March 04, 2004

A Briefe and a Compendious Table

A question about the origin of concordances recently came up in conversation, and I'm preparing a talk on "Large-scale knowledge resources in speech and language research," so I thought I could justify a bit of historical investigation. The results will wind up as a single line of PowerPoint in my presentation, but I'll share the longer form below, thus saving you ten minutes of poking around on the web, if you're interested in the topic at all.

In 1230, 500 Dominican monks, working in Paris under Hugo de Sancto Caro (or Hugh of St. Cher), produced a concordance of the bible (Latin Vulgate). According to the Catholic Encyclopedia,

It contained no quotations, and was purely an index to passages where a word was found. These were indicated by book and chapter (the division into chapters had recently been invented by Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury) but not by verses, which were only introduced by Robert Estienne in 1545. ... This beginning of concordances was very imperfect, as it gave merely a list of passages, and no idea of what the passages contained. It was of little service to preachers, therefore; accordingly, in order to make it valuable for them, three English Dominicans added (1250-1252) the complete quotations of the passages indicated.

The 500 monks in Paris must have worked in a very inefficient way: perhaps each monk took one word and read the whole bible noting any instances, and then went on to another word. This would make the computational complexity O(N*M), where N is the number of lemmas (i.e. word stems to be indexed) and M is the number of lexical tokens in the Vulgate. If file-cards had been invented -- or monastic labor were not cheaper than parchment -- it should not have needed so many monks. Presumably the (unnamed) three English Dominicans could then use a random-access rather than serial-search method, reducing the complexity of their task to O(M). Even this improved work indexed only what we would now call "content words", and so

Another Dominican, John Stoicowic, or John of Ragusa, finding it necessary in his controversies to show the Biblical usage of nisi, ex, and per, which were omitted from the previous concordances, began (c. 1435) the compilation of nearly all the indeclinable words of Scripture; the task was completed and perfected by others and finally added as an appendix to the concordance of Conrad of Halberstadt in the work of Sebastian Brant published at Basle in 1496.

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia,

The revised edition of this [Hugo de St. Caro's] work, made by the Franciscan Arlotto di Prato (Arlottus), about 1290, served as a model for the concordance to the Hebrew Bible which Isaac Nathan b. Kalonymus, of Arles in Provence, compiled 1437-45. Isaac Nathan ... was led to undertake this task by discovering, during the polemic discussions forced upon him by Christian scholars, that, in order to refute the arguments drawn by his opponents from the Bible, it was necessary to have an aid that furnished a ready reference to every Biblical passage and a quick survey of all related passages. He called his concordance "Meïr Natib" (Enlightener of the Path); on the title-page of the first edition, however, it is also called "Yaïr Natib" (It Will Light the Path, after Job xli. 24 [A. V. 32]).

The first English concordance was of the New Testament in 1535 by Thomas Gybson, and of the whole bible by John Marbeck in 1550. Another mid-16th-century English concordance bore the charming title "A Briefe and a Compendious Table, in manor of a Concordance, openying the waye to the principall Histories of the whole Bible, etc."

According to the OED, the English word concordance dates from 1387:

6.b. An alphabetical arrangement of the principal words contained in a book, with citations of the passages in which they occur. These were first made for the Bible; hence Johnson's explanation ‘A book which shows in how many texts of scripture any word occurs’. Orig. in pl. (med.L. concordantiæ), each group of parallel passages being properly a concordantia.
This is sometimes denominated a verbal concordance as distinguished from a real concordance which is an index of subjects or topics.

1387 TREVISA Higden (Rolls) VIII. 235 Frere Hewe [ob. 1262]..þat expownede al þe bible, and made a greet concordaunce [Harl. MS. concordances] uppon þe bible. 1460 J. CAPGRAVE Chron. 154 Hewe [of S. Victor]..was eke the first begynner of the Concordauns, whech is a tabil onto the Bibil. 1550 MARBECK (title) A Concordance, that is to saie, a Worke wherein by the Ordre of the Letters of the A.B.C. ye maie redely finde any Worde conteigned in the whole Bible. 1561 T. NORTON Calvin's Inst. Pref. to Contents, They followed the Concordances of the Bible, called the great Concordances, which is collected according to the common translation. a1631 DONNE in Select. (1840) 192 To search the Scriptures, not as though thou wouldst make a concordance, but an application. 1665 BOYLE Occas. Refl. Pref. (1675) 27, I had not a Bible or Concordance at hand. 1737 CRUDEN (title) Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testament. 1828 E. IRVING Last Days 37 A simple reference to the concordance..will serve to clear up these prophetic matters. 1837 Penny Cycl. VII. 434/2 The compiler of the first concordance in any language was Hugo de St. Caro, or Cardinal Hugo, who died in 1262. 1845 MRS. C. CLARKE (title) Concordance to Shakespeare. 1869 D. B. BRIGHTWELL (title) A Concordance to the entire Works of Alfred Tennyson.

fig. 1741 WATTS Improv. Mind I. i. §5 Memorino has learnt half the Bible by heart, and is become a living concordance.

attrib. and comb.

1856 S. R. MAITLAND False Worship 163 All that the concordance-maker can tell us about it. Ibid. 196 Finding so much discordance in the concordance part of his work.

The earliest cited verbal use is

1888 Athenæum 6 Oct. 450/1 The difficult ‘Astrolabe’, which they concordanced some years ago.

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 4, 2004 07:16 AM