Footnotes perform many different roles. They can enlarge on a statement, modify a judgment, broaden a context; they can provide solemn reassurance (“You’ll find it in the archives”) or light relief. Some footnotes are guides to further reading; some offer a home for the inessential detail which is too good to throw away; a few (Gibbon being the most obvious master in this respect) are miniature works of art.

One category stands out. Among scholars, the primary function of a footnote is indisputably, overwhelmingly, to provide chapter and verse—the authority for a statement, the source of a quotation. But even here, there is far more variety than the uninitiated might assume.

In the opening chapter of The Footnote, Anthony Grafton offers some amusing glimpses of the many ways in which in his own field, history, supposedly neutral footnotes can have a spin put on them by individual ambitions or rivalries and divergent cultural styles. Some historians see them as an excuse to parade credentials. For others, they present an opportunity to do down colleagues—whether by the insertion of a cold little adjective (the French, Grafton tells us, are particularly fond of discutable), or by omission (a technique, we learn, which is especially favored by the Italians), or by innuendo: “cf.” (“compare”), which Grafton describes as “subtle but deadly,” may look innocent enough, but for those in the know it implies that the views expressed in the work being cited are wrong. “To the inexpert,” he concludes, “footnotes look like deep root systems, solid and fixed; to the connoisseur, however, they reveal themselves as anthills, swarming with constructive and combative activity.”

How could anyone hope to encompass all the different aspects of the footnote in a single study? Why would anyone want to? A comprehensive history of the subject is as mad a task as scholarship could devise. But “a curious history,” which is what Grafton promises in his subtitle, is another matter. It holds out the prospect of a learned ramble, as much bedside book as treatise—of a work which cuts across disciplines, glances down byways, and pursues its quarry into strange places. At least as far, to cite only one possibility, as the weird footnotes which adorn the “Night Lessons” sequence in Finnegans Wake.

Anthony Grafton is extremely erudite, but this is not the book which he has written. He has very little to say about the footnote as an aside, or as a literary device; his interest is largely confined to the chapter-and-verse footnote, and then almost exclusively to the use that has been made of it by fellow historians. Other forms of scholarship and speculation lie outside his chosen limits. He might have done better, in fact, to have called his book “The Historian and the Footnote”—though even that would have been somewhat misleading. The evolution of the footnote certainly engages him on its own account, but he also treats it as a handy symbol for modern historical method in general. It becomes a peg on which to hang a much wider story.

His starting point, after some preliminary circling, is a familiar one in the history of historiography. He devotes two substantial chapters to the doyen of nineteenth-century German historians, Leopold von Ranke—prodigious explorer of archives, pioneer of the critical examination of sources, long acclaimed (though not very often nowadays) the father of “scientific” history. Then he doubles back to Gibbon and the eighteenth century. Then he follows a zigzag course—back to the Renaissance, with a pause over the sixteenth-century French humanist Jacques-Auguste de Thou; forward to the ecclesiastical historians and antiquaries of the seventeenth century; sideways to Pierre Bayle and his Historical and Critical Dictionary; forward to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries again; onward and upward (or perhaps downward) to “Some Concluding Footnotes.”

It would be easy to assume from his reputation that Ranke was the historian with whom footnotes finally came into their own. How could he have failed to be enthusiastic about them? Yet in reality, as Grafton shows, he would have preferred to do without them if he had been able to. He still hankered after the pleasures of a clean, uncluttered narrative; annotation was a necessary evil, forced on him by his principles but repugnant to his tastes.

In the eighteenth century, on the other hand, long before the notion of scientific history was born, the historical footnote was already a familiar phenomenon. The greatest of eighteenth-century historians, Gibbon, may have shared the philosophes’ distaste for mere pedantry, but he took it for granted that he had a duty to supply his readers with detailed information about his sources. The notes to The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, which represent one of the major landmarks in Grafton’s story, were part comment, part chapter-and-verse; they were also genuine footnotes, printed at the bottom of the page. Or such, at least, was the form they eventually assumed. Initially they had appeared as endnotes, tucked away at the back of the book; the desirability of shifting them was first urged on Gibbon (indirectly, through the publisher whom the two men shared) by no less a person than David Hume.


In arranging his narrative as he has, moving backward in time, Grafton aims, he says, “to show that the footnote has a longer pedigree than we have been accustomed to believe.” Gibbon in the eighteenth century was a greater master of the device than Ranke in the nineteenth; and behind Gibbon lay a host of earlier influences and precedents. The groups whom Grafton singles out, along with the special case of Pierre Bayle, are antiquaries, church historians, and the critical historians of the Renaissance such as de Thou.

The trouble is that few of these men (Bayle being the one big exception) actually seem to have used footnotes. De Thou, of whom Grafton gives a fascinating account, strongly believed in the importance of first-hand testimony; he vetted documents, examined state papers, and submitted his magnum opus, a vast history of Europe in his own time, to scholars in other countries, asking them for additions and corrections. He was a natural producer of footnotes, if ever there was one; it is just that in practice he didn’t get round to it.* And the same is true of the antiquaries who flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. “For the most part,” Grafton reports, “they produced not annotated narratives but unannotated arguments. The sources to be discussed and the alternate theses to be refuted were quoted and analyzed in the text proper.”

Grafton is less concerned with the pedigree of the footnote, in fact, than with the pedigree of modern historical methods. His purpose is to show that far from springing into being overnight, they evolved gradually and often erratically; that Ranke and the other champions of “scientific” history had the ground prepared for them well in advance.

In all this, footnotes remain a secondary consideration—until we get to Bayle, that is. Bayle is often thought of as a corrosive skeptic, but one thing he respected, as Grafton emphasizes, was sound scholarship. Sources had to be cited, evaluated, compared where possible with other sources; the articles in his dictionary—biographies of famous persons, ancient and modern—were accompanied by a commentary in the form of long footnotes, supplying references and weighing arguments. In Grafton’s words,

he devised and defended a double form of narrative: one which both stated final results, and explained the journey necessary to reach them. Pressed by a thousand enemies, Catholic and Protestant, enraged at the reign of error in a thousand books, and unsupported by any institution, Bayle had only the authority of his own scholarly workmanship to rely on. The format he chose reinforced his criticisms of error as nothing else could have—and gave him, as it would Gibbon, endless space as well for subversive ironies.

For the rest, Grafton’s revelations about the early history of footnoting are rather limited. If he knows who was the first person to use footnotes, he isn’t telling; nor does he have anything of consequence to say about the typographical problems they presented, or the extent to which they developed out of the marginal gloss. But we do pick up a certain amount of diverting information along the way. The oddest book Grafton cites is a German satire dating from 1743, Gottlieb Wilhelm Rabener’s Hinkmars von Repkow. Subtitled Noten ohne Text, it is just that: it consists entirely of footnotes—for, as Rabener explains, at a time when reputations are made by commenting on other people’s texts rather than writing one’s own, he doesn’t see why he shouldn’t eliminate the middleman. This looks about as far as ingenuity could go, but irony went further. A generation after Rabener’s book, Lichtenberg (the aphorist and satirist) wrote that Lavater (the mystic and physiognomist) had surpassed it, by presenting his readers with notes “to which the text must serve as a commentary. That is the real language of seers, which one understands only after the events they announce have taken place.”

Noten ohne Text gave a new twist to an ancient tradition of satire directed against false or misplaced learning. Rabener was far from being the first to use footnotes satirically, however: Grafton glances back at Pope and Swift, and at the mock scholarly notes of the Dunciad Variorum, in which Pope, with the help of his friends, set about savaging his enemies and anyone who had dared to question his qualifications as editor and translator. On the very first page of the poem, Lewis Theobald, who had criticized his edition of Shakespeare, is made to raise a doubt, and the game is under way: “It may well be disputed whether this”—the title—“be a right Reading? Ought it not rather to be spelled Dunceiad, as the Etymology evidently demands?”


Pope was engaged in literary warfare:he was a writer and scholar pitching into other writers and scholars. There is also an enduring tradition of plain-man resistance to excessive annotation, or sometimes to any form of annotation at all. The humorist Frank Sullivan spoke up for it in a skit (heavily footnoted, needless to say) which he published in 1941 under the title “A Garland of Ibids for VanWyck Brooks.” Ibid, as he explained to his readers, “is a great favorite of footnote-mad authors”—promptly adding in a footnote, “So is cf.” For Grafton, “cf.” is “subtle but deadly.” For Sullivan, it was a piece of pedantry. But, on this occasion at least, he wasn’t particularly funny; nor, by the sound of them, are the student parodies of legal footnotes and the contemporary German satires on “Fussnotologie” which Grafton mentions in passing.

It is hard to improve on the real thing. Stephen Potter, a connoisseur of scholarly ways, was fascinated by a footnote in the Arden edition of Shakespeare, glossing a line in Henry IV, Part 2; he returned to it, dog-and-bone fashion, in three of his books (including One-upmanship). The line in question is “Who keeps the gate here, ho!” or possibly “Who keeps the gate here? ho!” or possibly even “Who keeps the gate here, ho?” and the note is indeed a magnificent affair—three hundred tight-packed words, with references to parallel constructions in, among others, Ben Jonson, Massinger, Beaumont and Fletcher, and Sir Richard Steele. In the face of such lavishness, satire must surely lay down its arms.

Footnotes can be daunting. For many readers, probably most, they are also irredeemably inartistic. The more speckled with little numerals a page is, the less alluring it seems. The backnote or endnote, preferably with a verbal cue, represents a partial solution: it means trading off the attractions of a clean appearance against the nuisance of having to keep hopping around. In a book aimed at a popular audience, the price seems worth paying. But among professional historians, writing with their fellow professionals in mind, it is Bayle’s principle of the double narrative which has triumphed—text at the top of the page, notes and apparatus at the bottom. Over the past two centuries, as Grafton rather grandly but not unjustifiably remarks, footnotes have become “outward and visible signs of this kind of history’s inward grace—the grace infused into history when it was transformed from an eloquent narrative into a critical discipline.”

A thorough professional himself, he abides by the rules. His own book contains over four hundred footnotes, roughly two to the page. They are highly detailed, and austere in manner:one convention which he observes, for instance—and one which laymen often find disconcerting—is that of referring to the authors he cites by a single initial rather than a first name. (It is “F. Stern” rather than Fritz, and “J. Mitchell,” quoted in connection with his book on Joe Gould, rather than Joseph.) There can be no doubt, either, where his allegiances lie. The kind of critical history in which he believes depends as much on annotation as narration: the two are intertwined. But he does allow himself one nostalgic backward glance. In modern times, he writes, “the lead of official prose has replaced the gold of Gibbon’s classic oratory”—and by implication what is true of narrative applies even more to footnotes. Certainly there is nothing very golden about the picture of the modern historical footnote which emerges from his account. Its virtues are utilitarian. (At one point he compares it to a dentist’s drill.) The excitements with which it swarms are largely limited to those of academic politics.

The picture would look a little less bleak, however, if Grafton allowed himself to consider the discursive footnote—the amplification or aside. There may not have been any Gibbons in the present century (the possibility doesn’t arise), but there have been plenty of historians whose footnotes have had point and color. Sometimes they have used them to explore the undergrowth of their subject, sometimes to break a lance with another historian, sometimes simply to find room for a quotation or a graphic detail which would have impeded the flow of the main text; but all these things can be done with a greater or lesser degree of skill. Conor Cruise O’Brien, for example, is the kind of historian who can give a lift to the most humdrum material—as he does in a footnote in Parnell and His Party in which he sketches the career of a forgotten Parnellite MP, and then adds a coda: “‘Probably,’ claims his biographer in the D.N.B., ‘no member with less qualifications for public speaking ever occupied so much of the time of the House of Commons.”‘ The quotation itself is good; “claims” is even better. And putting something into a footnote can have the effect of highlighting it rather than demoting it. In A.J.P. Taylor’s EnglishHistory 1914-1945, for example (and Taylor knew exactly what he was doing), details which have been isolated at the bottom of the page acquire a cartoonlike vividness. Of King George V, we are told that “his trousers were creased at the sides, not front and back”; of Balfour we learn that Clemenceau called him “cette vieille fille“—and we don’t forget.

No one would expect Grafton to devote as much space to the discursive footnote as he does to the source citation. It is far less significant, far less relevant to the development of history as a professional discipline. But it doesn’t deserve to be pushed to one side, either. It can have a humanizing and enlivening effect which is no less real for being hard to measure.

Take a tiny example from a historian who frequently used footnotes to excellent effect, Richard Hofstadter. In The American Political Tradition, Hofstadter quotes from an admiring estimate of Lincoln which appeared in an Ohio newspaper shortly before his inauguration as president. The gist of the passage could easily have been incorporated into Hofstadter’s main text, but he needed the detour of a footnote in order to quote it in full, to inform the reader that it was written by someone called William C. Howells, and to explain that William C. Howells was the novelist’s father.

What exactly has been gained here? The indirect link with William Dean Howells doesn’t add anything substantive to what Hofstadter has already told us about Lincoln, or about his reputation at the time. But it brings a public mood into sharper focus, puts a face on what would otherwise have been anonymous, and deepens our sense of historical continuity. And if it makes us think about Howells rather thanLincoln, that’s no bad thing, either. Nobody wants a ton of irrelevant information; but the most powerful historians are the ones who can’t help looking beyond the limits of the monograph.

It is one of the limitations of Grafton’s book that he has so little to say about the fate of historical narrative after Ranke, and almost nothing to say about the fate of the discursive footnote. It is odd, too, that he should cite an article by Gertrude Himmelfarb, “Where Have All the Footnotes Gone?” (first published in 1991), but make no attempt to address or even indicate the main issue it raises—in Himmelfarb’s words, “the growing number of scholarly books that have no notes at all, that even pride themselves on their lack of notes.” (An example of the latter which she gives is Arno J. Mayer’s controversial 1988 book about the Holocaust, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?: in an interview Mayer described footnotes as “a fetish [that] very often interferes with careful intellection and rumination.”) The whole development is one which surely deserves to be discussed, but Grafton passes over it in silence.

For all its distinction, The Footnote is finally disappointing. It is too weighed down with detail; it lacks a strong direction. If it were a literary hotchpotch, this would no doubt be part of its charm, but a serious historical investigation calls for a plainer, less circuitous approach. It is as though Grafton had been half-seduced by the idea of writing a more “curious” book than his material (or his temperament) warrants. There are times, too, when you can sense him straining to be stylish, and other occasions when he can be downright waggish. He works too hard at his metaphors and similes; he is not above making a joke about nineteenth-century German scholarship being “Begriff-stricken.”

At the end of the book, trying to draw the threads together, he lets his rhetoric get the better of him. Having rejected the notion, fashionable in some quarters, that history is nothing more than a form of imaginative literature, he presents the case for its truth-telling function as forcefully as he can. And telling the truth, he insists, means using footnotes:

Only the use of footnotes and the research techniques associated with them makes it possible to resist the efforts of 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. It is no coincidence that Cardinal Evaristo Arns, the protector of the lawyers who exposed the use of torture against the citizens of Brazil, had learned the historian’s craft at a high level in Paris in the 1950s.

This is eloquent but unconvincing. “It is no coincidence” is a bludgeoning phrase: it would have been no more or less of a coincidence if Cardinal Arns’s early training had been in law, medicine, archaeology, mathematics, or any one of a hundred other disciplines. Historians aren’t the only ones who know how to assess evidence and grasp its importance. And if Grafton is claiming rather too much for history at this point, he is certainly putting too much emphasis on footnotes—which is understandable enough in a peroration, but which would be easier to accept if the peroration itself followed on more naturally from the book as a whole.

This Issue

March 5, 1998