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). Clearly, religious passion enhanced the role of the footnote enormously.
Thus we see that the hard documentary power of the footnote can be qualified or nullified by a web of human contingencies. Religious controversy showed that footnotes could be manipulated to prove a point, or Leibnitz could wield footnotes to prove “that his patrons, the house of Braunschweig-Luneburg, could boast of the best of all genealogies” (p. 182). The footnote has not saved historiography from Descartes’s spongy subjectivity. In our century we have Henry Ford’s cryptic statement: history is bunk. This thought prompts me to paraphrase Ian Buruma: in our day it is often thought that historical truth is irrelevant or that there is no such thing. Everything is subjective beyond redemption. This would be bitter news for Professor Grafton’s high saints of historiography: Ranke, Gibbon and Bayle (well, perhaps not news to Gibbon).
I have only a small caveat to offer about this remarkable and interesting book, a wee caveat. Numerous names dot the text: scholars, historians, philosophers, etc., many I have never heard of (has anyone?). A constant barrage of this induces tremors of guilt and discomfort. The other half of my caveat also concerns detail. We encounter a common problem with historians, that of offering much more detail than we can possibly use or remember. This tends to happen when Grafton becomes involved with Ranke and others of his favorites. At times we lose sight entirely of the fact that this book is about footnotes, or we fail to see any clear connection between footnoting and all these details. We begin almost to agree with Voltaire: “Woe to details. Posterity neglects them all; they are a kind of vermin that undermines large works” (p. 95). Upon reflection though, I suppose that to expect to find a historian who is niggardly with detail is like expecting to find an actor without vanity.
Nevertheless, this book fulfills all the promise of its subtitle (which is a [End Page 435] footnote to the title: “A curious history”). In spite of my complaint about details, I hasten to admit that I appreciated learning about such unfamiliar figures as Jacques-Auguste de Thou. Details like this dispel the shadows of my ignorance.