Enemy of the Enemies of Truth

Frank Kermode

  • The Footnote: A Curious History by Anthony Grafton
    Faber, 241 pp, £12.99, December 1997, ISBN 0 571 17668 2

When Browning’s grammarian, grown old and bald and sick, was urged to get out of his cell and see a bit of life before he died, he replied that he still had work to do: ‘Grant I have mastered learning’s crabbed text,/Still there’s the comment.’ Anthony Grafton’s book is a commentary on the comment, some of it made, as Browning puts it, ‘shortly after the revival of learning in Europe’, though its scope is much wider than that.

Copious commentary wasn’t a humanist invention: it had adorned classical texts to such an extent that it couldn’t be confined to the page’s foot, but swarmed in the margins, lavishly explaining and allegorising. Sometimes the text looks like the last remaining piece of ground above water in a time of flood. But humanist commentators had more urgent critical programmes, some with powerful political and ecclesiastical implications. There was, for example, the celebrated demonstration by Lorenzo Valla, who died in 1457, that the Donation of Constantine was spurious. The Donation was an eighth or ninth-century fabrication that purported to be the instrument by which the Emperor Constantine had in the fourth century ceded to Pope Sylvester I dominion over Rome, all Italy, Jerusalem, and lots of other places as well. Proof that the Donation was a fake was an obvious boon to Protestant polemic: Valla was edited by Ulrich von Hutten and popularised by Melanchthon and Luther. The Vatican replied defiantly; for example, by commissioning from Giulio Romano frescos glorifying the Donation. So the authenticity or otherwise of a document referring to a historical event became a fiercely contested issue. Historians and philologists now needed to concern themselves with documentary and philological evidence as to what actually happened or didn’t happen, though of course your version would still depend on which side you were on to begin with.

Anthony Grafton, a modern grammarian, is interested in the way supporting evidence is adduced. He has long been curious about the historical development of the footnote into its later condition of sober supporting citation (‘the humanist’s rough equivalent of the scientist’s report on data’). In tracing its history he reveals himself to be a genuine descendant of the polymaths and polyhistors whose contributions he describes. The story is complex and itself requires to be properly footnoted. This dense little book has 370 footnotes in its 241 pages, almost as many as Gibbon, most celebrated of all footnoters, needed in the notorious Chapters 15 and 16 of the Decline and Fall (383). Grafton doesn’t use his footnotes to tease or sneer: he uses them in the correct modern way as the foundation of what is printed above them. No page is without these supports, cited in whatever language the source employed, Latin, French, German and occasionally English. They are a shade discursive at times, to show how much the author likes doing them, but nothing is dodged or shirked. Not surprisingly, publication of this book is simultaneous in the USA and Britain, while French and German translations have appeared or are about to. This is international scholarship, wrought in the libraries of Berlin, Princeton, Oxford and London, and a lesson to some less scrupulous modern practitioners. On the other hand, the story is not told straightforwardly; for some reason Grafton avoids telling it in chronological order, and this can sometimes make it hard for the reader to sort the history out.

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