Some of the books I have been reading or browsing recently fall into the crossover-category between academic tome and popular non-fiction – what German manages to distinguish so neatly between Fachbuch and Sachbuch. Examples include a book on medieval travel and exploration by the Venetian Zen[o] brothers, or a biography of Gerbert of Aurillac the ‘scientist pope’ (reviews perhaps another time). One of the most noticeable visual points, in terms of layout and hence development of argument, about this genre of book is that footnotes are eschewed in favour of a watered-down version of endnotes, whereby shorter or longer snippets of repetition and citation from the main text are repeated in the endnotes according to which page the reference was on, then elaborated with more or less scholarly bibliographical references. This system is supposedly easy on the eye of the ‘general’ reader, who has presumably been identified as the main readership of such a semi-academic non-fiction book, but whom the publisher does not want to confront with the full-blown scholarly apparatus, to whit: the footnote, for fear of ‘putting off’ such readers. Which is a real shame, since quite obviously a greater or lesser degree of scholarship and research has gone in to the writing of such a book in the first place, one of the reasons why I advocate reading such works, instead of sniffily turning one’s nose at them as sub-standard twaddle by amateurs. (It is purely the arrogance of the ‘professional’, in whatever field, that defines what is ‘twaddle’ and what is not. Plenty of novel, interesting and thought-provoking research has been conducted by so-called amateurs, and just because there are some badly researched and badly-written books out there – mainly those with a pet obsession and point to prove [but then, don’t bona fide academics have pet points and obsessions?] – one ought not consign all popular-style works to the lunatic fringe scrapheap of historical writing by cranks and crackpots.) So one criterion (of undoubtedly many factors that cannot be alluded to here) is the visual appearance, i.e. lack of readily identifiable scholarly apparatus, that defines a text as scholarly or amateur. A decent referencing system is the hallmark of historical writing, since references to sources and citations allow one’s peers to replicate the argument, much as in the natural sciences one’s experiments need to be replicable by one’s peers. Footnotes seem to be the ideal way of achieving such a reference system. (Note the technologically-imposed irony that I am writing this piece here without making use of footnotes.)
So why then has there been, even among academic publishers, a trend in recent years away from footnotes, not only towards the much more cumbersome endnotes but also towards the frustrating Harvard system? The problem with endnotes is readily explained: as you read the main text, come across something interesting, and want to follow this up, you are required to perform a kind of mental and digital gymnastics – digital here referring to the original meaning ‘finger’, not computers. First submit to memory where on the main page you were, then insert finger(s) to mark page, use spare hand to leaf through pages near the end to locate endnotes (an added obstacle will be if the endnotes are arranged by ‘Chapter X, Chapter Y, Chapter Z’ and you have not paid attention to which chapter it was you were reading, which requires insertion of finger to endnotes pages, flick back to main text, keep finger in main text while trying to find beginning of chapter to read main chapter title [since running header doesn’t mention this]), return to main page to review endnote number, return to endnotes, finally locate correct one and – breathing exhausted sigh of relief – peruse notes (only to discover it was not so interesting after all). Then backtrack to the main text, by which time you have almost forgotten where it was you had left off, so spend wasted time re-reading several sentences before hitting on the cause of your cognitive and dextrous exercise. Extra challenges are posed when the endnote system does not have full bibliographical details in each note, but instead requires you to somehow develop extras digits (presumably on a third hand) so that you can quickly flick to the bibliography where you can finally discover what treasured tome your reference is in. The Harvard system, theoretically, requires you only to locate items in a bibliography, hence you should be able to cope with the two hands that most of us possess, but adds a different dimension of frustration: as you are reading, deeply engrossed in the line of argument, you are yanked out of the finer points the author is trying to make by a sudden (Jones 1978a: 253) interpolation. Never mind the argument, who is Jones? What did s/he write in 1978 besides the item being referenced here, for if the date warrants a letter appended to it, Jones must have produced more than one publication that year? Thoroughly awoken by now from your musings on the argument, on what the author, backed up by the mysterious Jones, whoever s/he is, was trying to state in the first place, you turn to the bibliography, at last discover Jones’s brilliance, and return to the main text, again, like after the endnote fiasco mentioned above, spending valuable amounts of research time trying to re-read sentences to get back into the flow of things.
Call me academically conservative, but good old footnotes distract less, require less manual dexterity (or spine breaking ill-treatment of books!) and lead to instant gratification of scholarly desires. Those folk who argue that footnotes break up the text and are too demanding of the reader (even the legal profession, notorious for its incomprehensible language, is coming to that way of thinking) should try chasing up a reference in the endnote or Harvard system as described above. The footnote, in contrast, is to writing what multi-tasking is in the world of work: it is not just going off on a tangent, it is allowing you to simultaneously present thoughts about related but different topics, thereby broadening your intellectual and cognitive horizon, nudging you along avenues of argument, debate or consideration that you may never have discovered in a plain text. It was, unsurprisingly for those who like stereotypes, a French author who said that a decent footnote is like the cellar of a building: it is underpinning the whole structure, with dusty chambers, secret cellars, and hidden passages; so a footnote may be daunting, even potentially misleading but at the same time awakening the possibility of uncovering long-forgotten treasures. Embracing the footnote is setting off on a course of adventure, the literary equivalent of the aventure of the knight in medieval romances. As a medievalist, of course, I would go even farther, and advocate a return to the system of glossation introduced into scholastic manuscripts (as in this example from a glossed Aristotle) – the one where the main text is not so much propped up by the foundational structure of footnotes as it is structurally encased by supplementary text, an exoskeleton surrounding the main body, if you like to pursue the materialist analogy.
And last but not least, a few words about the extended meaning of the term ‘footnote’. Being a ‘footnote of history’ has been used as a derogation of events or people in the grand narrative of constructing mainstream history. Already Otto of Freising in the twelfth century, in his History of the Two Cities, had defined history as tragedy, a literary genre that deals with the great, the good and the powerful, thereby presenting an intellectual justification and exculpation for the writing out of history of the powerless, the marginalised, or those deemed ‘deviant’ – these being the very ones who have been consigned to the ‘footnotes of history’. The literary and historic metaphors converge, in that much as the textual footnote is the structural underpinning of the superstructured text above it, the approach of ‘history from below’ seeks to uncover those people relegated to the footnotes of history, namely those who, again in a medieval simile (John of Salisbury’s Policraticus, book V, chapter 2), formed the feet of the body politic. Discovering the stories hidden in the footnotes of history has for me been the most interesting part of historical research – after all, most of the medieval disabled people I have studied have been, literally, uncovered from the footnotes of history.