Grafton, Anthony. 1997. The Footnote: A Curious History. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.
This was the first book I read for the 12 Books, 12 Months Challenge.
I don’t think I have much to say about this book. I did enjoy it but it wasn’t exactly what I was expecting. It was both more and less. It was more in that it was focused, and fairly deeply, on the footnote in history; i.e., in historical writing or history as discipline. It was less in that it wasn’t a history of footnotes in general.
- 1 Footnotes: The Origin of a Species
- 2 Ranke: A Footnote about Scientific History
- 3 How the Historian Found His Muse: Ranke’s Path to the Footnote
- 4 Footnotes and Philosophie: An Enlightenment Interlude
- 5 Back to the Future, 1: De Thou Documents the Details
- 6 Back to the Future, 2: The Antlike Industry of Ecclesiastical Historians and Antiquaries
- 7 Clarity and Distinctness in the Abysses of Erudition: The Cartesian Origins of the Modern Footnotes
- Epilogue: Some Concluding Footnotes
On the role(s) of the footnote:
“In the modern world … historians perform two complementary tasks. They must examine all the sources relevant to the solution of a problem and construct a new narrative or argument from them. The footnote proves that both tasks have been carried out. It identifies both the primary evidence that guarantees the story’s novelty in substance and the secondary works that do not undermine its novelty in form and thesis. By doing so. moreover, it identifies the work of history in question as the creation of a professional” (4-5).
“Footnotes exist, rather, to perform two other functions. First, they persuade: they convince the reader that the historian has done an acceptable amount of work, enough to lie within the tolerances of the field. … Second, they indicate the chief sources the historian has actually used” (22).
On the dagger in the back:
“Like the shabby podium, carafe of water, and rambling, inaccurate introduction which assert that a particular person deserves to be listened to when giving a public lecture, footnotes confer authority on a writer.
Unlike other types of credentials, however, footnotes sometimes afford entertainment—normally in the form of daggers stuck in the backs of the author’s colleagues. Some of these are inserted politely. Historians may simply cite a work by author, title, place and date of publication. But often they quietly set the subtle but deadly “cf.” (“compare”) before it. This indicates, at least to the expert reader, both that an alternative view appears in the cited work and that it is wrong” (7-8).
Nowadays, most of us know from the conference or the dreaded webinar experience that that “shabby podium, …” does nothing of the kind to assert someone deserves to be listened to, except in the polite professional sense. We may, often as not, be polite by quietly as possible leaving that session.
Footnotes do have their critics:
“More than one recent critic has pointed out that footnotes interrupt a narrative. References detract from the illusion of veracity and immediacy … (Noel Coward made the same point more memorably when he remarked that having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love” (69-70).
Sadly, some footnotes are like that. Thankfully not all.
The best of all possible footnotes:
“No one negotiated the bibliographical and moral minefields of this brand of scholarship more expertly than the great philosopher Leibniz—who not only proved by metaphysical argument that he was living in the best of all possible worlds, but also proved by extensive archival research and the publication of any number of texts that his patrons, the house of Braunschweig-Lüneburg, could boast of the best of all possible genealogies” (182).
Sorry, I couldn’t help but include this quote as just the previous night before coming across it I was urging Sara to read Candide.
Perhaps my newest motto:
“I am most truly (said Bayle) a protestant; for I protest indifferently against all Systems, and all Sects” (192fn5).
Summation of the history of the footnote:
“Naturally it took time for anything resembling a uniform citation practice to establish itself in the varied ecologies where Europe’s scholars fought with note and claw for intellectual space” (219).
I adore the phrase “fought with note and claw for intellectual space.”
“Footnotes flourished most brightly in the eighteenth century, when they served to comment ironically on the narrative in the text as well as support its veracity. In the nineteenth century, they lost the prominent role of the tragic chorus. Like so many Carmens, they found themselves reduced to laborers and confined to a vast, dirty factory. What began as art became, inevitably, routine” (229).
“One could say much the same … of the footnote. A palimpsest, it reveals on examination research techniques framed in the Renaissance, critical rules first stated during the Scientific Revolution, the irony of Gibbon, the empathy of Ranke, and the savagery of Leo—as well as the slow growth of publishing conventions, educational institutions, and professional structures which reshaped historians’ lives and work” (229).
If one only wanted the extremely short version of the story, the 13-page Epilogue does a pretty good job of recapping the story of the historian’s footnote.
If you like history and historiography then this book is probably for you. If you are looking for a quick introduction and overview then read chapter one and the Epilogue.