If you are a student or have ever been a student, you almost certainly have used footnotes in your writing or at least have come across them while reading. This is especially true if you’ve ever studied history, since historians are known for their love of the humble footnote.

Footnotes are very convenient: They allow you as a writer to include additional information without interfering with the flow of ideas in the body of your text, and they allow your reader to glance down at these additional references without having to flip to the back of the book.

But have you ever stopped to consider where the idea of footnotes originated? When did footnotes start being used, and how did they come to be so prevalent today? And, more practically, how can using footnotes help us to improve our writing?

Citation in the Middle Ages

In medieval Europe, most notes were not written by a text’s actual author. Instead, they were written by readers who wanted to respond to points that the author had made. A note might clarify a confusing concept, define an unusual word, or express either agreement or disagreement with a given idea presented in the text. Early on, the majority of notes were simply written into the manuscript, either interlinearly (i.e. between the lines of the text) or marginally (i.e. in the blank spaces of the manuscript surrounding the text).

The problem with writing notes this way is that it created a big mess. If there were more than a few notes on a page, it was difficult for the reader to figure out which notes referred to a given portion of the text. To make things clearer, note-writers began to use symbols to connect words or passages and the notes referring to them. A note-taker would put these symbols next to words or passages which they wanted to write a note about, and then put a matching symbol next to the note.

Unlike today’s footnotes, which are almost always numbers, the majority of these early symbols were made up of dots and lines. Occasionally, letters would also be used. Why didn’t medieval note-takers use numbers? Remember that people in the Middle Ages would still have been using Roman numerals – a symbol or single letter was much simpler. Even once Arabic numerals came into more common use towards the end of the Middle Ages, they were too new and unfamiliar to be used as common symbols for note-taking.

Emergence of the modern footnote

When and where did the first ‘modern’ footnote emerge?  Journalist Chuck Zarby, author of The Devil’s Details: A History of the Footnote, credits Richard Jugge as one possible inventor.1 Jugge was Queen’s Printer in late-16th-century Elizabethan England, a “crude place” and a “crowded, crime- and disease-ridden city”—in other words, somewhere that desperately needed the orderliness of the footnote.2

Jugge had the job of printing a new Anglican Bible to replace the more radical Calvinist version known as the Genevan Bible. Jugge’s main intervention in the history of the footnote was to begin to move notes from the margins into a designated space at the bottom of the page. This decision brought greater organization and clarity to the page layout.

But when did academic historians’ love affair with the footnote begin? To answer this question, historian Anthony Grafton takes us on a journey through the 16th to 19th centuries in his book The Footnote: A Curious History. He shows us in meticulous detail how scholars gradually developed their methods of constructing historical narratives; he traces the growing emphasis on reliable evidence to back up every assertion, the need to cite this evidence clearly, and the use of footnotes to do so.5 Grafton shares the contributions of a number of famous historians such as Edward Gibbon, whose witty and irreverent footnotes served “to amuse his friends or enrage his enemies.”2

Along the way, the discipline of history “was transformed from an eloquent narrative into a critical discipline.”3 As Grafton writes in an earlier article, footnotes “made it possible to combine a high literary narrative with erudite investigations. The footnote in its modern form seems to have been devised in the seventeenth century, as part of an effort to counter skepticism about the possibility of attaining knowledge about the past.”4

What is the purpose of a footnote?

As is clear from this brief and necessarily selective history, footnotes comes in handy for numerous purposes, from demonstrating your expertise to making snide remarks about other authors (less advisable). You can use footnotes to…

  • Cite primary source evidence to support your argument
  • Give credit to the originator of a particular idea
  • Bolster your own credibility by citing a credible source
  • Show your reader how you’ve constructed your argument
  • Point readers to useful further reading and resources
  • Demonstrate awareness of a particular idea or body of research
  • Comment further on the cited source without distracting from the main narrative of your paper
  • Provide additional examples to prove your point

For an innovation so simple, the footnote accomplishes a lot! If you’re new to using footnotes in your work, I recommend reading a recent scholarly article or two in your field and paying particular attention to the footnotes. What kind of information does the author cite? How extensive are the footnotes? Are discursive footnotes used, or does the author stick to providing only simple citation information? You’ll soon get a sense of the conventions in your field or sub-field.  

Additionally, footnotes help you avoid plagiarism by making it clear to your readers exactly where you found all your information. As footnotes have developed over the centuries, they’ve provided countless historians with a streamlined, convenient way to lay bare all the research behind their conclusions and allow readers to scrutinize the same primary sources for themselves. This kind of transparency gives credit where it is due while strengthening your own arguments.

Sources for reference:

1 Chuck Zerby, The Devil’s Details: A History of Footnotes (New York: Touchstone, 2002), 18-44.
2 Zerby, Devil’s Details, 18.
3 Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997), 1.
4 Grafton, Footnote, 24.
5 Anthony Grafton, “The Footnote from De Thou to Ranke,” History and Theory 33 (1994): 53.