Undoubtedly, it may sound ludicrous that someone spends a large part of the day counting footnotes in the early English Historical Reviews. Well, that’s pretty much what I’ve been doing lately. However, I dare to say that there is nothing tedious in analyzing the formation of unwritten rules for using footnotes in scholarly articles at a time when the scientific journals were a novelty in history. The late-nineteenth-century English historians were experts in drafting historical essays and reviews for general cultural periodicals and composing imposing multi-volume studies, but they were beginners in the art of writing scientific articles for a professional audience.
The first English scholarly history journal, The English Historical Review, was established in 1886, some twenty years later than its continental forerunners in Germany and France. The new publication invited scholars to publish articles under their own name and expected that the contributions were based on independent research, exhaustive examination of manuscripts and a detailed documentation of the evidence in footnotes. Historians rose enthusiastically to the challenge that the new medium of scholarly writing posed. Notwithstanding their previous experience in writing historical essays, the scientific article-format required different skills. Constituting proper use of footnotes is just one example of the issues historians had to solve during the early years of the Review. Indeed, the first years of the Review were the heyday of inconsistent footnotes.
The use of footnotes was ambivalent in every manner. First the editors accepted articles without any footnotes, but the zero-note submissions quickly disappeared paving the way to more densely annotated texts. Some, however, took the minuteness of references perhaps too far. E. G. Hardy, specialist in ancient history, was one of those who caught the footnote-fever. In 1887 he published an article about the Roman Legions and furnished his 32 pages with an impressive total of 220 footnotes. The April 1890 issue of the Review had another article from him. This time he had equipped a 34-page long piece with staggering 341 footnotes. The text was dotted and the sentences broken with the tiny numerical symbols demanding a reader to direct his gaze to the bottom of the page where he found endless lists of abbreviated references to the authorities Hardy had consulted. The ambitious footnote apparatus was visually imposing and screamed of scholarship. Hardy’s contributions certainly worked against the editors who struggled to make the Review popular reading outside the small circle of professional historians.
Hardy’s footnote fanaticism was exceptional and in my project he is rather a curiosity than a fitting representative of a mainstream annotator – he is the footnote that spices up the story. But I hope that Hardy’s outlandish way to pack his texts with footnotes proves that dissecting footnotes can be thrilling – and even scholarly useful. Footnotes provide new perspectives for the study of scholarly practices and historiography. Footnotes are also entertaining and exciting reading material – nineteenth-century historians continue to surprise me with their footnotes. It is just amazing what they hid into the tiny print at the bottom of a page. And if everything else fails, with some artistic touches, the richly annotated pages from the early English Historical Reviews are perfect for giving a unique decorative touch to a historian’s office.
E. G. Hardy, “The Movements of the Roman Legions from Augustus to Severus”, The English Historical Review, Vol. 2, No. 8, October 1887.
E. G. Hardy, “The Provincial Concilia from Augustus to Diocletian”, The English Historical Review, vol. 5, No. 18, April 1890.