Footnotes make intriguing reading. This may sound absurd, but even the most trivial looking nineteenth-century footnote conceals so many meanings that unearthing these hidden aspects is simply exciting. Let’s take, for example, the footnote “Stubbs ii. 365” the Cambridge historian GuelphsOscar Browning (1837–1923) composed for his Guelphs & Ghibellines. A Short History of Mediæval Italy from 1250–1409 (1893). As the book was aimed for general readers, it was not heavy on footnotes: historians and publishers generally agreed that popular histories did not need annotations. The scientific histories were a completely different matter in this respect. While it is pretty much impossible to say what prompted Browning to compose two footnotes to his book, and what spurred him to make one of them a reference to William Stubbs, much more can be said about the broader meanings this specific footnote concealed.

When we think of footnotes, we often think of the “German” style footnote apparatus that absorbs nearly an entire page. This is, without a doubt, a popular format, but there are cultural and scholarly traditions where the matters have stood quite differently. In spite of the difference, what historians generally have agreed upon is that references to manuscripts and research literature should be made so detailed that a reader could easily trace their origin and find the documentary evidence on which historians built their arguments. As Edward Freeman formulated this principle in 1885, “reader has right to ask whence the information comes.” In reality, though, nineteenth-century footnotes were nothing but easy to decipher. They were composed in offhand manner and the lack of shared standards gave authors freedom to format their notes as they wished to. The adherence to minuteness and precision was less rigid and the late-Victorian history books are filled with cryptic footnotes that tell nothing else than the name of the author and a page number. It was certainly not an easy task for readers to trace the origins of the sources listed in these notes.

The “Stubbs ii. 365” in Browning’s Guelphs & Ghibellines is a textbook example of the nineteenth-century footnote practice. Following the fashion of his day, Browning’s book does not contain any kind of bibliographical list of authorities that would help to explain the reference. Bibliographies were indeed extremely rare and I can count their number in my current set of data of approximately 300 late-Victorian titles with the fingers of my two hands. Some authors chose to list their most important sources in a preface, but once this was done, they usually considered it sufficient and eschewed from referring to these sources in their footnotes. Another solution was to introduce some of the source material in the narrative. Browning did not do any of this: he did not include a bibliography, he did not write a preface, or refer to Stubbs’s study in the text itself. No, all that he told his readers with that footnote was that if they wished to know more about Adolf of Nassau and Edward I to whose story the note was attached to, they ought to consult “Stubbs ii. 365.”

Footnote Stubbs

For informed readers this was certainly enough. In this context, “Stubbs” could not really mean anyone else than William Stubbs, the venerable historian of the English constitution and “ii, 365” obviously stood for page 365 in the second volume of his Constitutional History of England. However, the matters were complicated by the fact that by 1893 the second volume, originally published in 1875, had gone through several revisions. Three revised editions and one library edition had appeared since 1875, but the footnote did not specify to which one of these Browning instructed his readers to turn to.

If Stubbs, who enjoyed the reputation of an eminent historian was a rather easy case for readers to recognize, they were not always equally lucky. As the number of history books grew rapidly during the last decades of the century, the number of authors, titles, volumes, and editions historians could refer to in their footnotes increased in an unforeseen quantity. The footnote apparatus in the late-Victorian history books is a clear proof of the expansion of historical scholarship: the range of authors that were now referred to, diversified seemingly towards the end of the century. Since the practice of composing footnotes changed less rapidly and historians tended to stick to the old habit of listing nothing but the writer and a page number, tracking down the references became challenging – if not impossible.

Historians were not unaware of the issue, but they were more preoccupied with the burden of consulting the studies that were now issued in rapid flow. The task of following all the latest developments in their field, tracking down the publications, and incorporating them to their narratives was overwhelming, but something that was expected of them. Critics were quick to remind them that a core skill of a virtuous historian was to stay abreast with everything that was published about his field of study. When they fell short on this, reviewers sanctioned them of insufficient effort, ignorance, and disrespect for their fellow historians whose contributions they failed to acknowledge. Referring to these recent developments, Charles Oman lamented in 1906 in his inaugural lecture in Oxford how “bibliographies on some subjects have grown so enormous that they have become a hindrance rather than a help” and asked “what good is it to have 700 titles of monographs, of all varieties of intrinsic value and accessibility, flung in our face?”

The incomplete footnotes sure did not help historians who tried to trace even the most inconspicuous publications by foreign scholars that they had spotted at the bottom of a page of another study. The matter was further complicated by the ongoing changes in scholarly publishing which encouraged historians to publish articles in scholarly journals rather than only producing monographs. As the journals sprang up like mushrooms after the rain and historians only gradually experimented with ways to refer to this material in their footnotes, they faced an entirely new dilemma when trying to decode notes that gave only partial information about these sources. Since the change that the birth of scholarly history journals brought along was so significant, I will return to the topic in another post. It suffices to say here only that it took some time from historians to adjust their footnotes to correspond with the altered publishing culture.

Edward Freeman summed up his frustrations about all this in a preface he wrote in 1891 for the first volume of his History of Sicily from the Earliest Times. SicilyHe was particularly irritated about Germans who were obsessed about the craze of founding academic journals and series. Certainly, Freeman admitted that a historian working on Sicily was sure to learn something from “the most obscure Abhandlung or Programm or Dissertation,” but to follow this stream of foreign publications was a mission impossible for an English historian. When this academic ephemera was mentioned in footnotes, Freeman complained how the references lacked vital bibliographical information.  But this was not all and he pointed out how historians experienced other obstacles as well: “when one has found what is wanted it is sometimes forbidden to buy the number that one wants, unless one chooses to buy a whole volume that one does not want.”  Freeman, seemingly irritated, went on complaining how “the Englishman is sure to be found fault with if he misses the smallest scrap of the whole “Litteratur” of any matter. In this our High-Dutch friends are sometimes little unreasonable.” English historians, of course, showed much more understanding towards their German colleagues and humbly Freeman concluded how at least he did not blame a German historian “if he has never come across what I have written about King Ine in the Proceedings of the Somerset Archæological Society.” Even if Freeman spiced up his preface with a fair amount of English patriotism, at the bottom it was the unforeseen growth in the number of publications and the outdated footnote practices that did not keep up with this development that prompted him to address the topic in the preface.

Footnotes are not composed in a cultural vacuum and the nineteenth-century references are a good reminder of this. When the number of titles and authors had remained limited it had sufficed to compose less detailed footnotes. Everyone knew what “Stubbs ii. 365” referred to. The growing number of studies and authors whom historians mentioned in their footnotes indicates the expansion of scholarly publishing and audience: there was a high demand for history books and more and more historians who produced and consumed these studies. The footnote apparatus, however, was slower to adapt to the changing culture and the notes that indicated the sources only gradually began to respond to historians’ altered scholarly needs and practices. There were, of course, exceptions to this and footnotes such as “Holm, Geschichte Siciliens, i.11” and “See Schubring, Umwanderung, p. 459” in Freeman’s History of Sicily suggest that a change was on its way. Yet, it is striking how incomplete – from the present-day perspective that is – the bibliographical information in late-nineteenth-century footnotes was in spite of historians’ constant demands that references ought to be precise and complete.


Browning Oscar, Guelphs & Ghibellines. A Short History of Mediæval Italy from 1250–1409 (London: Methuen & Co., 1893).

Freeman Edward A., The History of Sicily from the Earliest Times, vol. I (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1891).

Oman Charles, Inaugural Lecture on The Study of History (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906)

Stephens, W. R. W., The life and letters of Edward A. Freeman D.C.L., LL.D. (London: Macmillan, 1895).