The Footnote is a title about as rhetorically resonant as Minor Poets of British Columbia. One approaches with a sinking heart, for here is a sinkhole of the academic world, a limbo, the grey fog that lies at the bottom of pages. The title suggests a book that could easily founder in solemn academic dithering or calcified prose. However, the heart perks up when Professor Grafton writes, “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 . . .” (p. 5). At one point Grafton gleefully cites Noël Coward’s remark “that having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love” (p. 70). Such lively touches are seen everywhere in the book. This is no calcified prose; the book is witty and well written. It convinces us that footnotes “deserve the same sort of scrutiny that laboratory notebooks and scientific articles have long received from historians of science” (p. vii).
It is hardly surprising that Germany turns out to be the matrix of the modern footnote, and that historiography is the field of study in which it flourished. The crucial period is, of course, the Eighteenth Century. Professor Grafton’s chief hero and presiding spirit of the footnote is Leopold von Ranke. Ranke struggled to found history on much firmer ground than had the ancients. Herodotus and Thucydides, he observed, were not much concerned with documentation. Their work produced legends and traditions; this was far from sufficient for Ranke who fervently advocated the supreme value of primary sources. He wanted to cut through the contradictions and errors of tradition. He saw “that history must rest on the thick pillars and joists which only criticism could fashion and put in place” (p. 72). Since his time, “Each serious work of history must now travel on an impregnably armored bottom, rather like a tank” (p. 56). Professor Grafton sees Ranke as a great pioneer in history’s endless struggle to recover the largely unrecoverable. This mission-impossible of history gained some glimmer of hope through the development of the footnote. Perhaps it offered a firmer grasp on what it was that actually happened in the past. However, even the footnote could not rescue history from the shadow of empiricism and such philosophers as René Descartes whose daunting notion was that science and mathematics were the superior learnings. He “dismissed history and the humanities as a pastime no more informative or rigorous than travel . . .” (p. 206). Thus, footnotes were a feeble effort to establish hard truth. Descartes’s distinction still haunts most intellectual effort. We all yearn to be scientists—the way, supposedly, that all art aims at the condition of music.
During the Enlightenment the whole footnoting movement was embattled not only by the philosophers but also by poets and satirists. Voltaire hated the [End Page 434] proliferation of footnotes. Alexander Pope shoved them into the general category of pedantry. As we know, he despised pedantry “From slashing Bentley down to piddling Tibalds.” Pope, Swift and others loathed this apparatus that made for elephantine bloating and defeat of all interest in the text. Satirists despised these “luxuriant thickets of annotation,” especially tomes having a set of four layers, footnotes to footnotes to footnotes to footnotes (p. 234).
Professor Grafton reminds us of the great religious conflicts of the Seventeenth Century and the intense polemic writing that used footnotes to “prove” their case. “Catholic scholars searched at least as passionately as Protestants for documentation” (p. 201). Protestants sought footnoting that would prove the malevolence and spiritual bankruptcy of the medieval Catholic Church. Pascal in the Provincial Letters denounced Jesuit casuists while insisting that his own documentation was full and genuine, thereby showing the justness of his argument. Gibbon, one of Grafton’s saints of historiography, revealed himself as one of “the incongruous disciples of the very holy fathers whom they loved to mock” (p. 168...