Not Reading in Early Modern England


Laurentio Beyerlinck, Magnum theatrum vitae humanae (Leiden, 1665-1666), 2001 Folio +39, A1r. 

We tend now to think of the index as merely a finding aid: standardized, replicable, and ideologically neutral. But for early modern readers, the index--like the commonplace book and the epitome--was a site of anxiety about the textual intermediaries between readers and their books.

Even a convention as seemingly uncontroversial as alphabetization was a subject of debate. Printed books from Laurentio Beyerlinck's voluminous Magnum theatrum vitae humanae (1665) to John Clarke's epitome Paroemiologia anglo-latina (1639) increasingly featured alphabetical indexes. But some voiced doubts that alphabetization was an appropriate way for readers to encounter a book. In The Lawiers Logicke (1588), Abraham Fraunce wrote that "I could heartily wish the whole body of our law to be rather logically ordered [emphasis mine], than by alphabetical breviaries torn and dismembered."

John Clarke, Paroemiologia anglo-latina (London, 1639), Ib96 T639C, X5v - X6r.

A logical method of organization, Fraunce asserts, would involve a “lightsome perusing” that attends to the coherence of the whole work, not a “loathsome tossing” that orders subjects only by the proximity of their first letters to one another. "If any man say it cannot be…then I do not so much envy his great wisdom, as pity his rustical education, who had rather eat acorns with hogs, than bred with men, and prefer the loathsome tossing of an A.B.C. abridgement, before the lightsome perusing of a methodological coherence of the whole common law." Such alphabetical indexes or "breviaries" might upset the natural order of things: after all, God comes after Adam, alphabetically-speaking.

John Foxe, Actes and Monuments (London, 1583), Mey +34 1583, 5F5r.

For some indexers, however, the alphabetical index was a crucial aid to navigating an unwieldly text: the 1572 edition of the Actes and Monuments, for example, asks the reader to "resolve in thy minde the letter wherewith the word beginneth" in order to "finde any thing." This index has a clear discursive function, with lists of words and phrases that start to look more like ideological propositions than an alphabetical directory: entries include "Abuses in yChurch, require reformation not defection" and "Accidences cannot bee the Sacrament of Christes naturall body."

Early modern authors and readers thus took seriously the task of summarizing and selecting the most important points of entry to a book, recognizing that an index can change the terms of our encounter with a text by pointing to "the most notable and memorable thyngs contained in the whole volume."

Laurence Echard, The History of England (London, 1718), 1976 + 65, 6Qr.

Ideological indexing, however, could all too quickly get out of hand. In 1718, the Whig writer John Oldmixon was hired to produce an index to Laurence Echard’s History of England. As Dennis Duncan first showed, however, Oldmixon’s index is a work of satire, deliberately undercutting and misrepresenting Tory historiographical narratives. Oldmixon describes a Whig partisan as "Wilmore, Prosecuted Maliciously" and repeats the story that James II's wife smuggled in a child in a warming-pan to pass off as her own--indexing "Warming-Pan" as "very useful to King James's Queen." The Tonson publishing house printed an apology following the offending index, but the damage was done: “This Index was written by a Person at a distance from the Author…the Writer through haste, has in some few Places mistaken the Meaning,” explained the publishers in the appended note.

This odd episode in the history of indexing--the Tory book with a Whig index--vividly illustrates what early modern commentators saw as the danger of indexes: not just that they might allow readers to lazily access a book in fragments, but that they might propogate actively disengenuous interpretations. But how to know whether an index is accurate or not, when the function it serves is to allow readers not to read the book--or at least, to quickly access the most notable and memorable passages? The only solution, perhaps, is to do your own reading.