BMCR 1998.01.05

The Footnote: A Curious History

, The footnote : a curious history. . Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996. xi, 241 pages. ISBN 9780674307605

A distinguished Roman historian among my teachers taught me that when a new work of scholarship fell into his hands, he read the footnotes first.[1] This told him whether the author had any interesting new material (primary or secondary) and what the general drift of the book would be better than any introduction or table of contents. I have emulated that practice often, remembering to scan the index as well when available.

Anthony Grafton would not be quite so sobersided as either I or my mentor. He would indeed read the footnotes, gleefully, and with a specifically jaundiced eye. He claims, for example, that “cf.” is the secret handshake sign among the fraternity of the initiates, the one that says “now this author is entirely daft, but I’ll be too discreet to say it out loud”. Such an approach quickly raises the stakes for the reader of the book and leads, inter alia, to hyperconscious reading of Grafton’s own footnotes.[2] There is also keen observation about different national practices, grounded in a sense of the different library cultures—the German working in the seminar of his institute, the Italian struggling just to find much less to quote, the American awash in the wealth of open stacks. The story of Kantorowicz’s shift from defiant footnotelessness in Germany in one setting to eminently erudite notation in his American publications is sensitively and usefully drawn.

And the book is delightful, charming, learned, and highly instructive. It is not the definitive book on the footnote, indeed falls very far short of that. The scope is clearly and sharply limited to historical scholarship. He begins, irresistibly, with Gibbon (whose notes were originally end-notes, he reminds or informs us), lingers over Ranke, then marches cheerfully backwards in European historical scholarship (swerving to embrace Pope’s Dunciad) to settle on Bayle’s Dictionnaire as the fons et origo of the historian’s note. Along the way we find such pleasant surprises as Gottlieb Wilhelm Rabener’s 1743 dissertation Hinkmars von Repkow Noten ohne Text — a dissertation consisting entirely of footnotes and written by an author confessing that his goal was fame and fortune.[3]3

Now on the one hand, this entirely elides the history (alluded to but not explored in detail) of marginal annotation from antiquity to the present and the multiple purposes to which such annotation is put. (To be fair, Grafton is very right when he insists that the annotation I supply to the margins of another’s work is very different from that which I supply with my own. I mean only to say that the two have interrelated histories and to pursue the one is to become more curious and reflective about the other.) Furthermore, there is no attention to the physical form and arrangement of notes and no illustrations. One hankers for the complementary approach one might expect from, say, John Lennard, the author of the endlessly delightful But I Digress: The Exploitation of Parentheses in English Printed Verse (Oxford 1991).

But Grafton has a traditionalist and serious purpose. Though the footnote offers the focus for his discourse, his real business is with historiography and the place of the source-footnote in the historical study. He is eloquent on the necessary fallibility and imperfection of the note — not every assertion can ever be authorized with a note, hence some artistry and arrangement must be assumed from the outset. Most lucidly, he expounds what he calls the “double narrative” of the classical work of history. The primary narrative runs through the text and tells a story of events historical; the secondary narrative runs through the footnotes and is the implicit narrative of the author’s explorations in pursuit of the primary narrative. Grafton is particularly illuminating on Ranke’s practices (based on meticulous study of what appears — from Grafton’s own double narrative—to be a vast quantity of primary materials): Ranke himself writing the text first, then going back and salting it with footnotes to taste. We are left with the paradox Grafton rightly descries in modern historical writing: “the modern routine of documentation, which claims to require that one prove both that each sentence is original and that it has a source” (143).

What emerges is an impassioned and eloquent defense of the historian’s craft embedded in a judiciously selective account of its emergence in early modern times. We are left admiring the description provided by the seventeenth-century Huguenot Jean Le Clerc:

Notes expressed in good terms, in few words, and where one asserts nothing without proving it, or without at least citing some good author where one can see the assertion verified, indicating the passage in question so well that the reader can easily find it, if necessary: most readers, I say, will find notes like this of the greatest value.

And we are meant to admire that description, ahistorically. In the end, the skeptical historian expresses a touching, even Actonian, faith in historical criticism and scholarship as an antidote to oppression: a Brazilian cardinal and Harry Belafonte are called to witness. With that ending, we are reminded of the charm of the lecture hall whence these chapters clearly originated (no specific attribution is given), and the utility of such investigation and exhortation in the training of young historians, even if our own curiosity remains drawn by the long list of references extracted from Grafton’s own footnotes on topics as diverse as the history of the Warburg library and the legal underpinnings of the Infield Fly Rule. Grafton’s learning and insight and wit are equally laudable in these pages, and the time spent with them of high value

[1] This volume, published by Harvard Press, is copyrighted by Les Editions du Seuil. The copyright page contains the further notes: “This work will be published as Les Origines tragiques de l’érudition: Une histoire de la note en bas de page as part of the series La Librairie du XXe Siècle, edited by Maurice Olender. Original English ms. version was translated into German and published under title: Die tragischen Ursprünge der deutschen Fussnote (Berlin, 1995); this is a revision of the original English version.” This is apparently the first BMCR review to have a footnote appended to the bibliographical headnote. The book itself has a footnote on the front of the dustjacket. [July 2020 : This footnote was once appended to the headnote, but in 1998, BMCR reviews were published in HTML and that was possible. Unfortunately, we have had to move it because now only the text of the review can have footnotes.]

[2] And surely the reader of this review will suffer a similar hypersensitivity. When, for example, Grafton at 34n1 tells us, to “see the informative work of …” a Princeton colleague of his, we are left staring at the dazzlingly neutral word “informative” in hopes of seeing a concealed dagger somewhere in the folds of its syllables. Or what of 214n46, which ends with a “Cf.” footnote to a review of the German first edition of this very volume?

[3] This would be a salubrious moment for doctoral candidates reading this review to pause and consider just how far that abundance of footnotes took Rabener in his pursuit of fame and fortune.