The Map and the Territory: Caxton’s Index Prefaces

In that Empire, the Art of Cartography attained such Perfection that the map of a single Province occupied the entirety of a City, and the map of the Empire, the entirety of a Province. In time, those Unconscionable Maps no longer satisfied, and the Cartographers Guilds struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it.

Borges, ‘On Exactitude in Science’

Chronicles of England (St. Albans: c.1483). © University of Glasgow.

One of the fascinating things about the earliest English printed indexes and tables of contents, particularly Caxton’s, is that they are usually prefaced with a short introduction. These function as a brief How To guide, setting out what the table is for and how to use it. Take, for example, the Legenda aurea sanctorum, a book of saints’ lives from 1483. It’s rather innovative in that it has not one but two tables. Firstly, a list, with folio numbers, of the two hundred or so saints in the order in which appear in the book. This is immediately followed by another table which uses exactly the same headings – the same group of saints – but rearranges them, listing them in alphabetical order. In other words, Caxton has included both a table of contents and an index. And here’s what he has to say:

And to thende eche hystoryy lyf & passyon may be shortely founden I have ordeyned this table folowyng / where & in what leef he shal fynde suche as shal be desyred / and have sette the nombre of every leef in the margyne.

So the book is helpfully provided with tables and folio numbers so that you can shortely find whichever saint’s history, life or passion you’re looking for. But it’s that phrase ‘suche as shal be desyred’ that I’m interested in right now. It seems to cover all eventualities: Whatever you’re looking for, look it up in the index and follow the reference. Caxton isn’t about to admit publicly that there might be things in the book that you’d want to look up but which aren’t included in the index, that the index might be an inadequate representation of the main text. Why would he? ‘He shal fynde suche as shal be desyred’: it seems a perfectly reasonable thing to say, as long as you don’t wilfully overread it.

Here’s another perfectly reasonable thing to say, this time from Caxton’s Cicero (1481): ‘Here foloweth a remembraunce of thistoryes comprysed and touchyd in this present book entitled Tullius de Senectute, Tully of old age, as in the redying shal more playnly be sayd al a longe.’ Aside from the fact that remembraunce is a magnificent word for a table of contents (it’s conspicuously backwards-facing: does it imply that you should have read the book already, that a table is not a shortcut to an initial reading?), the passage states that the main text of a book will describe things ‘more playnly’ and at more length than an index entry. Of course it will: the map is not the territory.

But in Polycronicon (1482) there’s quite a striking shift in emphasis in how the table is introduced: ‘And folowynge this my prohemye I shal set a table shortly towchyd of the moost parte of this book.’ That phrase ‘the moost parte’ doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, does it. It sounds a very different note from the idea that ‘he shal fynde such as shal be desired’. An admission, or perhaps a warning: it’s not just that the entries in the table are, of necessity, briefer – less plain – than the main text; there seems to be an implication here that parts of the book are uncharted territory as far as the table is concerned.

I wondered whether this might be a paranoid reading, whether I might be seeing doubt or admonishment creeping in where really there is none. But in Caxton’s Cato (1484) the point is made explicitly. The table of contents concludes with the following note:

And over and above these that be conteyned in this sayd table is many a notable commaundement / lernynge and counceylle moche prouffitable whiche is not sette in the sayd regystre or rubrysshe.

A table which immediately professes its insufficiency? I love this – it sounds so contemporary, the kind of thing we teach students in early Research Methods training: an index can a wonderful labour-saver, but never, ever mistake the map for the territory.


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