History

How a Few Salty Brits Pioneered the Art of the Weaponized Index

“His egregious dulness, p. 74, 106, 119, 135, 136, 137, 241.”

An old, thick book is open to a page reading, "A Short Account of Dr. Bentley by Way of Index."
Boyle’s satirical index: Fellows’ Library K.11.16. CC-BY, Jesus College Oxford

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These days, when we read a mainstream ​nonfiction ​book—​a history or a biography, ​say—​it will almost certainly come provided with an index. And if the publisher is worth their salt, there is a very good chance that the index was compiled by a professional, most likely a member of a trade organization such as the American Society for Indexing, the Nederlands Indexers Netwerk, the Australian and New Zealand Society of Indexers, the Indexing Society of Canada, and so on. Of these, the oldest is the Society of Indexers, founded in Britain in 1957. Shortly after its formation, the society received a letter from Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, wishing it success and sharing a few of the PM’s favorite anecdotes about indexes. This might seem an extraordinary ​thing—​that a head of state should find time to honor this new and, let’s be honest, rather niche organization; that he should be able to reel off a list of his favorite indexes; that he even sounds plausible when he says, “But I must resist the temptation to go on quoting … ” We should bear in mind, however, that Macmillan had publishing in his blood. His grandfather Daniel founded the publishing ​house—still going ​strong—that bears the family name, and where Harold worked for many years both before and after his parliamentary career.

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Of Macmillan’s index stories, the one which catches my eye is the last one, the only one, in fact, that is about politics. Here ​Macmillan—​a​Tory—​recalls (“with all proper regret”) hearing of “the reported instructions given by Macaulay: ‘Let no damned Tory index my History!’ ” Macaulay here is Thomas Babington Macaulay, the 19th ​century Whig politician and historian who began his most famous work, The History of England, in the 1840s and was still working on the fifth volume at the time of his death in 1859. Perhaps this was a deathbed ​scene—​his last, whispered instructions to his publisher: “Let no damned Tory index my History .” What Macaulay is getting at, of course, is the idea that an unscrupulous indexer can radically change the emphasis of a text. And what is implicit in this is a real understanding about the way that people read history ​books,​especially a ​five-​volume magnum opus like Macaulay’s: that for the most part they read them from the back, jumping in via the index, consulting the work for the sections they need. If this is the case, then the actions of a rogue or partisan indexer matter. What Macaulay was all too aware of was a particular moment, about a century and a half before he wrote his History of England, when the rogue ​index—the index weaponized against its primary ​text—​had become a fashion.

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At the beginning of the 18th century, British politics was arranged broadly into two factions, the Tories and the Whigs. At the heart of their contentions was a bitter disagreement over the role of the monarchy and over the status of the Stuart royal line, a Catholic dynasty, deposed in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Much of the public skirmishing between the two factions was conducted through the medium of the political pamphlet, a ​rough-​and​­tumble warfare in which pamphleteers were always acidic, regularly anonymous, and sometimes ventriloquized their enemies to make them seem rabid, obtuse or both. Into this febrile publishing environment came the mock index. Here a book by a figure of one persuasion would be treated to an index compiled by someone of the other, with entries designed to ridicule the main text, to draw attention to its moments of banality or pompousness, its sympathy for foreigners or Catholics, or sometimes even just its sloppy grammar.

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Macaulay may have thundered at such indexes, fearing ​that even in the mid–19th ​century, ​he might fall victim to one himself, but he was also able to concede their genius. In his own ​library—and now preserved at the Bodleian in ​Oxford—​he possessed a satirical work from 1698 that featured as its climax a spectacularly derisive index. The work, attributed to Charles Boyle, was entitled Dr Bentley’s Dissertations on the Epistles of Phalaris, Examin’d, and on its rear flyleaf, in a page of scrawling, penciled annotation, Macaulay declared it “a masterpiece in its way.” In order to understand why Macaulay should have considered this satire a ​masterpiece—​and why he would qualify that appraisal by adding “in its way”—​let us turn to our first bout: Boyle vs. Bentley.

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In 1695, a young nobleman named Charles Boyle published a new edition of an ancient Greek text. Boyle had been a student at Christ Church, Oxford, a college with staunchly Royalist political affiliations. It had served as Charles I’s court during the civil war half a century previously, and while many young noblemen attended the college during the second half of the 17th century, Boyle is said to have been the only one in 30 years to actually complete his degree. Encouraged by his tutors, Boyle’s Epistles of Phalaris was intended as a showcase both for the college and for its star pupil.

The Epistles were reputed to be a collection of letters written by Phalaris, the tyrant ruler of Agrigento in Sicily during the fifth century B.C. However, some uncertainty existed about their authenticity, and Boyle’s edition prompted Richard Bentley, the king’s librarian, to publish his Dissertations on the Epistles of Phalaris, in which he asserted that the letters could only have been written several centuries after Phalaris’ death. Bentley’s entire career, while eminent and distinguished, was also marked by an inordinate number of blistering spats. He emerges as one of those figures who might not exactly relish combat but is constitutionally incapable of moderating his tone to avoid it, his brilliance unmingled with any soothing affability, putting backs up and noses out of joint on every side.

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And so it was with his response to Boyle’s Epistles. Since the Epistles had not been entirely Boyle’s own ​work—​it was widely, and justly, rumored that he had had considerable help from his tutors at Christ ​Church—​it was no surprise that the college should respond en masse to Bentley’s criticisms. The grandest of the Christ Church faction’s attacks, Dr Bentley’s Dissertations on the Epistles of Phalaris, and the Fables of Æsop, Examin’​d—​better known as Boyle Against Bentley—​is a ​book-​length character assassination of the king’s librarian. Credited to Boyle on the title page, its composition was really a joint effort by a confederacy of Christ Church men: Boyle himself, his tutor Francis Atterbury, and the recent students William Freind and William King, a scholar who was to become a pioneer of the satirical index.

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Boyle Against Bentley opens with some familiar​hell­in-​a-handcart rhetoric about the imminent demise of “Learning” at the hands of modern editors and annotators. The preface also rehearses an earlier line of attack on the librarian’s scholarship—the allegation that Bentley’s criticism was drawn from dictionaries and was therefore necessarily shallow—but takes this observation radically further by stating plainly that this is a wholly invalid mode of scholarship: “I am not therefore engag’d to defend [the Phalaris epistles’] Reputation against the Attacks of Dr. Bentley, or any other person, who, by the help of Leisure and Lexicons, shall set up for a Critic in this point.” In other words, anyone with a dictionary and enough time on their hands can find arguments to make about great literature, but these will be ​contemptible—​inherently ​worthless—​so there is no need to address them.

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It is an extraordinarily bold statement, but in case we were in any doubt whether Boyle and his cronies mean it, the claim is repeated liberally throughout the work. For example, “Dr. Bentley ’s Appendix [i.e. the Dissertation  ] has all the Pomp and Show of Learning, without the Reality.” Bentley is accused of having only used indexes and dictionaries: “Dr. Bentley methinks should have dug deeper for his materials, and consulted Original Authors.” Finally, a pair of rather wonderful coinings sum the situation up: Bentley, accused of a purely mediated form of scholarship, is a “Second-​hand Critic,” while his working method, reliant on reference works, is dismissed as “Alphabetical Learning.” But dictionaries are not, of course, the only sites of alphabetical learning, and the index comes under fire too, with Boyle (or whichever of his friends is ventriloquizing him at this point) stating, “I take ​Index-​hunting after Words and Phrases, to be, next [to] Anagrams and Acrosticks, the lowest Diversion a Man can betake himself to.”

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For all its wounded acerbity, however, by far the most notable feature of Boyle Against Bentley is its wit. King provides the book’s most ingenious piece of comedy: an index.

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This ​four-​page table, inserted at the back of the book, is entitled “A Short Account of Dr Bentley, by Way of Index,” and sure enough, each of its headwords relates to some aspect of Bentley’s low character. Users will find where to turn if they need to know about such important matters as:

His egregious dulness, p. 74, 106, 119, 135, 136, 137, 241

His Pedantry, from p. 93 to 99, 144, 216

His Appeal to Foreigners, p. 13, 14, 15

His familiar acquaintance with Books that he never saw, p. 76, 98, 115, 232

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It is a glorious twofold attack. Part of the great fun of King’s index is that the locations are real ones. If we follow the reference to “His Collection of Asinine Proverbs, p. 220,” we do indeed find ourselves at a page where Bentley is accused of citing the same ​proverb—about an ​ass—at two different points in his dissertation. The ​surface-​level joke of “A Short Account of Dr Bentley,” then, is that a time-​poor reader really might need to check the details of some particular facet of Bentley’s awfulness and be delighted at the provision of a functioning index. At the same time there is a covert attack, a sneer at the “second-​hand critic” dependent on indexes and always at one remove from literature itself.

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Boyle Against Bentley was a considerable success. By taking shots, not at the detail of Bentley’s ​arguments—​which were both watertight and ​obscure—but at Bentley himself, the Christ Church faction had produced a witty and accessible piece of invective that made Bentley an object of ridicule in the taverns and ​coffeehouses. There was even rumored to be more of the same should Bentley dare to respond, with one ​coffee​house wag offering this memorable piece of fighting talk: “Let the Dr. come out with his Answer as soon as he will, they are in readiness for him; to my certain knowledge … they have Rods in Piss against him.” The metaphor comes from horse riding and the practice of soaking riding whips in urine to preserve their suppleness. For all its obnoxiousness, Boyle Against Bentley is an extremely entertaining read, something that could never be said for Bentley’s Dissertation itself. Macaulay thought it was a masterpiece, though only in its own way: the limited field of ​tag-team attacks on worthier opponents. He later expands on this view, dubbing it “the best book ever written by any man on the wrong side of a question of which he was profoundly ignorant,” a neatly ​double-​edged evaluation of the Boyle group’s wit and their ability as classicists.

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But Boyle Against Bentley had a curious side effect. King’s masterstroke, devising a mock index as a sneer at ​index- scholarship, had only whetted his appetite. The mock index was a form with all sorts of potential. It could be mobilized again, against different targets.

The initial trigger for the next spate of mock indexes was the election, in October 1705, for speaker of the House of Commons. The incumbent was Robert Harley, and among the challengers was William Bromley, a Tory and another former Christ Church man. In 1691, while in his late 20s, Bromley had done what many young noblemen of the time did and taken the Grand Tour, visiting France and Italy. On his return, again like many noblemen before him, he had written up and published an account of his travels. In a slightly defensive preface, the young Bromley acknowledges that it has already become a cliché to publish a report of one’s trip. Of course, Bromley goes ahead and publishes anyway, though he takes the precaution of bringing the book out anonymously so that he cannot be accused of seeking to make a name for himself by such an unoriginal act. The title page modestly informs us only that the author is “A Person of Quality.”

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Nevertheless, about 13 years later, this anonymity would not be enough to conceal Bromley’s Remarks from the attentions of his political rivals. On Oct. 22, three days before the ​election—​the ​precision timing is remarkable, just long enough for gossip to spread but not long enough for it to go ​stale—​a second edition of Bromley’s travels appeared. More than a decade after its first publication, Bromley’s Remarks was in print again, though Bromley had not authorized the reprint. The title page innocuously announces the sole change between this and the 1692 text: “The SECOND EDITION. To Which is added a Table of the Principal Matters.”

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The second edition of Remarks in the Grand Tour leaves Bromley’s words wholly unaltered. The addition of an index, however, draws attention to any aspect of that text that might show Bromley in a bad light. For example, where Bromley sounds pedantic or confused, the index picks this up: “Chatham, where and how situated, viz., on the other Side Rochester Bridge, though commonly reported to be on this Side, p. 1.” When he states the obvious, the index is there to point this out for the reader: “Naples the Capital City of the Kingdom of Naples, p. 195.” Moments of popishness are hardly likely to escape the indexer’s censure: “The Author kiss’d the Pope’s Slipper, and had his Blessing, though known to be a Protestant .… p. 149.” But it is when Bromley is simply banal or idiotic that the table is most fun, as when he is caught pondering about the fish in Lake Garda, and the index gives us a ​po-​faced recap of his musings: “Carpioni a Fish in the Lake di Guarda, by the Similitude of the Fish and of the Name, the Author much questions if they are not the same with our Carps, p. 50.”

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When Bromley lost the election, he was furious, seeing his humiliation by the satirical indexer as having been instrumental in his failure. In a handwritten note on the flyleaf of his own copy, he rants sarcastically against his political opponents:

This edition of these Travels is a specimen of the ​good­nature, and good manners of the Whigs, and I have reason to believe of one in the Ministry (very conversant in this sort of calumny,) for the sake of publishing “the Table of principal Matters, &c,” to expose me, whom the Gentlemen of the Church of England designed to be Speaker of the House of Commons. … This was a very malicious proceeding; my words and meaning being plainly perverted in several places; which, if they had been improper, and any observations trifling or impertinent, an allowance was due for my being very young, when they were made.

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Bromley’s suspicion that the plot came from within the ministry was correct. The reprint and its index had been arranged by none other than Robert Harley, the outgoing speaker, who kept a personal stash of the offending volume at his home and handed them copies delightedly to anyone who came to visit.

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As Bromley’s marginalia shows, the attack on his Remarks had left Tories smarting and presented a new model for satirically attacking the publications of one’s political enemies. For Joseph Addison, a notable Whig, it was diabolical timing that his own travelogue should be slated to appear only weeks after the vote for speaker. Addison was emerging both as a writer and as a politician, and in 1705 he was an ​undersecretary of state. So when in November that year his Remarks on Several Parts of Italy appeared, it presented an unignorable opportunity for Tory satirists to subject it to the same index of its flaws as had been dished out to Bromley. Thus, in addition to the perfectly sensible alphabetical index published as part of Addison’s book, not one but two satirical tables with almost identical titles were rushed out as stand-alone pamphlets, along with a deluxe ​edition combining the ​two ​the following year.

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The first, rather than simply leaving Addison’s words to implicate themselves, adds sarcastic comments in italics after each entry, hauling Addison over the coals for tautology (“Uncultivated Plants rise naturally about Cassis. (Where do they not?). 1”), for poor grammar (“Same us’d as an Adjective Relative without any Antecedent. Send him to School again. 20, 21”), Catholic sympathy (“The Popes are generally Men of Learning and Virtue. Vid. View of Popery. 180”), or simply for banality (“The Author has not yet seen any Gardens in Italy worth taking notice of. No matter. 59”).

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The second places all the pithiness and irony in the index entries themselves. Sample entries include: “Color does not lie within the Expression of the Chissel. 330,” and “Water is of great Use when a Fire chances to break out. 443.” The indexer even manages to return fire for the attack on Bromley’s interest in Carp with an entry imputing a similar banality to Addison: “The Lake of Mount Ceunis is well stocked with Trouts, 445.” Unlike the first pamphlet, this one includes a preface, first of all noting that another satirist has beaten the author to the punch of skewering Addison, then using this fact to infer sarcastically that the work must be wonderful and wise: “I am not surprised to find a great many Heads at Work in​Common-​placing and Indexing so vast and Inexhaustible a Treasure of Knowledge.” The preface goes on, however, to aim a kick at an old enemy:

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I am glad that this Table has not interfered in above one or two things with the other, and that my Labours also are like to be of advantage, and benefit to the Learned World. It is not indeed of the same bulk with some Dutch Lexicons and Glossaries, but I do not however despair of its finding a place, (as it is an Index) in the most Letter’d, Renowned and Humane Dr. Bentley ’s Library. ’Twill be of singular use to him in his next Controversy; for tho’ there is not one word in it of Phalaris ’s Epistles, yet it will be as Applicable to that, or any other Argument, as a great many of the Books he has quoted in his Polite and refin’d Dissertation.

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Reigniting old hostilities with Bentley, accusing him once more of being a connoisseur of indexes, implying that his Dissertation was larded with irrelevant quotation—this is an index with William King’s fingerprints all over it.

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William King died on Christmas Day 1712, a year short of his 50th birthday. His contemporaries suggested that his was a talent​wasted—​an ingenious man who might have been a serious poet or a successful judge if he had not been “so addicted to ye Buffooning way, that he neglected his proper Business, grew very poor, and so dyed in a sort of contemptible manner.” He was reputed to have read 22,000 books during his eight years at Christ Church (a claim that Johnson would later demonstrate, with a few quick calculations, could only be a wild exaggeration). His later years, however, found him drunk and broke. When Jonathan Swift managed to find him a job as a journal ​editor—​on condition that he be “diligent and sober”—King lasted only two months in the role.

His innovations as a rogue indexer, however, buffoonish as they might have been, outlived him.

Adapted from Index, A History of The. Copyright (c) 2021 by Dennis Duncan. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company Inc. All rights reserved