The Footnote: A Curious History

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Overview

The weapon of pedants, the scourge of undergraduates, the bête noire of the “new” liberated scholar: the lowly footnote, long the refuge of the minor and the marginal, emerges in this book as a singular resource, with a surprising history that says volumes about the evolution of modern scholarship. In Anthony Grafton’s engrossing account, footnotes to history give way to footnotes as history, recounting in their subtle way the curious story of the progress of knowledge in written form.
Grafton treats the development of the footnote—the one form of proof normally supplied by historians in support of their assertions—as writers on science have long treated the development of laboratory equipment, statistical arguments, and reports on experiments: as a complex story, rich in human interest, that sheds light on the status of history as art, as science, and as an institution. The book starts in the Berlin of the brilliant nineteenth-century historian Leopold von Ranke, who is often credited with inventing documented history in its modern form. Casting back to antiquity and forward to the twentieth century, Grafton’s investigation exposes Ranke’s position as a far more ambiguous one and offers us a rich vision of the true origins and gradual triumph of the footnote.
Among the protagonists of this story are Athanasius Kircher, who built numerous documents into his spectacularly speculative treatises on ancient Egypt and China; Pierre Bayle, who made the footnote a powerful tool in philosophical and historical polemics; and Edward Gibbon, who transformed it into a high form of literary artistry. Proceeding with the spirit of an intellectual mystery and peppered with intriguing and revealing remarks by those who “made” this history, The Footnote brings what is so often relegated to afterthought and marginalia to its rightful place in the center of the literary life of the mind.
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Editorial Reviews

New York Times Book Review

A witty and characteristically erudite book… Grafton's subject, apparently so trivial in itself and yet potentially so enlivening, offers cause for somewhat uneasy mirth. We may recall the toilers of Gulliver's Travels, who sought to make sunbeams from cucumbers. Not surprisingly, the pages of The Footnote are peppered with human folly.
— David McKitterick

Wall Street Journal

[It's] hard to imagine a defense of the footnote by any historian with the least sense of style. Yet here it is: The Footnote's author, Anthony Grafton, is an anomaly in the American historical profession: a deeply learned scholar known for exacting work on the transformations of classical learning in early modern Europe and a sprightly writer capable of communicating his enthusiasm to anyone willing to listen. Mr. Grafton not only defends the footnote as a guarantee of the value of the historical currency. He also portrays it as a bulwark against tyranny.
— Mark Lilla

Washington Post

[An] excellent book… The Footnote is the study of an appealing, rather overlooked aspect of intellectual and cultural history. Yet it is also much more: an investigation into the historical imagination, a quick tour of 'the culture of erudition' and, not least, the most recent intellectual entertainment from one of the most learned and enjoyable scholars now at work.
— Michael Dirda

Washington Times

Mr. Grafton has produced a delightful gem of a book that will appeal to many tastes. He displays an extraordinary level of erudition, is extremely readable, frequently witty and provides a guided tour across almost two thousand years in the development of Western scholarship. Needless to say, his own footnotes are a model of their kind. Above all, the author is neither boring nor pedantic.
— Keith Windschuttle

Boston Globe

We accept it as a given of scholarly writing that 'the text persuades, the notes prove.' But this form of narrative architecture was created at a particular time by particular men to fill particular needs. And this unlikely and lively book presents the story of its creation. Anthony Grafton tells when, where, and why historians adopted the two-tiered structure of writing.
— Barbara Fisher

New Republic

The unwashed read the text, the learned check the footnotes. This, after all, is just what Grafton has taught us to expect. Grafton's footnotes, however, are short on polemic and long on accolades… They illustrate Grafton's generous spirit, and they call attention to the one use of footnotes that he conspicuously fails to discuss: praise instead of polemic. Grafton's own irenic practice is a model of decency. But if his footnotes are not so much fun as Gibbon's or Bayle's, his lively and searching text most assuredly is. For a pioneering discussion of these points, see A. Grafton.
— G.W. Bowersock

American Historical Review

A richly faceted story that interweaves the changes in the regard for and uses of the footnote with general developments in history writing… As Grafton traces his steps backward to the Renaissance with its admiration and imitation of ancient models, the world of the footnote emerges as one far more complex than expected… In the face of the seeming solidity of the text, the footnote serves as a reminder of the contingency of life as well as the precariousness of the text's construction.
— Ernst A. Breisach

Chicago Tribune

A charming, intelligent volume that traces the footnote's development as a literary and historical device… The Footnote is an astonishing piece of scholarly writing, not least because it allows us to reconsider a subject that might charitably be called idiosyncratic, or even obscure. What makes the book work is Anthony Grafton's ability to write for a lay audience, to merge the ephemera of historical research with an accessible, nearly anecdotal, style.
— David L. Ulin

Bulletin of the Historical Research in Music Education
Anthony Grafton has written a fascinating book about this important, though often maligned, scholarly apparatus… Historians of all stripes will profit from reading Grafton's history of historical research and writing (often called historiography) and especially from his detective work tracing history of the footnote, this vital academic detail which so many take for granted.
Civilization

Grafton argues convincingly that the history of the footnote is also the history of how scholars through the ages have evaluated, organized and presented information… The Footnote vividly evokes what it was like to conduct serious research in an era before Lexis-Nexis, Who's Who or even daily newspapers.
— Adam Goodheart

Times/Post Intelligencer

The Footnote tells how all those interesting tidbits migrated to the bottom of the page.

Slate Online

This is not a reference book to be consulted but an excursus to be savored, by a writer with a studied sense of style.
— Cullen Murphy

Seattle Times/Post-Intelligencer
The Footnote tells how all those interesting tidbits migrated to the bottom of the page.
Slate

This is not a reference book to be consulted but an excursus to be savored, by a writer with a studied sense of style.
— Cullen Murphy

New York Times Book Review - David McKitterick
A witty and characteristically erudite book… Grafton's subject, apparently so trivial in itself and yet potentially so enlivening, offers cause for somewhat uneasy mirth. We may recall the toilers of Gulliver's Travels, who sought to make sunbeams from cucumbers. Not surprisingly, the pages of The Footnote are peppered with human folly.
Wall Street Journal - Mark Lilla
[It's] hard to imagine a defense of the footnote by any historian with the least sense of style. Yet here it is: The Footnote's author, Anthony Grafton, is an anomaly in the American historical profession: a deeply learned scholar known for exacting work on the transformations of classical learning in early modern Europe and a sprightly writer capable of communicating his enthusiasm to anyone willing to listen. Mr. Grafton not only defends the footnote as a guarantee of the value of the historical currency. He also portrays it as a bulwark against tyranny.
Washington Post - Michael Dirda
[An] excellent book… The Footnote is the study of an appealing, rather overlooked aspect of intellectual and cultural history. Yet it is also much more: an investigation into the historical imagination, a quick tour of 'the culture of erudition' and, not least, the most recent intellectual entertainment from one of the most learned and enjoyable scholars now at work.
Washington Times - Keith Windschuttle
Mr. Grafton has produced a delightful gem of a book that will appeal to many tastes. He displays an extraordinary level of erudition, is extremely readable, frequently witty and provides a guided tour across almost two thousand years in the development of Western scholarship. Needless to say, his own footnotes are a model of their kind. Above all, the author is neither boring nor pedantic.
Boston Globe - Barbara Fisher
We accept it as a given of scholarly writing that 'the text persuades, the notes prove.' But this form of narrative architecture was created at a particular time by particular men to fill particular needs. And this unlikely and lively book presents the story of its creation. Anthony Grafton tells when, where, and why historians adopted the two-tiered structure of writing.
New Republic - G.W. Bowersock
The unwashed read the text, the learned check the footnotes. This, after all, is just what Grafton has taught us to expect. Grafton's footnotes, however, are short on polemic and long on accolades… They illustrate Grafton's generous spirit, and they call attention to the one use of footnotes that he conspicuously fails to discuss: praise instead of polemic. Grafton's own irenic practice is a model of decency. But if his footnotes are not so much fun as Gibbon's or Bayle's, his lively and searching text most assuredly is. For a pioneering discussion of these points, see A. Grafton.
American Historical Review - Ernst A. Breisach
A richly faceted story that interweaves the changes in the regard for and uses of the footnote with general developments in history writing… As Grafton traces his steps backward to the Renaissance with its admiration and imitation of ancient models, the world of the footnote emerges as one far more complex than expected… In the face of the seeming solidity of the text, the footnote serves as a reminder of the contingency of life as well as the precariousness of the text's construction.
Chicago Tribune - David L. Ulin
A charming, intelligent volume that traces the footnote's development as a literary and historical device… The Footnote is an astonishing piece of scholarly writing, not least because it allows us to reconsider a subject that might charitably be called idiosyncratic, or even obscure. What makes the book work is Anthony Grafton's ability to write for a lay audience, to merge the ephemera of historical research with an accessible, nearly anecdotal, style.
Civilization - Adam Goodheart
Grafton argues convincingly that the history of the footnote is also the history of how scholars through the ages have evaluated, organized and presented information… The Footnote vividly evokes what it was like to conduct serious research in an era before Lexis-Nexis, Who's Who or even daily newspapers.
Slate - Cullen Murphy
This is not a reference book to be consulted but an excursus to be savored, by a writer with a studied sense of style.
Chicago Tribune
A charming, intelligent volume that traces the footnote's development as a literary and historical device...The Footnote is an astonishing piece of scholarly writing, not least because it allows us to reconsider a subject that might charitably be called idiosyncratic, or even obscure. What makes the book work is Anthony Grafton's ability to write for a lay audience, to merge the ephemera of historical research with an accessible, nearly anecdotal, style.
— David L. Ulin
Washington Post
[An] excellent book...The Footnote is the study of an appealing, rather overlooked aspect of intellectual and cultural history. Yet it is also much more: an investigation into the historical imagination, a quick tour of 'the culture of erudition' and, not least, the most recent intellectual entertainment from one of the most learned and enjoyable scholars now at work.
— Michael Dirda
Wall Street Journal
[It's] hard to imagine a defense of the footnote by any historian with the least sense of style. Yet here it is: The Footnoteauthor, Anthony Grafton, is an anomaly in the American historical profession: a deeply learned scholar known for exacting work on the transformations of classical learning in early modern Europe and a sprightly writer capable of communicating his enthusiasm to anyone willing to listen. Mr. Grafton not only defends the footnote as a guarantee of the value of the historical currency. He also portrays it as a bulwark against tyranny.
— Mark Lilla
Civilization
Grafton argues convincingly that the history of the footnote is also the history of how scholars through the ages have evaluated, organized and presented information...The Footnote vividly evokes what it was like to conduct serious research in an era before Lexis-Nexis, Who's Who or even daily newspapers.
— Adam Goodheart
New Republic
The unwashed read the text, the learned check the footnotes. This, after all, is just what Grafton has taught us to expect. Grafton's footnotes, however, are short on polemic and long on accolades...They illustrate Grafton's generous spirit, and they call attention to the one use of footnotes that he conspicuously fails to discuss: praise instead of polemic. Grafton's own irenic practice is a model of decency. But if his footnotes are not so much fun as Gibbon's or Bayle's, his lively and searching text most assuredly is. For a pioneering discussion of these points, see A. Grafton....
— G.W. Bowersock
Boston Globe
We accept it as a given of scholarly writing that 'the text persuades, the notes prove.' But this form of narrative architecture was created at a particular time by particular men to fill particular needs. And this unlikely and lively book presents the story of its creation. Anthony Grafton, tells when, where and why historians adopted the two-tiered structure of writing.
— Barbara Fisher
New York Times Book Review
A witty and characteristically erudite book...Grafton's subject, apparently so trivial in itself and yet potentially so enlivening, offers cause for somewhat uneasy mirth. We may recall the toilers of Gulliver's Travels, who sought to make sunbeams from cucumbers. Not surprisingly, the pages of The Footnote are peppered with human folly.
— David McKitterick
Washington Times
Mr. Grafton has produced a delightful gem of a book that will appeal to many tastes. He displays an extraordinary level of erudition, is extremely readable, frequently witty and provides a guided tour across almost two thousand years in the development of Western scholarship. Needless to say, his own footnotes are a model of their kind. Above all, the author is neither boring nor pedantic.
— Keith Windschuttle
American Historical Review
A richly faceted story that interweaves the changes in the regard for and uses of the footnote with general developments in history writing...As Grafton traces his steps backward to the Renaissance with its admiration and imitation of ancient models, the world of the footnote emerges as one far more complex than expected...In the face of the seeming solidity of the text, the footnote serves as a reminder of the contingency of life as well as the precariousness of the text's construction.
— Ernst A. Breisach
Bulletin of the Historical Research in Music Education
Anthony Grafton has written a fascinating book about this important, though often maligned, scholarly apparatus...Historians of all stripes will profit from reading Grafton's history of historical research and writing (often called historiography) and especially from his detective work tracing history of the footnote, this vital academic detail which so many take for granted.
Times/Post Intelligencer
The Footnote tells how all those interesting tidbits migrated to the bottom of the page.
Slate Online
This is not a reference book to be consulted but an excursus to be savored, by a writer with a studied sense of style.
— Cullen Murphy
David McKitterick
...[A] witty and characteristically erudite book...
The New York Times Book Review
Michael Dirda
The Footnote is the study of an appealing, rather overlooked aspect of intellectual and cultural history. Yet it is also much more: an investigation into the historical imagination, a quick tour of 'the culture of erudition' and, not least, the most recent intellectual entertainment from one of the most learned and enjoyable scholars now at work. —The Washington Post
David McKitterick
...[A] witty and characteristically erudite book...
The New York Times Book Review
Laura Green
9. Ibid., sigs. *4 verso -- [*6] recto." So runs a complete footnote on page 193 of historian Anthony Grafton's The Footnote: A Curious History. Grafton's title misleads: The Footnote is not an account of footnotes in general, but of their development in one particular scholarly discipline -- history. Grafton is interested in the intellectual, rather than the formal, qualities of footnotes: He does not, for example, explain the lexical and typographical conventions that both give historical footnotes their cryptic form and render them meaningful to other historians.

As non-specialist readers, of course, we may not care whether we can decipher such notes, since we are unlikely to use them to check Grafton's information. Most of us will happily take his word for the fact that "in the eighteenth century, literary footnotes burgeoned and propagated like branches and leaves in a William Morris wallpaper," and quietly decline his invitation to "see in general H. Stang, 'Einleitung -- Fussnote -- Kommentar' (Beilefeld 1992)." Rather, the volume's 423 footnotes provide the appearance of erudition, inducing the comforting sense that Grafton has done his homework and that readers, therefore, don't have to.

It is precisely this unreflective relationship to footnotes, however, that Grafton challenges. As he explains, the footnote's crucial role as "the only guarantee we have that statements about the past derive from identifiable sources" has not always been obvious to historians themselves. Notes, after all, interfere with the flow of narrative -- Grafton quotes Noel Coward's observation that "having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love." The classical chroniclers, such as Thucydides, did not annotate their histories of wars and politics. Even the 19th-century German scholar Leopold von Ranke, the father of "scientific history" (historical narrative based on primary sources), "hoped to find a way to avoid disfiguring his text with footnote cues and his pages with swelling feet of claylike annotation."

How, then, did "the culturally contingent and eminently fallible footnote" become the key structural element in the edifice of modern history? Grafton's account unfolds in onionlike layers, leading the reader back from the 19th to the 16th century, as footnotes themselves lead us back through a palimpsest of sources and disputations. This recursive organization is perhaps intended to supply narrative suspense, but for the reader unfamiliar with the historical periods and figures referred to, it can be hard to follow.

The yeast of metaphor with which Grafton leavens his historical loaf also often gives it a texture rather more lumpy than light. And his grand concluding claims -- "Only the use of footnotes and the research techniques associated with them makes it possible to resist the efforts of modern governments, tyrannical and democratic alike, to conceal the compromises they have made, the deaths they have caused, the tortures they or their allies have inflicted" -- do not fully persuade. The vitally necessary task of holding governments accountable exceeds the problems of citation or even documentation. Finally, the reader's interest in the historical footnote may simply not be capacious enough to contain Grafton's exhaustive account.
Salon December 15, 1997

Kirkus Reviews
A curious history, indeed. Few accoutrements of scholarship have been as denigrated as the lowly footnote, as this lively and fascinating narrative demonstrates. Scorned equally by scholar, student, and publisher, the footnote has lost its traditional place at the foot of the page and is now relegated to the "endnotes" following a chapter or at the end of a book. Noël Coward once remarked that having to read a footnote resembles having to go downstairs to answer the door while in the midst of making love. This longstanding animosity toward the footnote derives from a tradition that perceived of historical writing as a form of literature. Few scholars lavish the necessary attention on the notes and even fewer readers take notice. Only the insecure graduate student or fledgling scholar piles up note after note and by doing so claims a place in the guild of the profession. But a careful reading of footnotes is both revealing and rewarding, according to Grafton, a historian at Princeton University. The footnote, as he correctly and convincingly points out, is critical to the scientific nature of historical writing and therefore reflects both the ideology and technical practices of the craft. The footnote confers "proof" that the historian has visited the appropriate archives, dusted off the necessary documents, and consulted and exhausted the secondary literature. It is, in short, a badge of legitimacy. The reader familiar with Grafton's work will recognize the author's extraordinary range and familiarity with German, French, English, and Italian historical writing from the early modern period to the late 20th century. Grafton has, in fact, written a sly work of historiography, a kindof celebration of the gritty details of scholarly exploration, and not merely a chronicle of the despised footnote. Oh, yes; read his footnotes.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674307605
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 4/28/1999
  • Edition description: First Harvard University Press Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 975,624
  • Product dimensions: 5.18 (w) x 8.04 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Anthony Grafton is Henry Putnam University Professor of History at Princeton University.
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Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Footnotes: The Origin of a Species
  • 2. Ranke: A Footnote about Scientific History
  • 3. How the Historian Found His Muse: Ranke’s Path to the Footnote
  • 4. Footnotes and Philosophie: An Enlightenment Interlude
  • 5. Back to the Future, 1: De Thou Documents the Details
  • 6. Back to the Future, 2: The Antlike Industry of Ecclesiastical Historians and Antiquaries
  • 7. Clarity and Distinctness in the Abysses of Erudition: The Cartesian Origins of the Modern Footnote
  • Epilogue: Some Concluding Footnotes
  • Index

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