Attacking Themistius with Scissors

by John Raphael Smith, after Sir Joshua Reynolds, mezzotint, published 1777
Joseph Warton, by John Raphael Smith, after Sir Joshua Reynolds, mezzotint, published 1777 ©National Portrait Gallery

Lately I’ve been writing a little about reader-made indexes, particularly handwritten indexes in printed books. One interesting question about these is, Who were they intended for? Just the person who compiled the index, or for a wider network: the compiler’s friends, for example, or some broader community in which that copy of the book, with its index, circulated. Reading the correspondence of Joseph Warton (c.1722-1800), headmaster of Winchester School, has given me a sense that often it’s the latter – that making a DIY index was considered a useful public service. Warton’s letters also led me to an instance of a private index being bought by a publisher and printed exactly as it was.

As well as being headmaster at Winchester, Warton was a noted literary critic. He had fallen out with Dr Johnson and was in correspondence with many of the literary figures of his age, including Walpole, Gibbon and Edmund Burke. One of his friends was the classicist Thomas Merrick, who in 1765 wrote to Warton to suggest a useful exercise for his pupils:

the senior youths of Magdalen School in Oxford are jointly composing an index to the first volume of Dr. Battie’s Isocrates. Could the first volume of Dr. Taylor’s Demosthenes be procured in sheets, I should hope that four or five of the young gentlemen at the head of Winchester School might very willingly (instead of some other exercise) take each a share of the volume, and when it was transcribed, might join in forming an index to it.

The method Merrick has in mind is certainly a painstaking one. It consists of copying out the entire work, and, beside each word, noting the page and line number on which it appears. Then you can cut up your transcription and rearrange the individual words alphabetically. Nevertheless, Merrick cheerfully recommends this timesaving trick: rather than writing out a word, then writing the page and line numbers next to it, then doing the same for the next word, and so on, instead, you copy out a whole page, then go through adding the locators to everything. I suppose this makes the process more fluent. Merrick says that it cuts down on ‘perhaps more than half the time required’. Still, when he says that ‘another young man here has attacked Harduin’s folio edition of Themistius’, I expect he means physically, with scissors, cutting up the printed book rather than transcribing it first. You can hardly blame him.

Merrick’s letter also gives a sense that this type of index-making is a common activity, and that rather than being merely delegated as a chore for schoolchildren – like prisoners sewing mail bags – it is something that experienced classicists are undertaking themselves. He claims that his friend Mr. Holmes has been indexing Porphyry, and that a young man of Reading has transcribed the whole of Xenophon’s Expeditio Cyri in order to index it, and intends to do Thucydides too.

Returning to the plan of getting students to prepare indexes, Merrick states that other notable classicists – James Harris and Robert Lowth – have given him ‘strong expressions of approbation’ about the idea. What is not clear is whether these classicists are keen because they hope to use the indexes, or simply because they consider it a good exercise for students. We get a better impression of the usefulness of these classical indexes from another incident, again involving Merrick and Warton.

Thomas Morell, by James Basire, 1763.
Thomas Morell, by James Basire, 1763.

Towards the end of the 1760s, Warton’s younger brother Thomas was preparing a vast edition of the Greek poet Theocritus, and Merrick wrote again to Joseph with a suggestion:

Give me leave just to add, that Dr. Morell once informed me that he had composed a full index, verborum, for Theocritus: as Homer, Lycophron, Callimachus, and Dionysius Periegetes, have been published with such indexes, it might, I should think, be worth the University’s purchase, if you are not already supplied with one.

What he’s suggesting is that, since he knows a man who has already made an index to Theocritus for his personal use, why not recommend to the university press at Oxford that they buy it off him and include it in Thomas’s edition.

And that is exactly what happened. When Thomas Warton’s Theocritus appeared in 1770 it included a vast index – 80 pages, three columns to a page – along with this praise in the Preface:

Habes et hic uberrimum utilissimumque Indicem omnium vocabulorum Theocriteorum, a Sanctamando olim confectum. […] Quod ut magis credas, cum alio etiam, contexto opera et studio viri Graecae linguae peritissimi THOMAE MORELL, mihique a se eam in rem concesso, diligenter contuli; nec in minima quidem vocula, siqua fides ejusmodi collation, quid emendandum repperi.

You have here also a very copious and useful index to all the words in Theocritus, once drawn up by St Amand. […] So that you might have more faith in it, I have diligently joined it together with another [index], woven together by the work and effort of Thomas Morell, a man very learned in the Greek language, and given to me by himself for that purpose. Nor have I found anything to emend in the slightest word, if in any way you should trust that kind of collation.

Thus an index drawn up for private use was considered accurate enough to be reproduced, without the slightest emendation, in a prestigious folio edition from Clarendon Press. I wonder how much Morell got paid.

(As a final note, since much of the story concerns schoolmasters, it is nice to see that the BL has a copy of Warton’s Theocritus from the collection of Charles Burney, brother of Fanny and headmaster of Greenwich School. Not only that, but while Warton found nothing to amend in Morell’s index, Burney wasn’t as forgiving – his additions and corrections can be found throughout the index.)

Thomas Warton, Theocritus (Oxford: Clarendon, 1770), British Library 653.d.9.

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