The First English Table of Contents?

Sir Thomas Littleton, Tenores novelli (London: Lettou & Machlinia, c. 1482) [Oxford, All Soul's College, l.9.1(1)]
Sir Thomas Littleton, Tenores novelli (London: Lettou & Machlinia, c. 1482) [Oxford, All Souls College, l.9.1(1)] ©All Souls College, Oxford
I’m going to make a slightly controversial claim and say that this is the first table of contents in an English printed book. It’s from Sir Thomas Littleton’s New Tenures, a legal text, printed in London by John Lettou and William de Machlinia around 1482.

I’m making one important distinction here in calling it the first true contents table. After all, Caxton’s The Game and Playe of Chesse (1474), the second printed book in English, already included a table summarising the chapters and listing them in the order in which they appear. And over the next few years, several of Caxton’s books include variations on this type of chapter list. But none of these lists have locators. That is, they may say what the chapters are, but there’s nothing to tell us what page they begin on. And this is where Lettou and Machlinia’s book is different.

J. H. Baker’s ODNB entry for Littleton describes the Tenures as ‘the most successful law book ever written in England’, and notes its role as a textbook: ‘Until Victorian times, Littleton was one of the first books placed in the hands of a law student’. Although they couldn’t have foreseen its phenomenal success when they first printed it, we should credit Lettou and Machlinia then with the foresight to see that a table might come in handy for a work like this. Nevertheless, as I mentioned in my last post, page numbers were rather slow to catch on in the fifteenth century. In 1482, no English book had included them yet, and the Tenures does not break the mould in this respect. So how does its table of contents work?

We need to look more closely at those locators: a i, a ii, a iii… A letter followed by a roman numeral: these are signature marks. Unlike page numbers, signature marks were well established by this stage (as Margaret Smith’s fantastic graph attests): over the previous two or three years, all four of the English printing houses – Westminster, Oxford, St Albans and London – had adopted them. These marks are included at the bottom of the page, below the main text, to help the binder fold and stitch the sheets together in the right order.

Sir Thomas Littleton, Tenores novelli (London: Lettou & Machlinia, c.1482) [Oxford, All Souls College, l.9.1(1)] ©All Souls College, Oxford
Sir Thomas Littleton, Tenores novelli (London: Lettou & Machlinia, c.1482) [Oxford, All Souls College, l.9.1(1)] ©All Souls College, Oxford
But what Lettou and Machlinia are doing is assigning them an additional role, pressing them into use as a finding aid. A pretty ingenious piece of lateral thinking!

But here’s another quirk: because a book’s sheets are folded in half at the spine (think of the way a magazine is put together: double pages, stapled and folded in the middle), a binder only needs signature marks on half the leaves. Get these in the right order and the other half will naturally be OK, since they’re on the same sheets. Commonly, then, when books are bound in gatherings of eight leaves at a time, the printer only needs to include signature marks on the first four. So, as you turn the pages, you see a1, a2, a3, a4, blank, blank, blank, blank, b1, b2, b3, b4, blank, blank, blank, blank, c1, etc. And indeed, this is the case with the Tenures. Which means that for half of the entries in the table of contents, the locators are directing readers to pages that aren’t actually marked with a signature. You want to know about Collusion? It’s on page b viii; just find b iv and count four along from there! (In one copy in the British Library, an early reader has written in the missing sigs, but only for those pages which appear in the index.) This really is an attempt to bootstrap a finding aid for the book’s readers onto an ordering system designed purely for its producers.

I mentioned at the top of this post that I was being controversial in calling this the first English ToC. The reason is that Lettou and Machlinia produced another book, the Abbreviamentum statutorum, frequently bound-in with the Tenures, and which also includes a table keyed to signature marks. And although neither book includes a publication date, several bibliographers – not least E. G. Duff and Lotte Hellinga – suggest that the Statutes appeared c.1481-82 and the Tenures c.1482-83.

Abbreviamentum statutorum (London: Lettou & Machlinia, c.1482) [Oxford, All Soul's College, l.9.1(2)]
Abbreviamentum statutorum (London: Lettou & Machlinia, c.1482) [Oxford, All Souls College, l.9.1(2)] ©All Souls College, Oxford
Abbreviamentum statutorum (London: Lettou & Machlinia, c.1482) [Oxford, All Soul's College, l.9.1(1)]
Abbreviamentum statutorum (London: Lettou & Machlinia, c.1482) [Oxford, All Souls College, l.9.1(2)] ©All Souls College, Oxford
What troubles me, however, is that the Abbreviamentum statutorum takes the form of a series of alphabetically-ordered paragraphs, like an encyclopaedia. The table of contents, then, is redundant: the text is already auto-indexing. If you want to look up the entry on Executours, you don’t need an innovative finding aid: it’ll be there with the other Es, sandwiched between Execucion and Exemcion.

On the basis that innovation is most likely the response to a specific problem, I want to place the Tenures before the Statutes, to argue that the table was invented for the textbook,  not the encyclopaedia, and that the latter only has one because the book that preceded it did: there out of habit, effectively. But if anyone can suggest why the alphabetically-ordered Statutes might have been the first book to get a proper ToC then I’d be very keen to hear your thoughts.

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