Eight centuries ago, the need for a way to collect and organize the contents of a book was so great that two people, in two different cities, came up with a solution – at the same time.
The index, that thing tucked away discreetly at the end of a book was – and still is – essential, says Dennis Duncan, writer, translator and professor of English at University College London.
If you’re using Google, you’re one of many ‘in the age of search’ who ‘rely on some type of index’, he told ABC’s Late Night Live. RN.
“It’s the index that underpins the search engine…we rely on indexes all the time.”
We can thank some monks, an avid reader and the rise of two different types of discourse for its existence.
A team of brothers and thousands of notes
It was about 800 years ago, in 1230, that the index was invented. Twice.
Simultaneously in Paris and Oxford, two people, with different motivations, lingered on an idea that would greatly facilitate their work.
In Paris, an abbot named Hugues de Saint-Cher commissioned a group of brothers from the Dominican convent of Saint-Jacques, who were “essentially surrounded” to work on his invention, says Dr Duncan.
Surprisingly, their marks have survived and the brothers’ different handwriting can still be seen today not only on the first index, but also on the accompanying notes.
Their creation was a word index, or concordance, and it broke down the Bible into its constituent words – “sin”, for example, or “fish” or “bread”.
“Every word of the Bible [was] put in alphabetical order [with] a little locator telling you where that word appears,” says Dr. Duncan. ” It’s incredible.
The brothers listed around 10,000 individual words and 129,000 places.
Polymath who ‘reads everything’
At the same time, in Oxford, a man named Robert Grosseteste had had a similar idea.
Grosseteste was “a total polymath and a wonderful man who read everything”, says Dr Duncan.
“He read the Bible, the Church Fathers, pagan philosophy, Aristotle, the latest translations of Arab philosophers.”
And as he read, whenever a favorite subject came up – for example animals, Creation, the Trinity and about 400 other things – Grosseteste marked a little symbol in the margins of the book.
At the end, he combed through the margins and noted where each topic appeared, and included the entry in a general index.
“So he finds himself with what he calls a great table….of each instance that the Trinity [for example] is mentioned in all his reading,” says Dr. Duncan.
“It’s like a sort of Google scroll – it’s read everything and it can tell you where anything is.”
Why the need for an index?
In the early 13th century, two things happened to create the perfect time for the invention of the index finger.
One was the creation of universities. “It’s no coincidence that Paris and Oxford are where universities have just arrived,” says Dr Duncan.
The other thing was the arrival of religious orders of preachers or mendicants, and a new idea of having brethren living among the people in the big cities to preach and “keep the flock from going astray”.
“So you have two kinds of speech: you have the lecture and the sermon. People need to write lectures. People need to write sermons,” says Dr. Duncan.
“Suddenly they need to use books – not just to read books, but to use books.”
He describes indexes as a “new type of information dissemination” that allows people to preach or lecture at short notice, and to use and research their books “in a more efficient way”.
The indexes allowed people “to put these pieces together in new combinations”.
Human vs computer – which index is better?
At the end of Dr. Duncan’s book on the subject, Index, A History Of The, he includes not one but two indexes, to make a point.
One of the indexes is produced using contemporary artificial intelligence indexing software.
The other is produced by a human, Paula Clarke Bain, a professional indexer with the Society of Indexers in the UK.
“His is so much better, so much better,” says Dr. Duncan.
“It’s funny. It’s useful. It’s smart. He can name things that I don’t name in the book.”
The man-made index has nuance and subtext that the computer version simply can’t reach, he says.
“I really wanted to show that computers are handy for certain types of indexing, like for example the Google index or when we go through a document with ‘control’ and ‘F’.
“That’s great, but I don’t think it can index your book yet, because that’s far from what a good index can do.”
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