(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The history of The Footnote: A Curious History requires a footnote of its own. The author, Anthony Grafton, Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University, wrote the manuscript in English but first published it as Die tragischen Ursprünge der deutschen Fussnot, translated into German by H. Jochen Bussmann (1995; “the tragic origins of the German footnote”). The English version of the book is a revision of the original manuscript.

Though both the German and a subsequent French translation refer to “tragic origins,” the tragedy is what footnotes have become, not how they began: “Footnotes flourished most brightly in the eighteenth century,” Grafton notes, “when they served to comment ironically on the narrative in the text as well as to support its veracity. In the nineteenth century, they lost the prominent role of the tragic chorus.” Historical footnotes now exist to demonstrate that the professional historian is competent, and the boilerplate out of which they are constructed holds little interest for most readers.

The Footnote begins with a consideration of the nature and purpose of scholarly citations and then, in chapter 2, enters the historical fray with an essay on Leopold von Ranke and, in chapter 3, on “Ranke’s Path to the Footnote.” Chapter 4 details the varieties of historiography in the eighteenth century European Enlightenment. Chapter 5 focuses on the development of a kind of critical history by French lawyer and Latinist Jacques-Auguste de Thou, with the contributions of “The Antlike Industry of Ecclesiastical Historians and Antiquaries” given in Chapter 6. The final chapter considers “The Cartesian Origins of the Modern Footnote,” and an epilogue reaffirms the importance of the footnote.

For the modern historian, the writing of footnotes is a rite of professional passage. Theoretically, footnotes, in this context, must refer to primary sources that support some novel historical interpretation and show that the writer has come to terms with competing interpretations of the source materials. Grafton paints a colorful picture about the work of the modern footnote: “Like the high whine of the dentist’s drill, the low rumble of the footnote on the historian’s page reassures: the tedium it inflicts, like the pain inflicted by the drill, is not random but directed, part of the cost that the benefits of modern science and technology exact.” Yet, as the author points out elsewhere in his book, the historian must contend with conflicting demands: What is written must at one and the same time be original and well-documented (that is, it must draw on what came before). Grafton repeatedly observes that such demands are impossible to meet: Any historical narrative would be crushed under the weight of exhaustive footnotes; and such footnotes, even if they were possible to provide, could never guarantee the truth of an original historical thesis.

Instead, in actual use the footnote has a more modest function, demonstrating that the historian has done sufficient homework and making it possible for the reader to track down and evaluate the historian’s main sources. There is in all this what Grafton calls a “double story”: The narrative above wrestles with and weighs the influences and contributions of this or that historical event or personage, while below, in the footnotes, the author weighs the influences and contributions of the primary and secondary sources being employed to buttress the narrative. This is part of what it means to call works of history critical or scientific. The thrust of Grafton’s narrative in The Footnote is to show that the gradual development of the uses of the footnote in the discipline of history belies any claim to the sudden emergence of historiography as a science with the archival work of German historian Leopold von Ranke. (Ranke is revered for his meticulous footnotes, but the truth, Grafton says, is that though Ranke brought a love for the musty archive to his work, he was imprecise and sometimes sloppy in constructing his notes.) His precursors were many and varied.

In his examination of Ranke’s forebears, Grafton pauses at the eighteenth century for an encomium to the historian Edward Gibbon. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1788) represents, for Grafton, the pinnacle of the melding of compelling narrative with equally compelling footnotes. Gibbon’s notes (first published as endnotes until philosopher David Hume objected) assume that such documentation is necessary; thus, the origin of the historical footnote predates Gibbon’s generation.

While the use of documentation in the writing of history has an ancient lineage (Greek historians as well...

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