Footnotes and Sewers

Berkeley Connect History students discuss their exposure to academic writing and footnotes.

“Like the toilet, the footnote enables one to deal with ugly tasks in private; like the toilet, it is tucked genteelly away–often, in recent years, not even at the bottom of the page but at the end of the book. Out of sight, and even out of mind, seems exactly where so banal a device belongs.”

–Anthony Grafton

History students learn to cite their sources using footnotes. Where did this practice come from? What is its purpose? At a recent small-group discussion (which also included a conversation about the uses of office hours, and a presentation on pursuing undergraduate research), Berkeley Connect History students delved into the “ugly topic” of footnotes by discussing two short texts.

An excerpt from “The Ideal of Universal History: Ranke” by Fritz Stern explained the contributions of Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886) to the practice of history. Ranke is often credited as the founder of modern source-based history. In his preface to Histories of the Latin and Germanic Nations from 1494-1514, Ranke compares history’s prior goals “of judging the past [and] instructing the present of future ages” to the intentions of his own work: “to show what actually happened.” He elaborates further, “The strict presentation of the facts, contingent and unattractive though they may be, is undoubtedly the supreme law.” With his adherence to facts, Ranke sets the standard of modern historiography, reliant upon eyewitness reports and contemporary documents (memoirs, diaries, letters, diplomatic reports, etc) as primary sources.

Anthony Grafton’s “The Footnote from De Thou to Ranke” follows an extended metaphor comparing footnotes to sewers. Despite the unpleasant imagery, he writes, sewers have proved essential to civilization. Grafton then surveys the evolution of footnote practices across many different contexts. Whereas Italian scholars, for example, may omit certain sources as a polemical statement that will be recognized by particular readers, German scholars often omit sources as a general statement against recent or contemporary works in languages other than German. Grafton demonstrates how a close study of footnotes can enhance our understanding of modern practices and historical scholarship.

To conclude the discussion, Berkeley Connect Mentor Krzysztof Odyniec offered an excerpt from his own dissertation. He demonstrated three primary uses for footnotes: to cite sources, to present information (such as a translation or original quote), and to point towards additional resources or notes.

In spite of their small print, footnotes play a big role in modern-day scholarship. Berkeley Connect History students came away with a new appreciation of footnotes in the past, across cultures, and in application.

posted by Gloria Choi

Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant