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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 43.3 (2000) 457-459

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Book Review

The Footnote: A Curious History *

The Footnote: A Curious History. By Anthony Grafton. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1997. Pp. 225. $22.95.

At first glance at the title, this book promises to illuminate a topic of great interest to physicians and scientists. After all, experimental inquiry begins with the literature search. It is documentation that makes knowledge cumulative--or at least shows that it is cumulative.

On second glance, the title promises more than the book sets out to deliver (a sin for which publishers are usually to blame). The author honestly states the book's limits at the outset. It is a "history of the footnotes that actually appear in the margins of modern historical works" or, to be a bit more precise, of documentation of various sorts in Western European historical writings from ca. 1500 to the second half of the 19th century. Chapter 1, "A Footnote about Scientific History," also seems promising. It turns out, however, to be about, not the evolution of natural science, but Leopold von Ranke's (1795-1886) struggle to make history as empirically sound as physics or chemistry. By basing it on the systematic, critical use of primary sources, he hoped to excavate "what was actually there."

Those who go beyond glances and read the book will find that it offers a great deal to those interested in the evolution of technological writing. Grafton makes it clear that footnotes, and documentation in general, did not begin with historiography. The references in antiquarian treatises and in reports of clinical research share a complicated origin.

The Footnote actually tells two stories: how scholars learned to base their narratives on reliable sources, clearly identified, and how they came to cite them in footnotes. The second issue is actually subsidiary but important nonetheless, for the notes create a "double narrative" that, as it states the results of investigation in the main text, records at the foot of the page "the journey necessary to reach them," opening the writer's train of thought to close scrutiny. This Grafton sees as a transformation of historical writing "from an eloquent narrative into a critical discipline." That is a defensible generalization, although numerous grand narratives of previous centuries were more critical in spirit and reasoning than many of today's monographs that are freighted with citations.

The ancestors of exact documentation are the scholars of late antiquity who restored ancient scriptural writings, and the legal writers as early as the 4th century ad, who insisted on fully citing authorities. Their influence did not quickly change what went into historical narrative. Through the Middle Ages it largely remained the testimony of statesmen or generals, who wrote from their experience or that of others they had interviewed.

Renaissance humanists first "saw history as a form of inquiry as well as a form of narrative." They showed in one instance after another that documents and artifacts long considered ancient were not reliable, and that even when they were old, their assumptions and biases often made them useless. The wholesale recovery of classical traditions in every field (including medicine, mathematics, and astronomy) from Islam and the Byzantine world led to an explosion of scholarship. By the late 15th century, ancient literature was accreting enormous commentaries that debated the meaning of the text. The critical documentary appendix appeared in historical writings as early as 1498. Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680), the Jesuit polymath whose research favored "a frighteningly complex combination of classical [End Page 457] philology and mathematical astronomy," showed "an encyclopedic willingness to accommodate the incongruous and the alien, one that allowed many voices to speak, and many alphabets to appear, on the same page."

Some scholars, disturbed by the savagery of religious wars, began to apply their skills to books and records long forgotten in court archives all over Europe. Jacques-Auguste de Thou (1544-1607), "the brilliant lawyer and Latinist who wrote what may be the longest historical narrative ever undertaken," was not the only scholar of his time who drew on...


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