Monday, March 30, 2015


Wilfried Nippel, Fußnoten, Zitate, Plagiate: Wissenschaftsgeschichtliche Streifzüge. Karl-Christ-Preis für Alte Geschichte, Bd 1. Heidelberg: Verlag Antike, 2014. Pp. 80. ISBN 9783938032794. €19.90 (pb).

Reviewed by Geert Lernout, University of Antwerp (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

This is a relatively expensive publication of a lecture that Wilfried Nippel gave when he became the first recipient of the new Karl-Christ Prize for Ancient History in April 2013 from a German-Swiss committee that consisted of Stefan Rebenich, Hartmut Leppin and Andreas Rödder. The booklet opens with a brief essay by Leppin and Rebenich on the importance of the Marburg professor Karl Christ, one of the most important German Althistoriker of the post-war generation and a Laudatio by the third member of the committee. The book closes with a bibliography of the prize winner with as the final item, suitably, a newspaper article on the death of Karl Christ.

The core of the book are the 25 pages of the prize winner's lecture on footnotes, quotations and plagiarism that (apart from nearly hundred footnotes) seems to be the text as pronounced. Nippel mentions that our notions of copyright and intellectual property are very recent and this is even more true for intellectual plagiarism which could only begin to exist at the moment when scholarship had ceased to be "commentary on canonized authorities" (29), with the Newton-Leibniz controversy as the most famous example. As Anthony Grafton has shown, footnotes then become the place where intellectual battles were fought (and lost)1 and Nippel also refers to an earlier book on the subject by the theologian and church historian Adolf Harnack who claimed that his own book was the first to study footnotes. Nippel slyly points out that seven years earlier a study by Michael Bernays on the subject had been published.

We then turn to the world champion of notes, Edward Gibbon who began by using endnotes in the first volumes of his Decline and Fall but who then, after criticism from David Hume, switched to footnotes. Gibbon used his footnotes to create an entirely new genre of history writing in which facts and judgments needed to be documented. Michael Bernays had already pointed out how Gibbon used the footnotes in the highly controversial chapters 15 and 16 of Decline and Fall for his most outspoken criticism of Christianity while simultaneously avoiding to make his own position clear. Nippel explains that on one occasion only did Gibbon reply to an Oxford theologian who had accused him of plagiarizing and misrepresenting his sources, an accusation that cast doubt on his integrity as a historian (and his honor as a gentleman). Gibbon did not mind being called irreligious, but he did mention ironically the "religious accuracy of the historian"(39). Nippel's essay closes somewhat abruptly after a detailed history of a controversy between Karl Marx and the social-democrat Lujo Brentano about a single quotation from a speech by Gladstone.


1.   Anthony Grafton, The Footnote: A Curious History. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997, reviewed BMCR 1998.01.05. With Glenn W. Most, Grafton and Nippel have also edited a German selection of essays by Arnaldo Momigliano.

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