The Good Word

Noted With Pleasure

The glorious art of citing your sources.

The Footnote: A Curious History
By Anthony Grafton
Harvard University Press; 235 pages; $22.95

Much as the press coverage of “government” is in large measure coverage of politics, so also do discussions of “language” get skewed toward issues of usage and etymology. In language as in government, a vast and remarkable infrastructure–some of it regulatory, some of it didactic–quietly shapes the world in revolutionary ways. Yet most of us give little thought to how, say, there came to be spaces between words, or why English has the letters that it does, or how the mechanical means of writing affects the nature of writing.

From time to time, however, language infrastructure pokes momentarily into public view. I recall a heady few days in 1993 when a new reference work by Malcolm Parkes, a lecturer in paleography at Oxford, enjoyed a certain modest vogue. This work was Parkes’ magisterial Pause and Effect: An Introduction to the History of Punctuation in the West, a book that at last stripped the cloak of anonymity from the important work of commas, periods, dashes, colons, semicolons, and countless other full- and part-time functionaries. Several times a day I still think of Parkes’ disquisition on the now-obsolete punctuation mark known as a percontativus, a question mark flopped backward and used to indicate a question that is purely rhetorical. It is a device we might usefully revive.

This fall another noteworthy volume on the apparatus of written language has been published–The Footnote: A Curious History, by the Princeton University historian Anthony Grafton. The book seeks to explain how footnotes became an essential element of the “narrative architecture” of historical writing. This is not a reference book to be consulted but an excursus to be savored, by a writer with a studied sense of style. “To the inexpert,” he writes in one place, “footnotes look like deep root systems, solid and fixed; to the connoisseur, however, they reveal themselves as anthills, swarming with constructive and combative activity.” Elsewhere he writes: “Unlike other forms of credentials, footnotes sometimes provide entertainment–normally in the form of daggers stuck in the back of the author’s colleagues. Some of these are inserted politely.” He sympathetically quotes Noel Coward’s observation that having to stop for a footnote is sometimes like having to answer the door while making love.

Although Grafton does not mention the fact, or even allude to it, his book appears at a momentous time in the life of the footnote. On the one hand, encouraged in part by the cultural ascendance of irony, and by recreational obeisance to the many-tiered nature of experience and truth, the noncitational or “literary” footnote has become increasingly prominent in recent years in journalism, criticism, and fiction. (For examples, see the effective but very different techniques employed by Nicholson Baker in his novel The Mezzanine, and by David Foster Wallace in the novel Infinite Jest and in the essays collected in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.) On the other hand, the footnote as scholarly reference tool or scholarly reference weapon has never enjoyed more prominence than it does today–“each serious work of history,” Grafton notes, “must now travel on an impregnably armored bottom, rather like a tank.” In law, the analysis of footnotes even sustains a new minor discipline, “citology.” The next task for the footnote, scarcely begun, is the mastery of electronic information, an undertaking that offers opportunities for utility and mischief on an incomparable scale.

W here did the footnote come from? “Scholars,” Grafton explains, “have placed the birth of the footnote in the twelfth century, the seventeenth, the eighteenth, and the nineteenth–never without good reason but usually without attending to the other chapters in this story.” Grafton’s book begins by considering the historians Edward Gibbon and Leopold von Ranke, who in their own ways raised the historical footnote to a level of high art both as a citational resource and a rhetorical outlet. Ranke, with his avowed intention to show history wie es eigentlich gewesen–how it really was–and with his ambition to put the study of history on a scientific footing, doubtless had a more pervasive influence on the formal output of generations of historians. But Gibbon’s source apparatus and sotto voce commentary in Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire remain more accessible and entertaining to ordinary readers. Gibbon straightforwardly observes at one point, for instance, that the emperor Marcus Aurelius thanked the gods in his Meditations for giving him a wife “so faithful, so gentle, and of such a wonderful simplicity of manners.” Only in the annotation does Gibbon add, “The world has laughed at the credulity of Marcus; but Madam Dacier assures us (and we may credit a lady) that the husband will always be deceived, if the wife condescends to dissemble.” We owe a debt to the philosopher David Hume for persuading Gibbon to take such notational material out of the back of his volumes and to print it at the bottom of the relevant pages–thereby turning end notes into foot notes, and allowing Gibbon more effectively to drop the other shoe.

Neither Ranke nor Gibbon invented the citational or literary footnote; Grafton slogs back through time in search of antecedents. Medieval commentators ardently “glossed” the margins of documents with references and asides. These, “like the historian’s footnote, enable the reader to work backward from the finished argument to the texts it rests on.” Religious writers in antiquity penned notations that sometimes, we now know, were later absorbed wholesale into the primary text itself. The structure of footnotes grew increasingly elaborate mainly because of the rediscovery during the Renaissance of a wealth of old documentary sources, along with the proliferation of new sources made possible by the printing press and the modern archive. Some mechanism was needed to make sense of it all. What is more, humanism and the Reformation set off a fight for the ownership of truth, historical and otherwise–whence derived authority when the higher Authority had been dethroned?–and the footnote became a marker of legitimacy. As Grafton makes plain, the story of the footnote is in many ways the story of historiography itself.

The story can get a little dense, although any reader captivated by footnotes to begin with has already passed the first endurance test. And Grafton enlivens his account with a sometimes astonishing array of encylopedists, autodidacts, and polyhistors. The French philosopher Pierre Bayle, for example, set out in the 1690s to produce a vast reference work, Dictionnaire historique et critique (Historical and Critical Dictionary), whose sole purpose was to point out the mistakes in all other previously published reference works. This was a dictionary–a bizarre best seller–in which even the footnotes had footnotes, and whose pages, Grafton notes, “offer the reader only a thin and fragile crust of text on which to cross the deep, dark swamp of commentary.”

We smile, even as the crossing becomes potentially harder with every day. Writing in 1824, Ranke conjured a memorable image of the modern critical historian confronted by, and determined to derive order from, the boundless quantities of available source material:

Consider the strange feelings that would arise in someone who entered a great collection of antiquities, in which genuine and spurious, beautiful and repulsive, spectacular and insignificant objects, from many nations and periods, lay next to one another in complete disorder.

Does that sound anything like the challenge posed by electronic media? (And where is a percontativus now that I need one?)