For those of you who still read, actual books, I have found that this essay is not as easily available as it should be. Thought not quite as beautiful as my first edition, ink forcefully stamped into the lightly textured page, it will suffice for what it is, as well as a number of recent incarnations of this type of lying. I find that multiplied words about humility to disguise arrogance are popular. Or quoting blogs that quote blogs, that all go back to some hack just making stuff up. Such is human nature. It is well developed character that must fight back. Belloc has this character, he is blunt, he knows more than you, you will meet him in heaven. Now shut up and listen.
IT is pleasant to consider the various forms of lying, because that study manifests the creative ingenuity of man and at the same time affords the diverting spectacle of the dupe. That kind of lying which, of the lesser sorts, has amused me most is the use of the foot-note in modern history.
It began with no intention of lying at all. The first modest foot-note was an occasional reinforcement of argument in the text. The writer could not break his narrative ; he had said something unusual ; he wanted his reader to accept it ; and so he said, in little, ” If you doubt this, look up my authority so and so.” That was the age of innocence. Then came the serpent, or rather a whole brood of them.
The first big man I can find introducing the first considerable serpent is Gibbon. He still uses the foot-note legitimately as the occasional reinforcement of a highly challengeable statement, but he also brings in new features.
I do not know if he is original in this. I should doubt it, for he had not an original mind, but was essentially a copier of the contemporary French writers and a pupil of Voltaire’s. But, anyhow, Gibbon’s is the first considerable work in which I find the beginnings of the earliest vices or corruptions of the foot-note. The first of these is much the gravest, and I must confess no one has used it so well as Gibbon ; he had genius here as in much else. It is the use of the foot-note to take in the plain man, the ordinary reader. Gibbon abounds in this use.
His favorite way of doing this is to make a false statement in the text and then to qualify it in the foot-note in such words that the learned cannot quarrel with him, while the unlearned are thoroughly deceived. He tells you in the text that the thing was so certainly, when he very well knows that it was not, and that if there is a scrap of evidence for it, that evidence is bad. Then he puts in a foot-note, a qualification of what he has just said in the text, so that the critic who really knows the subject has to admit that Gibbon knew it too. As though I should write ” The Russians marched through England in 1914,” and then put a foot-note, ” But see the later criticisms of this story in the accurate and fanatical Jones.” At other times Gibbon bamboozles the ordinary reader by a reference which looks learned and is inane ; so that your plain man says, ” Well, I cannot look up all these old books, but this great man has evidently done so.” A first-rate example of both these tricks combined in Gibbon is the famous falsehood he propagated about poor St. George, of whom. Heaven be witness, little enough is known without having false stories foisted upon him. You will find it in his twenty-third chapter, where he puts forward the absurd statement that St. George was identical with George of Cappadocia, the corrupt and disgraceful bacon-contractor and the opponent of St. Athanasius.
This particular, classical example of the Evil Foot-Note is worth quoting. Here are the words : ” The infamous George of Cappadocia has been transformed into the renowned St. George of England.”
And here is the foot-note :This transformation is not given as absolutely certain but as extremely probable. See Longucruana, Tom. I, p. 194.
That foot-note at once ” hedges ” — modifies the falsehood in the text and assumes peculiar and recondite learning. That long title ” Longueruana ” sounds like the devil and all! You will be surprised to hear that the reference is to a rubbishy book of guess-work, with no pretence to historical value, run together by a Frenchman of the eighteenth century ; from this Frenchman did Gibbon take the absurdity of St. George originating with George of Cappadocia. I was at the pains of looking this up — perhaps the first, and certainly the last, of my generation to do so.
Another vice of the foot-note (equally illustrated in that lie of Gibbon’s about St. George) is what I may call its use as the ” foot-note of exception.” It is universal to-day. You say something which is false and then you quote in a foot-note one or more authorities supporting it. Anyone can do it : and if the reader is reasonably ignorant of the subject the trick always succeeds. Thus, one might say that the earth was flat and put in a foot-note two or three references to the flat-earth pamphlets of which I have a little collection at home. I am told that a wealthy lady, the widow of a brewer, supported the Flat-Earth society which published these tracts and that upon her death it collapsed. It may be so.
The next step of the foot-note in iniquity was when it became a mask. Who started this I know not, but I should imagine that the great German school which remodelled history in the nineteenth century was to blame. At any rate their successors the French are now infinitely worse. I have seen a book purporting to be a history in which of every page not more than a quarter was text, and the rest a dreary regiment of references. There is no doubt at all about the motives, mixed though they are. There is the desire of the fool to say, ” Though I can’t digest the evidence, yet I know it. Here it is.” There is the desire of the timid man to throw up fortification. There is the desire of the pedant to show other pedants as well as the general reader (who, by the way, has almost given up reading such things, they have become so dull) that he also has been in Arcadia.
I notice that when anything is published without such foot-notes, the professional critic — himself a foot-noter of the deepest dye — accuses the author of romancing. If you put in details of the weather, of dress and all the rest of it, minutely gathered from any amount of reading, but refuse to spoil a vivid narrative with the snobbery and charlatanism of these perpetual references, the opponent takes it for granted that you have not kept your notes and cannot answer him ; and indeed, as a rule, you have not kept your notes and you cannot answer him.
For the most part, these enormous, foolish, ill-motived accretions are honest enough in their actual references, for the greater part of our modern historians who use them are so incapable of judgment and so lacking in style, so averse from what Rossetti called ” fundamental brainwork,” that they have not the power to do more than shovel all their notes on you in a lump and call it history. But now and then this temptation to humbug produces its natural result, and the references are false.
The late Mr. Andrew Lang used to say that the writer who writes under the pseudonym of ” Anatole France ” must have had his foot-notes for his Life of Joan of Arc done by contract. The idea opens up a wide horizon. A man of name would sit down to write a general history of something of which he had a smattering, and would then turn it over to a poor man who would hack for him in the British Museum and find references — and they could always be found — for pretty well any statement he had chosen to make.
At any rate, in this particular case of Anatole France’s Joan of Arc Andrew Lang amply proved that the writer had never read his original authorities, though he quoted them in heaps.
And that reminds me of another foot-note vice (the subject is a perfect jungle of vices !), which is the habit of copying other people’s foot-notes, I did it myself when I was young ; I was lured into it by Oxford and I ask pardon of God and man. It is very common, and a little ingenuity will hide one’s tracks. A learned man who was also civilized and ironical — but much too sparing in wine — told me once this amusing story.
He was reading up an economic question, and he found himself perpetually referred to a pamphlet of the late seventeenth century wherein was a certain economic statement upon the point of his research. Book after book referred him to this supposed statement, but he being, as I have said, a learned, civilized, and ironical man (though too sparing in wine) concluded from his general knowledge — and very few learned men have general knowledge — that, in the words of the Old Kent Road murderer, ” There must be some mistake.” He couldn’t believe any seventeenth-century pamphlet had said what this oft-quoted pamphlet vas made responsible for.
He proceeded to look up the pamphlet, the references to which followed him about like a dog through all his research. He found there were two copies — and only two. One was in a certain public library, the other in a rich man’s house. The public library was far off, and the rich man was nearer by — an hour’s journey in the train. So he wrote to the rich man and asked him whether he might look at this pamphlet in the library which his ancestors had accumulated, but to which the rich man had added nothing, being indeed indifferent to reading and writing. The rich man very politely answered that his library had unfortunately been burnt down, and that the pamphlet had been burnt with it. Whereupon the learned man was at the pains of taking a long journey to consult the copy kept in the public library. He discovered two things : (a) that the copy had never been used at all — it was uncut ; (6) that the references always given had hardly any relation to the actual text. Then did he, as is the habit of all really learned people, go and waste a universe of energy in working out the textual criticism of the corruption, and he proved that the last time anyone had, with his own eyes, really seen that particular passage, instead of merely pretending that he had seen it, was in the year 1738 — far too long ago I Ever since then the reference had been first corrupted and then copied and recopied its corrupted form by the University charlatans.
But I myself have had a similar experience (as the silent man said when his host had described at enormous length his adventure with the tiger). I was pursued for years by a monstrous piece of nonsense about some Papal Bull forbidding chemical research : and the foot-note followed that lie. It was from Avignon that the thing was supposed to have come. It seemed to me about as probable as that Napoleon the Third should have forbidden the polka. At last — God knows how unwillingly ! — I looked the original Bull up in the big collection printed at Lyons. It was as I had suspected. The Bull had nothing whatever to do with chemical experiments. It said not a word against the honest man who produces a poison or an explosive mixture to the greater happiness of the race. It left the whole world free to pour one colourless liquid into another colourless liquid and astonish the polytechnic with their fumes. What it did say was that if anybody went about collecting lead and brass under the promise of secretly turning them into silver and gold, that man was a liar and must pay a huge fine, and that those whom he had gulled must have their metal restored to them — which seems sound enough.
Here you will say to me what is said to every reformer : ” What would you put in its place if you killed the little foot-note, all so delicate and compact ? How could you replace it ? How can we know that the historian is telling the truth unless he gives us his references ? It is true that it prevents history from being properly written and makes it, to-day, unreadable. It is true that it has become charlatan and therefore historically almost useless. But you must have some guarantee of original authority. How will you make sure of it ? ”
I should answer, let a man put his foot-notes in very small print indeed at the end of a volume, and, if necessary, let him give specimens rather than a complete list. For instance, let a man who writes history as it should be written — with all the physical details in evidence, the weather, the dress, colours, everything — write on for the pleasure of his reader and not for his critic. But let him take sections here and there, and in an appendix show the critic how it is being done. Let him keep his notes and challenge criticism. I think he will be secure. He will not be secure from the anger of those who cannot write clearly, let alone vividly, and who have never in their lives been able to resurrect the past, but he will be secure from their destructive effect.