bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The battle against endnotes

Posted in Offbeat observations by bonaelitterae on 10 December, 2009

I was reading a review today which ends:

‘[The author] has also committed the considerable offence, which one would have thought the concentrated venom of reviewers would have killed off long ago, of herding all her notes together at the end of the book.’

The review appeared in History in 1939. Clearly, the tongue of reviewers, however spiteful, spits an ineffective poison.

And let us not be uncharitable: endnotes are not the worst. Even more infuriating are notes gathered at the end of each chapter. Nor are they the most unscholarly: that accolade should surely be reserved for the ‘author / date’ system which not only interrupts the text and often fails to provide enough citation to be usefully specific but also seems to arouse the spirit of Lethe, where the writer, their copy-editor and their publisher all forget to check that the full reference is actually included in the bibliography. Yet both styles seem to be gaining ground on the now old-fashioned footnote (it would be interesting to know what proportion of monographs use each system and how that changes over the years: does anyone have those figures to hand?).

Perhaps, though, we should remember that the footnote itself has not always been viewed with a kindly eye. Hilaire Belloc, in an essay curiously not mentioned in Tony Grafton’s The Footnote: a curious history, roundly rounded on the practice of freighting a page of text with the ballast of small-typed notes. A form of lying, he claimed, with Edward Gibbon accused of being its originator. His venom too was patently proven innocuous.