.

Another function in Tinsel is the similar tag= selector, which returns the loc of any HTML nodes with the given tag. One simplistic implementation for tag= could be

(require [' :as 'zip])

(defn tag=
	(fn [zip-loc]
		(if (= tag (first (zip/node zip-loc)))

So tag= is a function that returns functions adapted to its argument, in this case the tag of interest. It returns a function that takes a zipper location and returns it if the first element of the node at the given location is equal to the argument tag. The raw zip-loc argument is difficult to interpret, so we need to use zip/node to get the Hiccup form it points to. A Hiccup form consists of a vector where the first element is the tag as a string, the second element is a map of attributes, and any subsequent elements are sub-nodes. So if the tag argument matches the first element, that node should be selected, and its zipper loc is returned.

Why require selectors to take zippers instead of nodes? That would be easier but it would make it impossible to write selectors based on the node's parents, siblings, or other factors.

Also note that selectors don't have access to the template arguments. This is because selectors are run at compile-time and not at run-time, so they do not have access to the values of the template arguments. I believe this restriction is relatively minor, though.

Currently available selectors include

  • tag= - Selects nodes with the given tag.
  • has-attr? - Selects nodes that have the given attribute (any value).
  • attr= - Selects nodes that have the given attribute with the given value.
  • id= - Selects nodes that have the given ID.
  • has-class? - Selects nodes that have the given class (can also have others).
  • nth-child? - Selects nodes that are the nth-child of their parent (and have a parent).
  • nth-last-child? - Selects nodes that are the nth-last-child of their parent (and have a parent).

####Selector Combinators####

There's no reason that a selector can't take another selector as an argument, returning a compound selector with more complex behavior. In fact, Tinsel has several selector combinators built in, which allow you to accomplish several types of advanced behavior.

  • every-selector - This combinator takes any number of selector expressions as argument and returns a new selector that selects nodes that satisfy every selector passed as an argument. You can think of it as an "and" selector.
  • some-selector - Similar to every-selector, but selects nodes that satisfy at least one of the argument selectors. You can think of it as an "or" selector.
  • select - This selector lets you search for selectors that satisfy compound hierarchical relationships. It takes any number of selectors, and selects nodes which have parent nodes that all satisfy the selectors on the path from parent to child. See the medium example above. Note that by default, the path specifies a direct parent/child relationship, but you can change this with or-ancestor.
  • or-ancestor - This selector takes a selector as argument, and returns a selector that will select nodes for which the selector is satisfied either by themselves or an ancestor node.


A transformer is a function of a Hiccup vector that returns another Hiccup vector that should replace it. Unlike selectors, transformers do have access to the template's arguments (kinda, keep reading). Conceptually, transformers are easier to think about, since they just map a Hiccup vector to another Hiccup vector. They can be a little trickier to write, however, since they often have to copy a lot from the input vector in order to not clobber everything other than what they are interested in. And for another reason I'll get into in a moment.

As a simple example, here is a possible transformer you could write to remove the children of an HTML node.

(deftemplate untitle-template [[:html [:h1 "Some page title"]]]
	(tag= :h1)
	(fn [node] (vector (first node) (second node))))
	user> (untitle-template)

But I've left something out above. Transformers actually run at compile time also, just like selectors. Their output replaces the given node in the tree at compile-time. So, although I said that they have access to the template's arguments, it's really only the case if you write the transformer to ensure that is the case. This is done by making sure that any code that is given to a transformer as an argument is inserted into the Hiccup form as quoted code. All of the transformers built into Tinsel provide correct access to the template arguments.

As an example, let's make a transformer to change the title of a page.

(deftemplate retitle-template [[:html [:h1 "Some page title"]]]
	(tag= :h1)
	(fn [node] (vector (first node) (second node) 'new-title)))
	user> (retitle-template "The new title")
	"<html><h1>The new title</h1></html>"

By keeping the argument unevaluated, this guarantees that they will be evaluated in the context of the function that deftemplate builds, which has the argument list provided to deftemplate. In the example above, a string was passed in, but the user could also pass in code:

user> (retitle-template (str "The " (+ 1 1) "nd title"))
"<html><h1>The 2nd title</h1></html>"

So ultimately transformers can also be tricky to write. I am working to make sure that Tinsel has a good number of transformers that will hopefully span just about any use cases I can find, but again, if you need to write your own, you can go ahead and do so.

Currently available transformers include

  • set-content - Replaces the node's content with the results of the argument.
  • append-content - Adds the results of the argument after the node's current content.
  • prepend-content - Adds the results of the argument before the node's current content.
  • set-attrs - Adds the map argument to the node's attributes, overwriting any that are already present.

####Transformer Combinators####

Just as there are selector combinators to create more complicated selectors from simpler ones, it is also possible to create transformer combinators, functions that take one or more other transformers and return a new transformer based on the arguments.

Currently available transformer combinators are

  • accumulate - Takes any number of transformers as argument and returns a transformer that performs all of the transformations in order on its argument node, using the output of the first transformation as the input to the second, etc.


In my testing, Tinsel renders templates exactly as fast as the equivalent Hiccup code, which is itself just a tad slower than raw string concatenation. The results below are from viewbenchmarks

"Elapsed time: 7.126 msecs"
"Elapsed time: 13.655 msecs"
"Elapsed time: 5.012 msecs"
hiccup (type-hint)
"Elapsed time: 8.084 msecs"
"Elapsed time: 6.157 msecs"
"Elapsed time: 3.573 msecs"
"Elapsed time: 5.61 msecs"
"Elapsed time: 4.928 msecs"
"Elapsed time: 2.902 msecs"
"Elapsed time: 5.358 msecs"
"Elapsed time: 4.577 msecs"
"Elapsed time: 3.094 msecs"
tinsel (type-hint)
"Elapsed time: 5.062 msecs"
"Elapsed time: 3.646 msecs"
"Elapsed time: 2.989 msecs"

As you can see, Tinsel still allows type-hinting just like Hiccup (really, it is passing on the type-hinted forms to Hiccup). However, it is important to remember that templates can only go as fast as the code you ask them to evaluate at run-time.

Obtaining it

You can add

[tinsel "0.4.0"]

to your project.clj, or whatever is equivalent in the build tool you use.

Bugs and Missing Features

I use this myself, and have run out of things I feel it is missing. But there's always room to add more selectors and transformers, as we come across the need. My particular usage patterns have not made me aware of any known bugs, but they are of course in there, and I'd like to fix them if you find them, so please let me know.


Eclipse Public License


Selector-based templates with Hiccup




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