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.

Grafton well understands that footnotes can never be perfect, if that claim implies that ‘every statement in the text rests on an unassailable mountain of attested facts,’ but he wants them to approach that condition as closely as possible, and is hard on cheats and show-offs, venal pilers-up of citations. Writers in legal publications are especially and often uselessly ostentatious, and it seems there is seriously slack footnoting in much modern German and Italian scholarship.

He is keen to establish that good footnote practice started much earlier than is sometimes supposed. The ‘ancestor of the modern scholarly apparatus of footnotes’ is said to be Peter Lombard in the first half of the 12th century, though Peter was citing authorities, which makes him different from scientific modern scholars, who cite sources. Scientific history is conventionally associated with Leopold von Ranke, whose dedication to the recording of things as they really were is said to have originated in his deep disappointment at discovering that Scott’s Quentin Durward was unreliable as history. Grafton has a lot to say about Ranke, a scholar of such amazing resource that other learned historians look illiterate beside him. Though not a great lover of footnotes, which may still in his day have seemed a shade ungentlemanly, he used them, as ‘a necessary evil’, to support his historical narrative and to confound his contemporaries: but it turns out that even he exaggerated his acquaintance with primary archives. Anyway, he was merely a stage on the way to the perfect modern footnote.

His exemplars were certain Renaissance historians, Jean Bodin, for instance, and 18th-century German classical scholars like the great Homeric scholar Friedrich August Wolf. Grafton starts with Ranke but backtracks to discuss 18th-century footnoting, and then backtracks again to talk about the sort of citation it superseded, a style appropriate to a time when it was still believed that a scholar needed to take all knowledge for his province, to be a polyhistor. The persistence of polyhistoriographical ambitions explains why certain titles ‘which sound like Baroque self-parodies’ were still in use up to and during the Enlightenment. One of these books, cited by Grafton, was Pancirolli’s De rebus inventis et deperditis (1599). This book, which happens to be one of the few I’ve read that Grafton apparently hasn’t, was published in English translation as late as 1712 (The History of Many Memorable Things Lost, which were in Use among the Ancients). Since it maintained that we had lost a great deal of ancient learning and technology it was much quoted on the Ancient side of the Ancient and Modern controversy; for example, it was one of the many old books that Abraham Cowley, though a Fellow of the Royal Society and an up-to-date intellectual, quoted from in his learned, though by modern standards plagiaristic, notes to his epic Davideis.

As usual, older ways of looking at matters survive along with the new. Grafton gives a lot of space to Athanasius Kircher, an amazingly learned and prolific Jesuit, expert in mathematics, ethics, Oriental languages, China, Noah’s Ark, obelisks, music, earthquakes and volcanoes (he had himself lowered into the craters of Etna and Vesuvius). Well documented though his enormous books may be, they are now useless as accounts of things as they were and are. They deserve attention only as records of Baroque polyhistoriographical ambition, though the ‘Hermetic’ obelisk Kircher unearthed still stands in the Piazza Navona, ‘the most impressive, and certainly the most bewitching, pièce justificative placed on display to support the bold theses of Renaissance archaeology’. The books may nowadays be mentioned with respect by such learned and adventurous historians as Norman Cohn; and if one wants to see where an educated 17th-century scholar or amateur looked for information about the history and theory of music, his Musurgia Universalis of 1650 is a good place to start. But Kircher’s career offers sad testimony to the fact that if the argument diligently supported by your footnotes happens to be founded on incorrect presuppositions, all your labours will be lost.

Before we can return to the 19th century and Ranke we still have to meet Gibbon. He had no time for Baroque history, and took a much more scientific view of the use of primary sources. Gibbon ‘combined the irony and broad viewpoint of the Philosophes with the minute erudition of the antiquaries ... [he] wrote the high classic language of traditional historiography, but ... addressed himself to the dusty details of the sources’. Yet he wished he need not produce notes at all. He first provided endnotes, not footnotes, and it was a letter from David Hume that urged him to put source references on the page. Gibbon took this advice, but put the satirical notes on the page also, with great benefit to the reader, for now the joke was not so widely separated from its occasion.

In another of his chronological vagaries Grafton discusses the notes Ben Jonson added to his Roman tragedy Sejanus for its publication in 1605, possibly to evade censorship by showing that everything he put into the play alluded exactly to historical events in Rome and not to contemporary English politics. It might be added that Jonson heavily annotated his court masques also, dishing up much classical lore, and not without the thought that he must be considered a very learned poet, though, in the manner of his time, he did not scruple to borrow much from secondary sources. It strikes one, as one reads Grafton, that out of the fertile seedbed of Renaissance footnotes there grew many different varieties of annotation, not merely source citation but also polemics and irony. He devotes several pages to Swift’s Battle of the Books and Pope’s Dunciad, which uses for ironical purposes the style of footnoting found in those Renaissance and Baroque editions already mentioned, as well as that of contemporary pedantry.

The subject being so various and complicated, you can see why Grafton found himself at odds with chronology. Before returning to Ranke we are to consider the French scholar Jacques-Auguste de Thou, a lawyer and Latinist ‘who wrote what may be the longest historical narrative ever written’. This was a history of his own times – 1554 to 1607. Remarkable as this work was, it had no footnotes, though de Thou, we gather, provided ample commentary in his correspondence. Here again we have a gentlemanly distaste for the appearance of pedantry. The text must not sacrifice elegance to source citation: ‘He must have thought that footnotes would spoil its crisp Greco-Roman colonnades and roofline.’ So the passage on de Thou takes us no further than this: he liked to keep his pages clean. How do we get from this aristocratic prejudice to the artisanal modern footnote?

Pierre Bayle takes us a long way. His enormous Historical and Critical Dictionary (1697) consists largely of footnotes and footnotes to footnotes (some being source citation, some scurrilous or bawdy, the whole a mass of various erudition). Bayle (as we are not told here) was translated into English in ten volumes in 1734-41. He understood the rules of the scholarly footnote, but like Gibbon, also used them for more amusing purposes. He did not always keep his scholarly promises, citing sources he had not read and culpably omitting bibliographical details, but Grafton asserts that he had, nevertheless, a good influence in promoting exactness of citation.

Grafton’s essay is close to its end before we discover the importance of Descartes in the history of the footnote. It lies in the fact that Descartes despised the humanities as dependent on mere opinion, and his scorn induced scholars to make their work as scientific, as proof against sceptical attack, as possible. So it was Cartesian pressure that formed Bayle, as Bayle formed others. It was even claimed that the certitudes of history, though different from those of mathematics, were actually more certain, because less abstract. This argument was taken a stage further by Jean Le Clerc, a fellow Huguenot but an enemy of Bayle’s, whose Ars critica spells out the rules of textual and historical criticism and points the way to a truly scientific history.

At the end of the book, when we are beginning to despair of ever catching up with Ranke, we come with relief on a chapter called ‘Some Concluding Footnotes’. It is in part a lament that the rise of the footnote to the status of standard scholarly tool has been accompanied by a stylistic decline. The brightest age, it now appears, was the 18th century, when footnotes could be ironical or even funny. In the course of the transition from this happy condition to modern, accurate drabness there were no revolutionary developments, just a glacial progress. Yet what happened had to happen, for the sake of our intellectual health. The modern historiographer may see the footnote as an indication that history writing really does differ from fiction: it provides evidence that a text which may tell a story of general interest rests nevertheless on strict investigative discipline. Footnotes may be fallible, like their authors, but they are our only guarantee that statements about the past derive from identifiable sources. ‘And that,’ says Grafton, ‘is the only ground we have to trust them’ (meaning the statements). He goes further: the footnote is a protection against the lies, concealments and distortions of modern governments. It is, or ought to be, the enemy of the enemies of truth. Of course the footnote can itself be an enemy of the truth, a theft, a concealment, a distortion, a cheat. But it ought to be the enemy of the enemies of truth.

All this makes the footnote seem rather noble though inevitably human. I recall a footnote in one of Geoffrey Tillotson’s books, in which instead of providing a source for something in the text, he simply remarks that he has lost the reference. I suspect that some scholars would at this point have made one up, reasonably confident that nobody would check it. But this is only to say that the history of the footnote, from Peter Lombard to Ranke and onward, has been made by men of painful dedication and prodigious application, like Browning’s grammarian, but men all the same, capable of bad temper, pride and occasional dishonesty. And then, of course, there are the out and out charlatans, the plagiarists and the fakers. Nothing human is alien to the true scholar; Grafton’s subject shows that the practice of citation is as illustrative of human good and ill as poker, marriage or government.