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The history of the footnote may well seem an apocalyptically trivial topic,” writes historian Anthony Grafton. “Footnotes seem to rank among the most colorless and uninteresting features of historical practice.” And yet, Grafton—who has also written The Footnote: A Curious History (1999)—argues that they’re actually pretty important.

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“Once the historian writes with footnotes, historical narrative becomes a distinctly modern” practice, Grafton explains. History is no longer a matter of rumor, unsubstantiated opinion, or whim.

“The text persuades, the note proves,” he avers. Footnotes do double duty, for they also “persuade as well as prove” and open up the work to a multitude of voices.

Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886), the founder of source-based history, is usually credited with the “invention” of the scholarly footnote in the European tradition. Grafton describes von Ranke’s theory as sharper than his practice: his footnoting was much too sloppy to be a model for scholars today. But various forms of footnotes were used long before von Ranke. Sources were of vital importance to both Roman lawyers and Christian theologians in late antiquity and the early Middle Ages, as they strove to back up their own arguments with the weight and gravitas of others.

As Grafton writes in a second article about this history of naming one’s sources, “the modern footnote—with its full bibliographical details, discussion of variant texts and sources, and separate place on the page […] seems to have arrived at its definitive form in the later 17th century.”

Pierre Bayle’s enormously influential Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697) is the thing to cite here. The Dictionary “consisted in large part of footnotes (and even footnotes to footnotes).” Within a few decades scholars emulating Bayle “were producing footnotes by the bushel—and satirists were making fun of them for doing so.”

Grafton has a candidate for the longest known footnote: it’s 165 pages long and found in John Hodgson’s 1840 History of Northumberland. The award for the Most Ironic Footnotes goes to Edward Gibbon, who plays it straight in the text of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published between 1776 and 1789) and then adds the snark to the footnotes, playfully undermining the seriousness of the endeavor above.

For historians, footnotes “amount to a staccato, partial intellectual biography.” The “historian’s footnotes offer a narrative about the historian who wrote the text.” They tell us what they consulted and how they interpreted those sources. Such historians are, after all, asking us to trust them that they did the work, which is typical of a lot of the reading. “Footnotes give us reason to believe that their authors have done their best to find out the truth about past events and distant countries.” They are, in short, the historian’s credentials, their bona fides (Latin for “in good faith”).

Above all, writes Grafton, footnotes “democratize scholarly writing” both by bringing in other voices to the conversation and by including the reader. This makes every reader part of the argument, as well as, at least in theory, a fact-checker. Few readers will dig deeply into the notes, but the notes should nonetheless provide the back-up to controversial points and questionable facts.

(Certainly this reader has found many topics to write about here at JSTOR Daily in the footnotes or endnotes to both books and articles. Modern scholarly databases like JSTOR making proofing the pudding of the notes a lot easier than it used to be.)

It’s not just historians, of course. Biographers and science writers, if they know what’s good for them, should share/reveal their research, too. Some popular authors eschew citations of sources, while commercial publishers tend to think the infrastructure of scholarship—notes/bibliographies/indices—isn’t particularly marketable. Yet the footnote, often as an endnote, is today alive and well in the scholarly world. Meanwhile, virtual publishing allows for citations to be linked directly to the source—you can, after all, have your cake and eat it, too.

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History and Theory, Vol. 33, No. 4, Theme Issue 33: Proof and Persuasion in History (December 1994), pp. 53–76
Wiley for Wesleyan University
The Wilson Quarterly (1976–), Vol. 21, No. 1 (Winter 1997), pp. 72–77
Wilson Quarterly