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witty, whimsical tour of the methodsof historical learning
on July 16, 2005
The history, use and meaning of the footnote is a rather unlikely subject for a book, however, Grafton uses it to focus on the practice of history and the flesh-and-blood jealousies, mistakes and falsehoods which lie behind even the driest of academic pursuits.
One caveat, which struck me at the start, is that surely footnotes would not have evolved solely form historical research, surely they would have surfaced in more useful contemporary documents, perhaps to do with legal or diplomatic professions.
That apart, Grafton takes the evolution of the footnote in historical scholarship as the evolution of `scientific' methodology in historical research. On the surface Grafton states that the `the text persuades, the notes prove'. Originally history was story telling by people who claimed to be present, and/or participants, in great events. As scholarship evolved, the fact that participants might have different motivations, points-of-view and/or explicit biases became increasingly apparent. "Ambassadors' reports - a great source of archival works - report on deliberations to which they did not have direct access and the intentions of monarchs who did not speak frankly". Therefore scholars began to quote their sources by use of footnotes to the main text.
Within this context, Grafton illustrates the distance some scholars will go to, in terms of selective quotation of some sources, the suppression of others and it is this which enlivens a topic which otherwise might have been deathly-dull. He acknowledges, with admiration, that some historians use footnotes to allow that there exist contrary interpretations of the thesis they are pursuing. However his work in the field allows him to allow him to add venom e.g. ` but often they (historians) quietly set the subtle, but deadly cf. (compare) in the footnote. This indicates, at least to the expert reader, both that an alternative view appears in the cited work and that it is wrong'. Grafton has worked in many European languages and this allows him to humorously include and compare the many differing ways that footnotes can convey bile - " The English do so with a characteristically sly adverbial construction `oddly overestimated'. Germans use the direct `ganz abwegig' (totally off-track); the French, a colder, but less blatant `discutable'".
The book traces the evolution of the `scientific' recording and interpretation of texts to convey historical scholarship through the work of historians of three centuries, and it is though this that Grafton exhibits great learning and humanity. The foibles, ambitions and disputes are clearly acknowledged as is their passion for their work. Grafton has clear sympathy for both. He is more grudging in acknowledging the contribution of philosophy - specially the work of Descartes and Voltaire - in the development of the uneasy concoction of art and science which is modern history.
This is a magnificent description of an exchange between Liebnitz and Bayle in the 1690's, where the latter's desire to document every mistake in historical writings available at the time, is called into question. Liebnitz instead argued that it would be more accurate and economical to pursue a project which documented the verified truth of historical research. Each project is, of course, infinite, though Liebnitz's is the more practicable.
While Grafton ranges widely though the historians of the 14th to the 19th Century
I feel that he reserves especially favour for Gibbon and von Ranke, Gibbon for his masterful confidence and literate authority - Grafton goes so far as to suggest that Gibbon reluctantly adopted the footnote, feeling that it broke the narrative flow. He favours Ranke for his zeal in perfecting the methodology of source quotation and interpretation as well as instituting the seminar for exposition and training of upcoming historians. Grafton points out, tellingly but humanely, that Ranke was not above self-delusion in his judgment of his own methodology, by showing that Ranke's own footnotes were less exact than the historian claimed.
The narrative,which can be quite detailed and wide-ranging, flows along thanks to Grafton;s style. Complex points are not simplified, but nor are the human details overlooked e.g. his laconic opinion of the medieval Letters of Aristeas is rendered as ` this fascinating book has the defect of being a forgery, but also the compensating virtues of beauty and clarity'.