When did linking begin?

by Bob DuCharme

Works about linking often claim that it's been around for thousands of years, and then they give examples that are no more than a few centuries old. I can only find one reference to something more than a thousand years old that qualifies as a link: Peter Stein's 1966 work "Regulae Iuris: from Juristic Rules to Legal Maxims" describes some late fifth-century lecture notes on a commentary by the legal scholar Ulpian. The notes mention that confirmation of a particular point can be found in the Regulae ("Rules") of the third-century Roman jurist (and student of Ulpian) Modestinus, "seventeen regulae from the end, in the regula beginning 'Dotis'...". The citation's explicit identification of the point in the cited work where the material could be found makes it the earliest link that I know of.

Other than Stein's tantalizing example, all of my research points to the 12th century as the beginning of linking. In a 1938 work on the medieval scholars of Bologna, Italy, who studied what remained of ancient Roman law, Hermann Kantorowicz wrote that in "the eleventh century...titles of law books are cited without indicating the passage, books of the Code are numbered, and the name of the law book is considered a sufficient reference." He uses this to build his argument that that a particular work described in his essay is from the eleventh century and not the twelfth, as other scholars had argued. Apparently, it was common knowledge in Kantoriwicz's field that twelfth century Bolognese scholars would reference a written law using the name of the law book, the rubric heading, and the first few words of the law itself. (Referencing of particular chapters and sections by their first few words was common at the time; the use of chapter, section, and page numbers didn't begin until the following century.)

Italian legal scholars trying to organize and make sense of the massive amounts of accumulated Roman law contributed a great deal to the mechanics of the cross-referencing that provide many of the earliest examples of linking. The medievalist husband and wife team Richard and Mary Rouse also found some in their research into evolving scholarship techniques in the great universities of England and France (that is, Oxford, Cambridge, and the Sorbonne) and they described Gilbert of Poitiers's innovative twelfth-century mechanism for addressing specific parts of his work on the psalms: he added a selection of Greek letters and other symbols down the side of each page to identify concepts such as the Penitential Psalms or the Passion and Resurrection. If you found the symbol for the Passion and Resurrection in the margin of Psalm 2 with a little 8 next to it (actually, a little "viii"—they weren't using Arabic numerals quite yet), it would tell you that the next discussion of this concept appeared in Psalm 8. Once you found the same symbol on one of the eighth psalm's pages, you might find a little "xii" with it to show that the next discussion of the same concept was in Psalm 12. This addressing system made it possible for someone preparing a sermon on the Passion and Resurrection to easily find the relevant material in the Psalms. (In fact, aids to sermon preparation was one of the main forces in the development of new research tools, as clergymen were encouraged to go out and compete with the burgeoning heretic movements for the hearts and minds of the people.)

The use of information addressing systems really got rolling in the thirteenth-century English and French universities, as scholarly monks developed concordances, subject indexes, and page numbers for both Christian religious works and the classic ancient Greek works that they learned about from their contact with the Arabic world. In fact, this is where Arabic numbers start to appear in Europe; page numbering was one of the early drivers for its adoption.

Quoting of one work by another was certainly around long before the twelfth century, but if an author doesn't identify an address for his source, his reference can't be traversed, so it's not really a link. Before the twelfth century, religious works had a long tradition of quoting and discussing other works, but in many traditions (for example, Islam, Theravada Buddhism, and Vedic Hinduism) memorization of complete religious works was so common that telling someone where to look within a work was unnecessary. If one Muslim scholar said to another "In the words of the Prophet..." he didn't need to name the sura of the Qur'an that the quoted words came from; he could assume that his listener already knew. Describing such allusions as "links" adds heft to claims that linking is thousands of years old, but a link that doesn't provide an address for its destination can't be traversed, and a link that can't be traversed isn't much of a link. And, such claims diminish the tremendous achievements of the 12th-century scholars who developed new techniques to navigate the accumulating amounts of recorded information they were studying.

Is there something earlier that I'm missing? Where can I find out more about it?


2003-06-02 10:33:27
Around 800BC??

There is a reference in Joshua 23:6 enjoining the hearers to do all in the Book of the Law of Moses.

To my mind that is a link of the order of http://www.XMML.com. It may not be totally specific but it does give a "link" to traverse, in my view.

Two mechanistic point that you might want to bear in mind. Before ~5th Century AD (very roughly) many/most documents were rolls of parchment/papyrus. So, for example, page numbers were not possible. Secondly, chapter and verse numbers for the Bible were a mediaeval invention which are absent from the original manuscripts.

So, practically speaking, the most specific a link could be prior to, say, the 5th Century AD is to a scroll of parchment/papyrus.

You might say that those parchment/papyrus scrolls lacked a fragment identifier. :)

I would suggest that Joshua 23:6 identifies the resource - the Book of the Law of Moses - but in the absence of pages or of chapter or verse numbers a fragment identifier was not possible.

Andrew Watt

2003-06-02 12:03:12
Around 800BC??


I wouldn't consider division into individual pages as a necessary precondition to citing a point within works (I believe that both of my examples predate the use of page numbers, although of course they were in works that were created as codexes of bound pages), but of course division into something was necessary, and as far as I can tell sectional divisions began in the middle ages.

The Book of Joshua's reference to the Book of the Law of Moses is similar to the 11th-century legal scholarship references described by Kantorowicz, which identify an entire work. I'm looking for something with some concept of addressing, even if it's a natural language description of where in a book to find the referenced material, so that someone is really linking to a point or even span within a work instead of just referring to the existence of the complete work. Otherwise, the concept of a link becomes too broad to be worth studying, because as long as there have been literary works there have been references to works at that level of granularity.

(By the way, I found Frederic Kilgour's Evolution of the Book really helpful on the transition from scrolls to codexes. I never knew before I read it that besides scrolls, another important precursor to books around the first century AD was a hinged pair of wooden tablets with wax that could be written on, "erased," and then written on again. It sounds like these things had a size, appearance and many uses in common with modern laptops!)


2003-06-02 13:23:51
Around 800BC??

It seems to me that it isn't XLink predecessors you are looking for but predecessors of XPointer. :)

How about Daniel 9:3?

Andrew Watt

2003-06-02 15:29:41
Around 800BC??

>It seems to me that it isn't XLink predecessors you are looking for but predecessors of XPointer.

Well, you can't link to a place within a work if you can't identify the place you're linking to, so any linking needs to build on an addressing system. I'm really looking for predecessors of R. Nathan's 1488 versification of the Old Testament (even if they didn't become as successful as his) in addition to predecessors to the structural systems that I mentioned in my posting.

>How about Daniel 9:3?

Uhh, sackcloth and ashes? I don't follow you...


2005-12-04 19:17:36

I think he means that there has been a notation for citing specific verses ever since the Bible took a form we would nowadays recognise as such. That would make linking at least about 2500 years old.

I believe linking began as soon as writing moved beyond being purely a tool to list posessions or to make note of the specifics of transactions or calculations. We routinely make references to things others have said in spoken language; it seems illogical to assume this habit would not casually carry over into the written word. I believe it is inevitable that written works would reference other written works once a preservable body of texts large enough to be the subject of study and research had accrued and reading and writing became a scholarly tool. Can you imagine that no single text in the library of Alexandria would reference another? So that puts the probable first application of linking relatively soon after the invention of papyrus pergament, which is indeed several thousand years ago. But it’s unlikely that we’ll ever find hard evidence of any of this, for obvious reasons.