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From 13th-century monks to Google, we’re all index-linked

The humble index has a history of uses beyond simply aiding the reader, writes the author of Index, A History of the.

Time to write my piece for The Big Issue. Crack knuckles, power up the laptop and stare down the blank page.

Wasn’t it the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu who said every journey begins with a single step? Actually, was it him? Better check. Open a browser window and fire up the search engine. After all, every essay begins with a Google search…

But what, in fact, is a Google search? What are we searching? One of Google’s engineers, Matt Cutts, explains: “The first thing you need to understand is that, when you do a Google search, you aren’t actually searching the web. You’re searching Google’s index of the web.”

Other search engines are available, of course, but underpinning them all is the idea of an index, a table where you can look something up and be pointed to another location to find out more.

Every time we search the web or, indeed, look something up at the back of a book, we are using a piece of technology invented just under 800 years ago by monks looking for ways to navigate their books more efficiently.

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Around the year 1230, the index was invented twice – once on either side of the Channel.

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In Paris, the friars of Saint Jacques created the “concordance”, a word index, by taking every word of the Bible and rearranging them into alphabetical order, each with a list of all the locations in which they appear. It was a vast endeavour, listing about 10,000 individual words and 129,000 locations.

In its journey from the religious houses of the 13th century to the mobile phone in your pocket, the index has undergone a gnarly, storied development

Meanwhile, in Oxford, a man called Robert Grosseteste was compiling an index of all the books he had read. Grosseteste’s index starts with a list of categories – all the subjects he might want to look up, about 440 of them.

The index then gives all the places these ideas turn up: sometimes in the Bible, sometimes in the writings of earlier theologians, and sometimes in the work of non-Christian thinkers such as Aristotle or the Arabic philosophers of the Middle Ages.

Where the Bible concordance goes narrow and deep, the strength of Grosseteste’s index is its breadth. The medieval equivalent of a modern search engine, it ranges across the whole of knowledge, thanks to the voracious reading of this extraordinary polymath. 

In its journey from the religious houses of the 13th century to the mobile phone in your pocket, the index has undergone a gnarly, storied development.

It has delivered heretics from the stake and kept politicians out of high office; it has been used as a weapon of satire, and scrutinised by authorities looking for hidden dissent. Take, for example, the story of William Prynne.

On January 9, 1633, Charles I attended a performance at Somerset House on the north bank of the Thames.

The play was titled The Shepherd’s Paradise and it was nothing if not extravagant: an eight-hour marathon on a specially constructed stage, with eight scene changes and nine sets designed by Inigo Jones; the costumes were lavish and the dialogue interminable.

One wag remarked that some monologues lasted as long as other entire plays. No wonder the cast – made up of the ladies of court, plus Jeffrey Hudson, the queen’s dwarf – had been rehearsing daily for five months. The event had been arranged by Queen Henrietta Maria, and she had taken the plum role for herself. This would be her Christmas present to the king.

Within weeks of the performance, legal proceedings had begun against one William Prynne, a barrister with a fiery Puritan reputation. Prynne had just brought out a work entitled Histrio-mastix, a wide-ranging attack on the wickedness of theatre.

Whether it was just bad timing, or whether it had been hastily tweaked in response to reports from court, the index to Prynne’s latest work contained an entry that looked suspiciously like a personal attack on the queen: “Women-Actors, notorious whores, p. 162, 214, 215, 1002, 1003”.

The whole work, to be fair, contains much that the authorities might have found actionable. It is a wild, extended screed against laughing and drinking people’s health, against long hair on men and short hair on women, against Morris dancing and maypoles, against Christmas (“the Devil’s Mass”). But, most of all, it is against acting and theatres. “Heaven, no Stage-playes there, p. 964, 965” reads another index entry.

By the end of January, people were discussing whether Prynne’s index entry might land him in real trouble. “It is thought by some [it] will cost him his ears,” wrote one court insider.

This prediction was to prove horribly accurate. After a year shut up in the Tower of London, Prynne was taken out and led to Cheapside where he was locked in a pillory. In front of him was a pyre made from hundreds of confiscated copies of the now-banned Histrio-mastix.

As an unmasked hangman set fire to the books, Prynne’s face was bloody. His left ear had been “cropped” – cut off – a gruesome punishment, and a reminder to anyone who might be tempted: never insult the queen, not even in the index.

Index, A History Of The by Dennis Duncan is out now
(Allen Lane, £20)

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