I had a conversation with a grad student about two weeks ago about a thesis chapter of hirs. The writing was elegant, and there was a great argument at the chapter's core. The problem (in my estimation) was that ze had spent pages detailing the names and contributions of every middling lord in north-central Floopriana, with the predictable result that hir argument became lost in a sea of hard-won erudition.
What do we do with the details? Chapters five and six of Grafton's history of the footnote jump us back another century, from the literary footnotes of the eighteenth century to the seventeenth century, to address this question. Chapter five focuses on the the dilemma of the late Humanists, pulled in two by contradictory impulses: on the one hand, wanting to adhere to the models of classical scholarship, which prized elegance of narrative form; on the other, attached to the source criticism that characterized earlier humanists like Lorenzo Valla. Grafton shows how early c. 17 historians handled their ambivalent relationship to footnotes. On the one hand, Jacques-Auguste de Thou, a Latinist and Parisian lawyer, steadfastly refused to include footnotes in his text... but he did leave behind a massive volume of correspondence with other scholars that, in a sense, served as an informal annotation for the scholarly community. Samuel Johnson, whose position (and possibly very life) depended on his history not being trotted out as evidence of sedition, included notes to his sources, but only reluctantly, taking time in his preface to preemptively defend himself against charges of pedantry.
Less fearful of such charges were the subjects of Grafton's sixth chapter, the ecclesiastical historians and the antiquarians. Also denizens of the seventeenth century, these writers were unafraid of accusations of pedantry: they were practicing a form of history in which erudition was the watchword, rather than stylistics. For the ecclesiastical historians, mountains of detail served as arsenals in sectarian conflicts. Data was so important that interpolations and outright forgeries were
far from unknown... giving rise to peripheral disciplines like
paleographics and diplomatics in order to root out forgeries created in
this age. [Note: will someone please write a history of a golden age of forgery?] For the antiquaries, the details were not the means to pushing a sectarian agenda; they were the end in and of themselves. The were collectors and catalogers, preserving detail for its own sake. And in both cases, since erudition lay at the core, annotation was not only tolerable, it was essential.
What to take away from all this detail about how historians deal with detail? Well, the main thing for me is how very diverse an ecosystem early modern historiography was. And how very contested the definition of "history" is, and how that all relates to how we deal with details. Do we, as my student did, include them all because every one holds a small piece of the puzzle? Do we pare them back (as I recommended to said student) in the service of an elegant and reader-friendly narrative? When we make these choices, what are we saying about our job as historians?
And how does this all relate to the modern footnote? Well, that's Grafton's final chapter -- the one where he brings it all together. Stay tuned...