The joy – and importance – of the analytical index

Not long ago, a learned society of which I am a council member made the decision to stop commissioning an analytical index for volumes of the journal it published. Up to that point, every year an index had gone out to institutional and individual subscribers, which libraries bound together with the journal numbers for that year. The indexing was dropped on the grounds that barely anyone bothered to bind a volume of the journal anymore, but more importantly because the journal was now being uploaded to electronic repositories. It was here that most scholars would encounter it, and it would of course be electronically searchable. What need is there for analytical indexes in a digital age?

I have written ten indexes so far, all for my own books, and each time I have enjoyed it more. Compiling the initial list of terms for an index is a very valuable editorial exercise, since it immediately brings to light any areas of vagueness within the text and is a good way of checking consistency and accuracy in use of terms. I always compile this list before sending the final manuscript to a publisher. In fact, I would go so far as to say that compiling an index is an integral part of the process of writing an academic monograph in the humanities – which is why I have always refused the assistance of an external indexer, even when publishers have offered it. Indexing compels an author to adopt an Aristotelian approach to the subject matter, dividing it logically beneath headings and subheadings, avoiding unnecessary complexity but mindful always of who is most likely to read the book and what they are most likely to look up in the index. Indexing forces the author to think of his or her audience, which is another reason why it is an integral part of writing. More than once, the indexing process has caused me to go back and make changes to the structure of a book.

The mystical author Arthur Machen (1863-1947), who was compelled to take all sorts of poorly paid editorial jobs to fund his writing, had a low opinion of indexing: ‘Indexing is a horrible job; a weariness, a nuisance; a matter of covering the table with innumerable little slips of paper that flow over on to the floor; and one must be careful, and accurate, and I have always hated being careful and accurate – unless I happen to be interested in what I am doing (Things Near and Far (2015), p. 73).’ This may well have been the case in the nineteenth century, but we live in an age when indexing has never been less messy. I personally find that I cannot index properly without using paper; when PDF proofs come back from a publisher, I will start filling the page numbers in my pre-prepared index list, but I find it easier to keep track of them by writing them down on paper. Other indexers may use other methods but this works for me. Indexing is hard, but then so is research and writing – and I can honestly say that I now look forward to the indexing process and enjoy it as much as writing.

There are innumerable reasons why an analytical index is vastly superior to electronically searchable text, and I cannot cover them all. A human indexer takes note of places in the text where a theme is covered but the actual words associated with that theme do not occur. An indexer will spot where a synonym is used, and reference this in the index. And, crucially for monographs on early modern and medieval history including direct quotations in Middle English, an indexer will take note of variant spellings – something a searchable database cannot do. Indexes also have a role to play within electronic databases; if the index is scanned along with the text itself, then a search will throw up the term in the index, which will inform a scholar of places where something is covered that a brute-force search alone does not throw up. For this reason, it is just as important for e-books to be indexed as print copies.

It now seems to me that there is nothing sadder than an unindexed book – indeed, if a book is worthy of an index and does not have one, I feel a pang of desire to provide it with this final and most important adornment of scholarship. I have found it invariably true that the quality of an index indicates the quality of a book, and I know that academic librarians often decide whether a book will go on open shelves or be consigned to the stacks on the basis of whether it has an index and other critical apparatus. There are no technological shortcuts that can be a substitute for a properly written index; I suspect there never will be, because indexing is integral to writing and is indispensable to ensuring a book is logically structured and useful to scholars.

Let’s hear it for the index, and for the indexers!


Talk on magical gems at Treadwell’s

The Binbrook pendant, an Anglo-Saxon opal © the Portable Antiquities Scheme

Yesterday evening I spoke at Treadwell’s Bookshop in London on ‘Magical Stones and Gems in Pre-Modern England’, drawing largely on the Peterborough Lapidary (my translation of which was published in October 2016). The text of my paper can be downloaded here. The Peterborough Lapidary, dating from the fifteenth century, is the longest and most comprehensive medieval English treatise on the magical properties (‘virtues’) of stones. My talk focussed on the magical properties ascribed to stones in the Lapidary, including powers of divination and the ability to summon spirits, repel witches and even raise the dead. It is always a pleasure to speak at Treadwell’s and I am grateful to Christina and all the staff and volunteers at what is probably the most interesting bookshop in the country for making this event possible. I was especially delighted to see two of my former students in the audience, and had some fascinating conversations with a variety of people after the talk.


Is Huntingdonshire part of Scotland?

It is the question no-one seems to be discussing as the SNP prepares to make another bid to obtain Scottish independence: is Huntingdonshire really part of Scotland? The ancient county of Huntingdonshire was merged with Cambridgeshire in a reorganisation of local government in 1974; parts of the old county south of the River Nene have also been absorbed by Peterborough Unitary Authority. However, the original earldom of Huntingdon was one of the seven great earldoms of Anglo-Saxon England, created by Edward the Elder for Bjorn Eastrithson who ruled over the Honour of Huntingdon for the king, which included most of Huntingdonshire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire. This was at a time before earldoms were merely titular and represented real territorial jurisdictions. At the time of the Norman Conquest the earldom was held by Waltheof, whose daughter Maud (or Matilda) inherited it when her father was executed for rebellion in 1076.

In 1113 Maud married, as her second husband, David of Scotland, who thereafter held the earldom of Huntingdon in right of his wife. In 1124 David became King of Scots whilst still in possession of the title of Earl of Huntingdon. As we read in Halsbury’s Laws of England, ‘If the holder of a peerage succeeds to the Crown, the dignity merges in the Crown and can only be revived or re-created by a new grant’. Does this mean that the earldom of Huntingdon merged with the Scottish crown in 1113 and Huntingdonshire thereby became part of Scotland? Well, it’s not quite as simple as this. Halsbury is referring to English rather than Scots law, and England and Scotland were of course separate kingdoms in the twelfth century. Halsbury was not envisaging a situation in which the holder of an English peerage succeeds to a foreign throne. Indeed, the kings of England continued to maintain their right to grant the earldom of Huntingdon and did not regard it as having merged with the crown of Scotland.

King Malcolm IV of Scots had to do homage to Henry II in order to receive the earldom of Huntingdon, because the earldom was a fief of (in feudal subjection to) the English crown. In an age before the formation of any coherent idea of the nation state, the notion that one king might do homage to another was not absurd; indeed, English kings (most notably Edward I) had a tendency to treat the crown of Scotland as a feudal possession of the English crown. When King William I of Scots succeeded to the earldom of Huntingdon he resigned it to his brother David so that he did not have to do homage to the English king. David’s son John of Scotland died without heirs in 1237 and the earldom merged back into the crown – but the English rather than the Scottish one.

The Treaty of Union of 1707 merged the English and Scottish crowns and parliaments, but one of the things that remained separate was peerages. All peerages (apart from Irish ones) are classified as being of England or Scotland (titles created pre-1707) or of the United Kingdom (titles created after 1707). The Treaty and Act of Union therefore did not merge the peerages of England and Scotland, so the English and Scottish crowns were not altogether merged as fountains of honour. The only way in which one can claim that the Honour of Huntingdon remained somehow part of Scotland is to argue that a crowned head of a sovereign nation cannot do homage to another; on the death of John of Scotland the earldom legally merged in the Scottish crown, therefore, and Edward III’s grant of the earldom to Henry de Clinton in 1337 had no validity. According to this argument, the Honour of Huntingdon would be a little bit like the Principality of Liechtenstein, a territory owned by the Austrian Liechtenstein family which gradually became the sovereign nation state it is today. It would be a case of the sovereignty of the crown of Scotland transferring to the Honour of Huntingdon because the Honour was owned by a sovereign crown. If this is true, the dissolution of the Act of Union would leave the Honour of Huntingdon united not to the English, but to the Scottish crown and therefore part of the territory of any future independent Scotland.

Quite apart from the fact that earldoms as territorial entities are obsolete, the problem with this argument is that it retroactively applies modern concepts of sovereignty to the Middle Ages, which never really works. Although contemporary political entities such as Scotland and England derive from medieval boundaries, the ways in which medieval people understood sovereignty were so different from our own (and from modern international law) that it is almost impossible to appeal to medieval precedent for contemporary boundaries. And even if a case could be made for the Scottish crown’s ownership of the earldom of Huntingdon, the situation would be rather similar to the Danish crown’s ownership of the Orkneys and Shetlands. Possession is nine tenths of the law, even in international law, and Scotland’s long-time possession of the northern isles (even if Denmark never formally ceded them) is taken to be equivalent to sovereignty. Huntingdonshire has simply been part of England for too long for Scotland to stake a credible claim – but the county’s connection with the Scottish crown is nevertheless a fascinating part of its history.