Pouring forth multifarious knowledge: Dibdin and the footnote

Thomas Frognall Dibdin (1776-1847) is mainly remembered as the author of The Bibliomania or Book-Madness, which first appeared in 1809. Dibdin, however, was a prolific author and published many books, mostly relating to bibliography, bibliophilia and bibliomania. A characteristic feature of his work is the abundant use of footnotes, which are usually more important than the main text and can even exceed well over twenty pages. Unfortunately, the quantity of his writings sometimes exceeds their quality; the bibliographical data provided by Didbin are often rather inadequate and must be read with great caution. For this reason, Dibdin has a dubious reputation among book historians. Nevertheless, his enthusiastic writings have had a stimulating effect on book collectors and are still enjoyable and even reprinted today. In 2005, for example, a new edition of The Bibliomania, excellently introduced and edited by Peter Danckwerts, was published by Tiger of the Stripe.

Dibdin served as an Anglican priest in Kensington and was, more importantly, employed as librarian by George John, second Earl of Spencer (1758-1834). Dibdin increased the already famous library of the earl with several important purchases and compiled a seven-volume catalog of the collection. His position in the church apparently left him with enough spare time to devote himself to the world of books. In 1818 he even made a six-months European trip, hunting for books for Earl Spencer’s library. A sumptuous account of this tour was published in 1821 as Bibliographical, Antiquarian and Picturesque Tour in France and Germany.

A few years later, Dibdin published one of his lesser known works: The Library Companion; or, the Young Man’s Guide, and the Old Man’s Comfort, in the Choice of a Library. This book collecting manual stands in a tradition of which Gabriel Naudé’s Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque (1627) is, arguably, the most important example. Dibdin discusses books in the fields of theology, philology, history and travel. An interesting feature is the fact that he often mentions prices for which the books can be bought. This sort of information makes it possible, if one has an inclination to arithmetic, to reconstruct the historical appreciation of certain works.

An author discussed by Dibdin at somewhat greater length is Pierre Bayle (1647-1706), the intriguing Rotterdam philosopher who dared to praise Spinoza’s virtuous life in his well known Dictionnaire historique et critique. Albeit all the differences in character between Dibdin and Bayle and the historical abyss separating them, they have one conspicuous thing in common: their obsessive love for footnotes. “The notes are the grand field in which Bayle delighted to pour forth his multifarious knowledge”, as Dibdin rightly remarks.

Just like Dibdin, Bayle gives the most important information in his footnotes and even uses footnotes to his footnotes. Bayle’s excessive habit is beautifully described by Anthony Grafton, the world’s leading footnote historian: “The vast pages of that unlikely best-seller, Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary, offer the reader only a thin and fragile crust of text on which to cross the deep, dark swamp of commentary.” But whereas Dibdin’s use of footnotes is really just a playful gimmick, Bayle employs them as part of a powerful philosophical program, trying to attain more certitude in the historical disciplines. In this way, Bayle’s editor Prosper Marchand (1678-1756), another ardent ‘footnoter’, also employed them in his study L’Histoire de l’origine et des prémiers progrès de l’imprimerie (1740). He even used different symbols to indicate different types of footnotes: roman numbers for bibliographical references and symbols like * and † for quoted sources.

Scholars like Bayle and Marchand gave the study of history a scholarly apparatus, thus establishing historiography as a serious, modern discipline. Dibdin pushes the use of this apparatus playfully ad absurdum. It doesn’t seem too far fetched to assume that he was inspired by Bayle, whom he obviously held in high esteem. Dibdin, however, isn’t mentioned in Grafton’s captivating study The Footnote (1997); it seems just to honor his writings in a future reprint with at least a footnote.

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