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).


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.

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.

On the Same Page

Sermo ad populum predicabilis (Cologne: Arnold Therhoernen, 1470) [Oxford, Bodleian Inc.e.G3.1470.1]
Sermo ad populum predicabilis (Cologne: Arnold Therhoernen, 1470) [Oxford, Bodleian Inc.e.G3.1470.1]
This is a sermon printed Cologne in 1470. It’s a small book, about the size of a paperback novel, and the text itself is short: eleven numbered leaves and a frontispiece. But sitting in the library with that page open in front of me has, I think, been my most intense experience of the archival sublime, the sense of disbelief that something of such conceptual magnitude should be right there on my desk rather than labelled and sealed off in a display case.

In the early 1800s, recognising what this book represents, the great bibliographer Jacques-Charles Brunet wrote of it:

Ce petit volume rare, a le double mérite d’être en même temps le premier livre connu avec date, sorti des presses de Therhoernen, à Cologne, et le premier livre aussi dont les pag. soient chiffrées.

[This rare little volume has the double merit of being both the first dated volume known to have left the presses of Therhoernen of Cologne, and also the first book with numbered pages.]

That character, halfway down the righthand margin, looking like a J, should actually be read as a 1, and it’s the first page number in a printed book. (Technically it’s the folios not the pages that are numbered – each leaf rather than each side – but we won’t worry about that for now.)

There are a couple of things to note about the Cologne book. Firstly, 1470 is surprisingly late. Print had already been around for a couple of decades by this time without anyone thinking to add foliation. And secondly, even after they were introduced, numbered leaves failed to catch on as quickly as we might expect. In a wonderfully detailed piece of research, Margaret M. Smith shows that foliation remained an unusual feature for several decades to come. By the end of the century, it could still only be found in about 10% of printed books:

Margaret M. Smith, ‘Printed Foliation: Forerunner to Printed Page-Numbers?’, Gutenberg-Jarhbuch 63 (1988): 54-70 (58).

There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that, technically, it’s not that simple to print those numbers. If you look at the main text of the Cologne book, it all fits into one big rectangle, an arrangement which is easy to lock tightly in the printing chase so that the letters won’t spill out onto the floor when you move it onto the press. Adding another element outside that rectangle makes it rather harder to lock the forme tightly, so there has to be a very good reason for it.

Which brings us to the second reason: in 1470, page numbers weren’t seen as a pressing need. In the manuscript world that preceded print, the nature of the handwritten word meant that different copies of the same text might not keep to exactly the same pagination. Thus the referencing systems that evolved in the manuscript era relied on features of the text rather than features of the book, the best example, of course, being the chapters and verses of the Bible. These systems meant that, for many of the major philosophical and theological works at least, there were already perfectly good ways of referring to specific sections of a large text.

So our folio numbers in 1470 present an additional problem for printers without addressing a real need for their customers. But it’s certainly a wild thought now to imagine a life, or at least a life of teaching and researching, without Therhoernen’s innovation, and in my next blog I’ll show the types of book where the value of page numbers really became apparent.

Unalphabetical Orders

In many of the early indexes I’ve been looking at, it’s not uncommon for alphabetical order to be somewhat loosely practised. As modern readers, we’re used to seeing alpha order being applied not just to the first letter of a word, but to the second, third, fourth, and so on, as need be. So beetles come before budgerigars, but after beavers, etc. By contrast, it’s quite common in a sixteenth-century index to find that initial letters simply serve as a kind of bucket, wherein terms may be listed in any order: budgies, beavers, badgers, beetles… So one of the things I’ve been watching out for as I track through early modern book indexes is, How alphabetical is it? Then this one came up and caught me right off guard.IMG_3239

Ignoring the squiggles and nonsense words and looking just at the ordering: A, E, I… there’s clearly an alphabetical order here, but it’s an idiosyncratic one. Why start with the vowels? What order are the consonants in?

The book is called An Orthographie, conteyning the due order and reason, howe to write or paint thimage of mannes voice, most like to the life of nature. It’s from 1569, and the author is John Hart. Hart’s Orthographie is a call for spelling reform to bring writing into line with pronunciation. For a near-contemporary example of the opposite, think of the ludicrous Holofernes in Love’s Labour’s Lost, complaining that people should pronounce words exactly as they’re spelled:

…such rackers of orthography, as to speak ‘dout’ sine b, when he should say ‘doubt’; ‘det’, when he should pronounce ‘debt’,—d, e, b, t, not d, e, t: he clepeth a calf ‘cauf’; half, ‘hauf’; neighbour vocatur ‘nebor’; neigh abbreviated ‘ne’. This is abhominable — which he would call abbominable.

Hart wants us to write the way we talk, and to show us what he means, his small book contains an analysis of spoken English establishing the sounds we actually use. Many of these, of course, are already represented by letter forms in the Roman alphabet, but Hart notes that some letters are surplus to requirements: goodbye j, w, y, c and q. More significantly, Hart finds that there are certain sounds which can’t be divided into smaller units, but which don’t already have their own letters. Thus a few additional characters need to be invented for sounds like sh and th (both voiced, as in then, and unvoiced, as in thin).

To show he means business, the final third of Hart’s book is written entirely in his simplified orthography. This is a nifty trick: if we want to finish the book we’ll have to actually engage with the writing system, and thus (hopefully) discover that it’s not as tricky as it looks. (Another nifty trick: the first part of the book is set in blackletter, but the type changes into easier-to-read italics for this last section.) When it comes to the index, Hart includes this note about how his new alphabet should be ordered. *Scroll down for a translation.


It’s rather a wonderful book. Its phonetic analysis is sophisticated and reliable enough to present us with a valuable guide to mid sixteenth century English pronunciation. What’s more, it wears its learning agreeably lightly. In place of the usual Printer To the Reader epistle, in Hart’s Orthographie it is the compositor – the person who’s job it was to set the type, letter by letter – who gets his say. Here, in a short poem, the compositor recalls balking when he first saw the gobbledegook he was expected to set: ‘Loth I was the workman to bee’. Now, poor thing, he finds it hard to set type in our old, flawed way of writing: just one more reason to adopt Hart’s method.


*An advertisement touching the order of the following table.
Because the vowels and consonants are divided into such parts as before, this table doth keep them in the like order: to-wit first a, e, i, o, u, and then the four pairs which are made with a stopping breath: to wit b, p: d, t: g, k: and j, ch. Then the other three throughly breathed pairs, to wit th [voiced, as in then], th [unvoiced, as in thin]: v, f: and z, s. Then the 5 semi-vocals l, m, n, r, and [syllabic] l, and the two breaths sh, and h: also, for that in the order before used, these new letters are not comprehended. Wherefore this table is placed and set in such order as followeth.

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.

Boswell’s Commonplace Book and Locke’s Index

“Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it”
Samuel Johnson

Like many of us when we start writing in a fresh exercise book, James Boswell – Dr Johnson’s biographer – had high hopes when he began his commonplace book. A note by Boswell’s son on the front paste-down states that the book is from ‘a very early period in his life’, to which another hand has suggested a date of about 1750.

All images from Folger M.a.6

However, the first article commonplaced – a passage from William Kenrick’s Epistles Philosophical and Moral – dates the book at no earlier than 1759, the year Boswell turned 19.

Boswell’s first marks in the book, however, have nothing to do with Kenrick’s or anyone else’s poetry. His first step, on the first two pages, was to plot out an index to be filled in each time he added an excerpt to his book. This is a lovely, clear example of John Locke’s New Method of Making Common-Place Books (first published in English in 1706).


As Richard Yeo has noted, Locke’s ‘New Method’ was recommended in Ephraim Chambers’s Cyclopaedia (1728), but it’s still interesting to see that it was well-known enough that a Scottish student should be using it half a century after it Locke’s death. In fact, the next thing Boswell does in his new book is to copy out the exact passage from Locke about how to draw it up.


Unfortunately, as with so many of our best intentions when it comes to new exercise books, Boswell didn’t get very far with his early foray into commonplacing. Of course, we could have guessed as much just by looking at the index – a paltry three entries, two of them pointing to the same article on page 4: DE for death and IO for immortality (Locke’s method involves taking the first letter and the next vowel). This is the extract from Kenrick, which Boswell has tagged with the headwords Death and Immortality.


Worse still, six out of the eight excepts copied out by the young Boswell don’t make it into the index at all. In all probability, he simply forgot.

There are a few nice things to note, however. I like the way Boswell includes catchwords (copying the first word of one page on the bottom line of the page that precedes it – a trick to help printers or binders get their sheets in order) even tho’ he’s writing his book out by hand and it’s already bound. It reminds me of the way that Jane Austen’s juvenilia also plays with imitating publishing formats.

Also, given that in my last blog I noted the use of pencil lines to create grids that would later be erased, it’s interesting that we find this again here: on some pages – ‘Death and Immortality’, for instance – the pencil marks forming the margin and aligning the title are still present; on others, however, they have clearly been used but subsequently erased:


Another curious feature is that, despite Boswell’s commonplacing having not really taken off, the book is far from empty. Starting about half way through are forty-four pages of heraldic crests, cut out from another book and carefully pasted four-to-a-page, 176 of them in total:


As a commonplace book, it’s not much; as an index, it’s barely more than the blind impression of a grid I posted last week. Still, I’m quite charmed by Boswell’s commonplace book. I like the fact that he’s still abandoning notebooks in his late teens: if the dating written inside the book had been correct, Boswell would be another of those prodigies who litter the annals of literary history, reading Locke aged ten, yadda yadda. As it is, this is literary juvenilia that doesn’t make one feel too bad about one’s own teenage fecklessness