Robert Grosseteste’s Symbolic Search Engine

When it comes to kings and queens, the year 1230 was a relatively quiet one. In the history of indexing, however, 1230 is probably the most important year of all. For a start, it’s the date usually given for the first Bible concordance, compiled at the monastery of St Jacques in Paris. But 1230 is also the probable date of another extraordinary indexing project, on a scale only slightly less mindboggling. While the monks at St Jacques were at work on the concordance, the scientist and theologian Robert Grosseteste was in Oxford devising and compiling his Tabula, a combined subject index for the Bible and nearly two hundred other texts, largely the works of the Church Fathers but also including classical and Arabic authors.

C14 depiction of Grosseteste. British Library, MS Royal 6.E.v, fol. 1ra.
14th-century depiction of Grosseteste. British Library, Royal MS 6 E. v, f.1.

Grosseteste’s origins were humble – he came from a poor family in Suffolk, but was supported through school by a local nobleman and subsequently attended Cambridge before entering the service first of the Bishop of Lincoln, then the Bishop of Hereford. It was during this period that he wrote a number of scientific works – On the Calendar and On the Movements of the Planets among others – along with the first Christian commentary on Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. It is also likely that he spent some of this time studying theology in Paris. By the middle of the 1220s, however, Grosseteste had begun to teach at Oxford, where, towards the end of the decade, he served briefly as the university’s Chancellor, and it was then he produced the Tabula, which now survives in a single manuscript held in the Bibliothèque municipale in Lyons.

The breadth of Grosseteste’s interests, and of his reading, was, as his biographer James McEvoy puts it ‘little short of encyclopaedic’, and it was in order to marshall this vast learning that Grosseteste devised a system of annotation which would allow him to group subjects together, along with a set of references – essentially keywords – which could be used across disparate texts. Rather than being an alphabetical system, the Tabula divides its subjects into nine categories, or distinctions, which are themselves divided into a varying number of subcategories, or topics. By way of example, the first distinction is entitled de deo, or On God. Beneath this heading is a list of thirty-six topics each of which relates to its parent category: that God exists, what God is, the unity of God, the trinity of God, and so on.

Lyon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 414 f.17r

The first part of the Tabula is simply a list of these distinctions and topics, 440 of them. Alongside each, Grosseteste has designed a symbol – simple but unique to that topic – so that, in the course of his reading, whenever a particular topic comes up, he can quickly jot down the symbol in the margin for later reference. Sometimes the symbols have a clear relation to the topic – the trinity of God is represented by a triangle; the unity of God by a dot – but given the large number of topics in Grosseteste’s system, it is no surprise that many are more arbitrary – and more complex – than this. S. Harrison Thomson, the first modern scholar to pay real attention to Grosseteste’s index, neatly sums up their variety: ‘All the letters of the Greek and Roman alphabets are used, plus mathematical signs, conjoined conventional signs, modifications of the zodiacal signs, and additional dots, strokes and curves.’

The outline of the nine distinctions and their topics runs to five pages, three columns to a page, and it is immediately followed by the index proper. Here, each topic, along with its symbol, is listed again. This time, however, beneath the topic is a series of references, first to passages in the Bible which deal with the subject, then to the writings of the Church Fathers, and finally, in a separate column to the right, to pagan or Arabic writers.

So, taking the first topic from the first distinction – the proposition that God exists – we find Grosseteste’s symbol for that topic followed by this set of references:

Lyon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 414 f.19v
Lyon, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 414 f.19v

Expanding the abbreviations with the help of Philipp Rosemann’s superb edition of the Tabula[1] we get the following (where l’ – in Grosseteste’s hand a crossed l – indicates liber, i.e. book):

ge· 1· a·
augustinus contra aduersarios legis et prophetarum· l’·1· De trinitate ·12· De libero· abritio· l’·1· De uera religione· epistola· 38· De ciuitate· dei l’·8· 10· 11· gregorius dialogi l’·4 ·27· Ieronimus· 13· damascenus· sentenciarum ·l’·i· c· 3· 41· anselmus prosologion· c· 2· 3· monologion·
[and in the right margin] aritstoteles methaphise l’·1·

What this all means is that, should we wish to know more about the proposition that God exists, we should start by looking at the first chapter of Genesis (‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth’). We might then look to various works by Augustine – Books 8, 10 and 11 of City of God (De Civitate Dei), for example – or Gregory’s Dialogues, or Jerome, St John Damascene, or Anselm. And if we were prepared to go off-piste into non-Christian thought, we could try the first book of Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

If we follow one of these references up in Grosseteste’s own copy of De Civitate Dei, now in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, we can turn to Book 8, and find the topic’s symbol alongside the following section:

Viderunt ergo isti philosophi, quos ceteris non inmerito fama atque gloria praelatos uidemus, nullum corpus esse Deum, et ideo cuncta corpora transcenderunt quaerentes Deum.

[These philosophers, then, whom we see not undeservedly exalted above the rest in fame and glory, have seen that no material body is God, and therefore they have transcended all bodies in seeking for God.]

Oxford, MS Bodley 198. Grosseteste’s copy of St Augustine’s De Civitate Dei [City of God] with his topic symbols in the margin. The flower denotes imagination.
There is another sign, a little like a three-legged table, in the same section of margin, annotating the same passage. This indicates de videndo deum [On seeing God], and sure enough, if we look this topic up in the Tabula the list of references includes De Civitate Dei, Book 8.

Having both Grosseteste’s Tabula and some of his books allows us to see both how the index worked and how he went about compiling it. Once he had annotated his books with topic symbols, filling in the index would be simply a matter of skimming the margins for each sign in turn and jotting down the references. Thomson suggests that the index may have been intended as a perpetual work-in-progress, something that Grosseteste could carry on expanding throughout his life. Nevertheless, it is precisely the texts which it doesn’t include – and which we know that Grosseteste read – that allow the dating of the Tabula. Grosseteste translated Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics from Greek, for example. If he was still compiling the index by the time he did this, we would expect to see it among the references.

For the priest with sermons to write, or for the teacher in the newly-founded university at Oxford, the value of an index like Grosseteste’s is clear. It is almost inconceivable to think of university work nowadays, as a teacher or as a student, without the use of finding aids like book indexes (which direct us within a single text) or search engines (which operate across many). The extraordinary thing about 1230 is that, in Paris and Oxford, two vast projects – concurrent but separate – were tackling these two different approaches to literature: the Bible concordance, with its word-for-word dismantling of the singular text, and Grosseteste’s all-encompassing Tabula – the search engine of the thirteenth century.

[1] Robert Grosseteste, ‘Tabula’, ed. by P. W. Rosemann and James McEvoy, Corpus Christianorum, 130 (1995), 233–320 (p. 265).


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