Tiny outward and visible signs of the scholar's inward game

December 12, 1997

Why do we need footnotes? Anthony Grafton knows. John Davies reports

Are footnotes necessary? For Anthony Grafton, professor of history at Princeton University, the answer is undoubtedly "Yes". In his book on the subject, the introduction, seven chapters and epilogue contain 423 footnotes.1 Not bad for a 235-page book.

But let's not be sarcastic. As well as delving into the history of the footnote, Grafton aims to rescue it from the ridicule it sometimes receives: "We tend to mock what we don't understand," he says, "but footnotes are the historian's credentials." Attesting to the work done in unearthing the relevant documents, footnotes are the scholar's "outward and visible sign of an inward game".2 "That's why we teach students to use footnotes: using footnotes teaches accurate habits of mind. It teaches them to go back to their sources. Self-critical habits, too. Footnoting encourages a reader to be rebellious, grumpy and critical, to argue with the text."

At the same time, Grafton concedes that footnotes in current scholarship point up a "paradox in the modern routine of documentation" - demands both that a scholar should have a source for everything written and that everything written should be original. "Students have pointed this out bitterly...It's a dilemma of modernity I don't have an answer to. But I do think it matters that one writes one's own book."

Grafton's book also responds to a "sharp and fairly futile debate that tends to draw people into self-parodying positionsI between those who say that history deals only with the truth and those who say that evidence doesn't really matter". In this context, he mentions British historian Richard Evans, whose In Defence of History is a recent contribution to this argument between postmodern and traditional approaches to history.3 "One way of escaping is to look at what historians have done -not to talk about oughts but to look at concrete examples." Much of The Footnote, for example, looks at how historians such as Gibbon, Ranke and Hume used footnotes to support their narratives.

Grafton is still not sure who the first footnoter was: "It all rests on what you mean by a footnote. Marginal notes go back to the world of the manuscript, although they tended to be shorter than footnotes." He thinks the first to use endnotes might have been Richard White of Basingstoke.4 However, Grafton does not think much of White as a historian -Japparently he relied overmuch on the forged histories of one Annius of Viterbo. He prefers to praise White's near-contemporary from France, Jacques-Auguste de Thou.5 A lawyer and Latinist, de Thou did not use footnotes. Rather, it is his "dedication to getting it right" that Grafton admires. Despite living at a time of religious upheaval, de Thou aimed to produce an honest history of first-hand testimony. He became a pioneer in writing history that is supported by documentation. In Grafton's words: "De Thou did not annotate his history. But he made his correspondence,Jwhich reached across the learned Latin world,into a running collaborative commentary on his text.I" Grafton forgives the Frenchman his occasional lapses from truth because of his position. "For him, the prize wasn't tenure, but actually surviving to die a natural death. It was a time when ideologies were in question -in some ways you could compare him to Eastern European intellectuals under Communism."

It seems that another, later, Frenchman supplies the origins of the historical footnote. Grafton writes that Pierre Bayle "can stand for the moment during the 1700s when a lot of different historians think about how to produce a page that the reader can check". Bayle's Historical and Critical Dictionary was started to "provide a dictionary of all the mistakes in other works of reference", and contains not just footnotes but footnotes to footnotes.

Yet there is still no universal standard for footnotes. "Each national community has its own way of doing things," Grafton observes, adding a complaint that the accepted style for US academic publishing in the humanities is that of the Modern Languages Association, which emphasises the author's name and date of publication ."That convention assumes you're dealing with published material. It doesn't work for manuscripts, which is problematic for historians."

One could criticise Grafton's own footnotes for omitting publishers' names in book citations. He gives only date and location -London, 1995, for instance, rather than London: Faber and Faber, 1995. "That's a habit I got from my graduate work in England," he confesses. He spent some time as a postgraduate student at Oxford, learning "so much" about historiography from Arnaldo Momigliano.6 What of present-day footnotes? Are they preferable to endnotes? Grafton thinks so. "I prefer footnotes, but many people find them hard to live with. Endnotes they can leave alone while reading." Of course, they don't interrupt a narrative the way footnotes do -as is acknowledged on page 70 of The Footnote, where a sentence cites a remark by Noel Coward that "having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love".

A nice simile, but did Coward really say that? Grafton's footnote at this point directs us to a secondary authority, a 1989 article in the journal College English. What was its source? Alas, we cannot tell. "That article didn't have footnotes," Grafton says, with what sounds like regret.

1. The Footnote: A Curious History by Anthony Grafton is published by Faber on December 1 1997 (price Pounds 12.99).

2. Cf Book of Common Prayer (Church of England 1662) A Catechism: "What meanest thou by this word Sacrament? Answer: Imean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace."

3. See THES, September 12 1997 4. Richard White (1539-1611): Catholic historian; published 11books (in Latin) of British history between 1597 and 1607.

5. (1553-1617).

6. Arnaldo Momigliano (1908-87): Italian-born historian; professor of ancient history at University College, London, 1951-75.

7. From The Footnote, see 1. above


Unlike other types of credentials, footnotes sometimes afford entertainment, normally in the form of daggers stuck in the backs of an author's colleagues. Some are inserted politely. Historians may simply cite a work by author, title and place and date of publication. But often they quietly set the subtle but deadly "cf" ("compare") before it. This indicates to the expert reader that an alternative view appears in the cited work and that it is wrong.

But not everyone who reads the book will know the code. Sometimes the stab must be more brutal, more direct. One can, for example, dismiss briefly and definitively a work or thesis with a single set-phrase or well-chosen adjective. The English do so with a characteristically sly adverbial construction: "oddly overestimated". Germans use the direct "gains abwegig" ("totally off the track"); the French, a colder, but less blatant, "discutable". All these indispensable forms of abuse appear in the same prominent position and carry out the same scholarly version of assassination. 7

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.