Origin of “Footnotes”

Did you ever wonder why the thing we write at the bottom of a page is called a footnote? It is not as obvious as you may think.

In the middle ages, paper was not widely available, as WH Smiths was waiting for the letter ‘W’ to be fully invented. In the meantime people would write on all sorts of things; wood, stone, other people, sheep etc.

Vellum was the commonly used material, a form of animal skin, usually prepared after the death of the animal. Unfortunately, the best vellum was very expensive so most scribes had to use a cheaper form, which was considerably stiffer and prone to cracking. It was made from animals left out in the sun too long or those who had died without adequate insurance. As a result, this would not roll up very easily, and had to be written on while fully open.

Unfortunately, in the middle ages, every surface was, by law, covered in animal manure, except for in the monasteries and homes of rich people. As a result, the poorer people did not want to put their vellum on a surface to write, as it would become dirty. They therefore had to write standing up, holding the vellum up in front of them. One consequence was that taller people were able to write longer documents and couldn’t avoid becoming educated. They then became monks, but had to shave their heads since, as a result of being taller, they would keep catching their hair on the wall torches and burn to death.

Writing on the top part of the vellum was easy, but it got more difficult as they worked down the “page”, until they couldn’t hold the vellum up and reach the lower part at the same time. To deal with this, many people learned to hold the quill between their toes to write on the lower part of the vellum, leaving both hands free to hold the vellum steady.

From that we get the term “footnote” to indicate something at the bottom of the page written using the foot.

Interesting, if not entirely true. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *