Addressing Authority: some concluding thoughts

Brodie Waddell

petition-to-the-petitioners-1679-80Petitions and supplications have been flying thick and fast over the past month. Contributors to the Addressing Authority Online Symposium have spotted them asking for permission to print a broadsheet about conjoined twins in sixteenth-century Nuremberg, decrying Charles I’s religious policy in seventeenth-century Scotland, and seeking a tax exception in eighteenth-century London. On twitter, they could be found claiming that mariners had been forced into cannibalism and that their complaints were justified by the example of Queen Esther. One was even seen petitioning ‘to the Petitioners’ during the Popish Plot scare of 1680.

It would be silly to try to sum up all the brilliant contributions by both the authors and commenters over the course of the symposium. However, I will take the opportunity to try to briefly highlight three issues that came up in the papers and discussion that I hadn’t properly considered before. Continue reading

Petitions, Information and Governance in 15th and Early 16th-Century Sforza Milan

This post in our Addressing Authority Online Symposium comes from Giacomo Giudici, who recently completed his PhD at Birkbeck, University of London, as part of the ERC funded project ‘ARCHIves – a History of Archives in Late Medieval and Early Modern Italy‘. Here he shows how petitions could be an engine for pre-modern governance, providing a precious source of information to the Milanese authorities.

The Sforza are the dynasty that ruled Milan and its duchy continuously from 1450 to 1499, and then, only intermittently, between 1500 and 1535.[1] Like all the rulers of the time, they relied on petitions to administer their dominion. In the Sforzesco archive, located in Milan, hundreds and hundreds of original petitions are to be found mingled with other documents in two huge collections, called Comuni (literally “Towns”) and Famiglie (“Families”), created from scratch by nineteenth-century archivists. Previous scholars have, therefore, focused their attention on these collections.[2]

Milan, c.1470

Milan, c.1470

However, historians have ignored another source displaying petitions: the Registri delle missive, chancery copybooks in which the outgoing Sforza correspondence with subjects (peripheral officers, subject communities, individual subjects) was registered. The reason of this lacuna is simple. In the copybooks, the petitions are hidden in plain sight. Ducal letters originating from the receipt of a petition mention it briefly at some point, usually at the beginning – for example: “We have received a petition from the agents of the men of our land of Pizzighettone (…) we order you to (…)”.[3] It is easy to miss the tiny note, or to think that little can be done with it. Are we sure this is true, though?

Original petitions – or those reproduced in registers in their entirety – are, of course, mines of historical evidence. They lend themselves to the most diverse research perspectives: political history, social history, the history of justice, but also linguistics and, more generally, anthropology. Yet, in the case of our copybooks, we get the chance to observe petitions in a bigger picture. We can grasp how, and how heavily, petitions featured in the communication flows between the centre and the peripheries of the duchy of Milan – the character and function of such communication flows being veritable “shapers” of polities and politics, just like new social media set the tone and contents of today’s political debate.[4] In other words, even though in the Registri delle missive we lose the strict contents and wording of the petitions sent to the Sforza, we crucially gain a systemic perspective on their use. Continue reading

Supplications and Civic Rule in Sixteenth-Century Nuremberg

Our next post for the Addressing Authority Online Symposium comes from Hannah Murphy, a Junior Research Fellow at Oriel College, Oxford. Here she shows how early modern rulers could turn supplications into tools of governance by using the expectation of petitioning to monitor the activities of their subjects.

On 26 July 1550, the printer and painter Steffan Hamer was thrown in Nuremberg’s dreaded city jail, “because he had printed wonder-books without permission and against his oath.”[i] Although he was only incarcerated for two days (he was released on the 28th and had his tools returned to him), Hamer’s career never recovered. In September he was refused permission to print a broadsheet of conjoined twins, and had to watch the lucrative sale go to a competitor. [ii]  A year later, on 28 August, 1551, he was refused permission to print a figure of dancing children.[iii] On 25 September, 1551, he was allowed to print a portrait of the siege of Magdeburg, as long he refrained from adding his name.[iv] On 26 March 1552, he was refused permission to publish the ‘three suns and rainbow’ which had appeared over Antdorf.[v] Nuremberg’s council granted permission for something to be printed on average twice a week; but Hamer never again received permission. He disappeared from the city minutes and from Germany’s printing history without a trace.

Steffan Hamer had broken no written law in the way that we might understand it today. Rather, his silent transgression and punishment was indicative of a quiet development in Nuremberg’s city politics, one present only in the accumulated volumes of the council’s meetings, and the format in which they were recorded: the growth of supplications as a hidden tool in the management of people. His punishment was the result of his failure to seek permission from Nuremberg’s council, and his continued fall from grace demonstrates the city’s reliance on petitions as a mechanism of information-gathering and control.

If petitions, in the way that they are often understood, were directed upwards, my work looks at the way in which they could also ‘reach down’. I work on early modern Nuremberg, where the practical act of petitioning in person was a ubiquitous part of civic government. What I have found, by looking at the archives of the city council, is that most city decisions were made in response to a petition.  The city relied on citizens bringing requests to them, not just in order to enforce rules, but also as a means of information-gathering, literally to find out what rules needed enforcing in the first place.

Printed petitions and formal supplications are often linked to the origins of democracy, and other entries in this symposium show how writing petitions could empower subjects in many different ways. But in the face-to-face system of government that characterized early modern German cities, petitions were also a kind of governance. They permit us an insight into the kind of political practices that rulers engaged in when they governed, practices which I think often had to do with information and control and which weren’t necessarily articulated in political treatises, or even in written codes of law.

Nuremberg. Michael Wohlgemut & Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, View of Nuremberg, in Hartmann Schedel, Weltchronik. (Nuremberg Chronicle), Nuremberg. Anton Koberger, 1493 (Wikipedia Commons)

Nuremberg. Michael Wohlgemut & Wilhelm Pleydenwurff, View of Nuremberg, in Hartmann Schedel, Weltchronik. (Nuremberg Chronicle), Nuremberg. Anton Koberger, 1493 (Wikipedia Commons)

Early modern Nuremberg was one of the richest and most important cities in Europe. Jean Bodin called it ‘the best ordered’ of all Germany’s cities. Nuremberg was a ‘free city’, a self-governing city-state within the Holy Roman Empire. That meant that the thirty-two members of its most powerful governing body, its ‘Inner Council’, were responsible for a population of around 25,000. Every day, these men made their way to the town hall, where they met and made decisions. How they came to those decisions, however, is difficult to find out. The practice of politics was shrouded in secrecy. As William Smith, an Englishman who had lived for many years in Nuremberg lamented: ‘For that the noble and worthy senators of this cittie, are very jealouse, and will not suffer any description either of their cittie or countries.”[vi]

Continue reading

‘Thair is na offence to supplicat’: Presbyterian petitioning in early modern Scotland

Our next post for the Addressing Authority Online Symposium has been written by Laura Stewart of the University of York. She brings to our attention the important role of petitions in the mobilisation of opinion against King Charles I’s religious policies in Scotland, but also point to the problems of identifying the extent of popular participation and suggests that petitioning did not inevitably lead to a more open or ‘democratic’ mode of politics.

Scholars of early modern England have made a strong case for the significance of petitioning as one of the means by which new political associations and practices came into being. Petitions had long been seen as a legitimate political tool but, according to David Zaret, it was the combination of this practice with the move into print that mattered. Printed petitions were nothing less than the harbinger of ‘public opinion’ and, hence, modern democratic politics.

Although Zaret’s work has generated fruitful debate, his thesis has been heavily critiqued by historians. The likes of Jason Peacey, amongst others, have sited petitioning amongst a far wider range of other practices and media, not all of which aimed ‘to publicize a case in the public sphere’. For Peacey, petitions were part of a process in which a wider cross-section of society was able not only to engage more fully and deeply with parliamentary politics, but also to appropriate such practices for its own uses. The key issue here is less whether such activity furthered the emergence of a ‘public sphere’ – some of it clearly did not – than the ways in which print technology facilitated widening participation in politics.[1]

Peacey’s shift of emphasis is useful to historians of those parts of Europe in which precious few signs of the emergence of Zaret’s ‘democratic culture’ can be found prior to the eighteenth century. Scotland is one of those places. In an important book on the debates surrounding the Union of 1707, Karin Bowie argued that it was only in the closing moments of the seventeenth century that the conditions for the emergence of ‘public opinion’ finally obtained in Scotland. Petitioning generated debate throughout society and ‘set new precedents for the engagement of public opinion’.[2] This may well have been the case, but it raises questions about earlier periods.

There may not have been either ‘public opinion’ or a ‘public sphere’ before 1699, but – following Peacey – I would like to suggest that petitions offer other ways of thinking about subtle, yet important, developments in the nature of political participation during the era of the Scottish Revolution. Continue reading

Petitions and the Duality of Structure: Lobbying in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Atlantic

Our next post in the Addressing Authority Online Symposium comes from Joris van den Tol of Leiden University. Here he shows how networks of individuals involved in the Dutch Atlantic trade used petitions to lobby metropolitan institutions and perhaps contributed to the formation of a ‘public sphere’.

‘We all know that a monopoly is the most odious thing in the world and the most harmful practice of all’, wrote the directors of the Amsterdam chamber of the Dutch West India Company (WIC) in January 1637.[1] This is an interesting standpoint for a group at that moment enjoying the exclusive trading rights to and from the Company’s colonies in the Atlantic. So, why did the Amsterdam chamber decide to advocate giving up the WIC monopoly in the Atlantic? Who or what influenced their decision? How did individuals lobby both the Company and the highest political levels for their own interest in regard to free trade, religious freedom, authority, military assistance, or other issues? Moreover, why did these interest groups decide to lobby – as opposed to fighting the Company in court for example?

The history of the Dutch in the Atlantic in the seventeenth century used to be a story of a Company chartered in 1621 that was institutionally weaker than its competitors or its East Indian counterpart (VOC) and thus deservedly fell behind, lost large parts of its colonial possessions, and went bankrupt in 1674.[2] However, more recent work has shown that the Dutch Atlantic was built on loosely organized personal networks rather than centralized metropolitan institutions.[3] These networks were self-organized, often pluri-religious, multi-ethnic, and cross-cultural, but more importantly had intersecting interests.[4] Moreover, they cooperated pro-actively to try to influence the structures, institutions, and policy that shaped their world.

There was a duality of structure between the individuals and the structure; the structures at the same time enabled and limited the actions of the agents, as well as being comprised of the actions from the agents. This process of structuration is what I call lobbying, and indicates a hermeneutic relationship between the agents and the institutions.[5] Lobbying removes the impetus for historical actions in the Dutch Atlantic from the Company or the ‘state’ and puts it in the hands of individuals and organized interests.

Lobbying by petition

Lobbying happened in two ways: direct, with the aim of convincing the political mandataries[6]; and outside, with the aim of pressuring the political mandataries through public opinion.[7] Direct lobbying can be studied through petitions, correspondence, presentations, journals and social capital.[8] Outside lobbying is studied through petition drives and pamphlets.[9] Petitions have been largely neglected in Dutch historiography – both in relation to the Atlantic and as a means of studying lobbying.[10] A study of the mechanisms of lobbying treats all of the different sources not just as repositories of historical facts, but analyses the function that these objects had for the individuals that created them. Continue reading

‘Prostrate before your most merciful feet’: A Venetian secretary’s plea for clemency, 1614

This post in our Addressing Authority Online Symposium comes from Fabio Antonini, who recently completed his PhD at Birkbeck, University of London, as part of the ERC funded project ‘ARCHIves – a History of Archives in Late Medieval and Early Modern Italy. He examines a single illuminating document from seventeenth-century Italy to show how a skilled writer could craft a powerful petition, and what this can tell us about the secretive men who controlled the flow of information in the Venetian Republic.

There were few figures more important to the legislative and diplomatic activity of the early modern Republic of Venice than the secretaries of the city’s chancery. Operating within a vast and complex bureaucratic hierarchy, these were the scribes, archival assistants and international correspondents who drove the Republic’s substantial information networks, both within the city and across the continent. From an individual perspective, however, written traces of their careers and professional activity are often hard to come by amongst the Venetian state papers; the deliberately faceless and anonymous representation of the Republic’s various councils meant that the voice of the individual secretary is far more muted than in other prominent examples across early modern Europe.[1]

One of the rare occasions in which the secretaries of the Republic were allowed a personal voice, however, was in the petitions and supplications addressed to their paymasters – the highly secretive executive body known as the Council of Ten – which now reside in the Venetian State Archives. Many of these petitions, in which the secretaries give a detailed narrative of their careers and activities in order to demonstrate their years of service to the state, were often submitted in the hope of salary increases, promotions within the ranks of the chancery, or even favourable treatment for their children as they too embarked upon the secretarial career path.

Vendramin's petition in the Venetian State Archives, 1614

Vendramin’s petition in the Venetian State Archives, 1614

In some cases, however, the stakes were significantly higher. Whilst looking through these semi-autobiographical records as part of my research into the history of the Venetian chancery,[2] I came across a particularly poignant and revealing example of the importance of petition writing for the livelihoods of Venice’s early modern secretaries. This particular petition was submitted by a former secretary of the Senate – the third highest ranking within the hierarchy of the chancery – Giacomo Vendramin, who in 1612 had been accused of revealing state secrets whilst serving the Venetian ambassador in Florence. Vendramin was ordered back to Venice to face trial, and was subsequently sentenced to two years imprisonment.[3]

In some respects, Vendramin had got off lightly. The revelation of state secrets – whether through design or negligence – had long been an extremely serious offence for those entrusted with compiling and registering government records. In one famous case in 1542, for example, an unfortunate secretary was publically strung up between the columns of Saint Mark’s Square after having been caught in the act of selling secret papers to an Ottoman spy.[4]

Continue reading

‘Exhorting and Persuading’: Petitions, rhetorical strategies and the burning of Tiverton

The next post in our Addressing Authority Online Symposium comes from Rebecca Tomlin, postdoctoral researcher at CRASSH, University of Cambridge. Here she examines responses to fires which burnt down much of the town of Tiverton in 1598 and 1612, showing how pamphlet descriptions contrasted with the petitions for aid that were recorded in official documents.

In 1598, when he reported on the recent disastrous fire in Devon, the writer of the pamphlet The True lamentable discourse of the burning of Teuerton told a story of terrible panic and distress that the fire had caused among the town’s inhabitants.[1] The fire, which started when two elderly women tried to use straw to cook themselves pancakes because they had no wood, spread rapidly through the prosperous market town, killing some one hundred people, destroying four hundred houses and property valued at £300,000 and £400,000. [2] The town was left without resources to shelter and feed its displaced inhabitants, who were also suffering what we would now describe as shock, and were left wandering on the outskirts of the town ‘more like Spirits and Ghostes then liuing creatures'(B2r). The writer emphasises the sensory qualities of the fire, particularly the noises and sights of the burning town and its aftermath to evoke horror in the reader, or listener; this is surely a pamphlet intended to be read aloud in terrible tones to a pitying audience. The disaster is blamed on Tiverton’s own ‘unmercifulnesse, & small regard of the poore, which were dayly seene to dye and perish in their streetes for lacke of reliefe’ (B2r) while the escape from the fire of twenty poor men’s cottages and the town’s alms houses is taken as proof of God’s providential intervention and intent.

tomlin-wofull-newsUnfortunately for Tiverton, it was revisited by fire in 1612. Another pamphlet was printed, which also incorporated a dramatic woodcut illustration of the attempts to fight the fire and a retelling of the story of the 1598 burning. The day of the 1612 fire, August 5th, was a holiday ordered by King James to celebrate his preservation from the Gowrie conspiracy. In Tiverton, an un-named dyer did not observe the holiday and put his boy in charge of the furnace so that they could continue to work. But the boy, eager to finish early so that he could join in with the holiday, stoked the fire too high and quickly lost control. This time the fire burned 300 houses, and some £50,000 worth of goods and animals were destroyed. Only the free school, the alms houses and some poor cottages were spared.

Wofull newes from the west parts England, Being the lamentable burning of the towne of Teuerton (1612) borrows much of its descriptive text from the 1598 account.[3] Further sensational descriptions are added, including some in terms which link the fire to the Gowrie conspirators; it is ‘a flame of confusion, a flame of subuersion, a spoyling flame (A4r). The fire is personified with intent: ‘a commanding Tyrant’ (A4v) which has ‘commanding power’ and ‘made conquest’ (B3v). As in 1598, the fire was interpreted as sign of God’s displeasure, in this case at the breaking of the Sabbath, and as a warning to other communities. In 1617 Thomas Beard included the story of the town in Devon that had twice suffered God’s displeasure in his The thunderbolt of Gods Wrath, adding that it was punished for rejecting a godly preacher and profaning the Sabbath.[4] The story of Tiverton and its two fires became an exemplary moral tale throughout the seventeenth century, used for example by a preacher taking his examples from Beard, and for a broadsheet compilation of the the ‘theatre of God’s judgement’ stories.[5]

What does all of this have to do with petitioning? Well, taking the two fires together we have a rare case where we can directly compare pamphlets and petitions which represent different ways of writing about the same disaster. The differences between the modes of writing in these different forms draw attention to the social and economic concerns of the petitions for large charitable collections made in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Continue reading

Addressing authority during the English Civil Wars: the petitions of ‘delinquent’ widows

The next piece in our Addressing Authority Online Symposium has been authored by Hannah Worthen, completing her doctorate at University of Leicester and The National Archives. She argues here that war widows’ petitions cleverly used established stereotypes about humility and poverty to press their cases, while also sometimes boldly asserting their political autonomy from their late ‘delinquent’ husbands.

In July 1645, a few months before Charles I surrendered to the Scots at Newark and brought the first Civil War to a close, Elizabeth Warner sent a petition to the Parliamentary Committee for Compounding with Delinquents. This committee had been set up to manage the confiscated estates of Royalists and to allow them to regain their estates for a fine. Elizabeth’s offence was that she had been discovered to have been sending letters to the wife of Colonel Thomas Blagge who was then governor at Wallingford House: a garrison being held for the King.

SP 35

Elizabeth asserted in her petitions that the letters were sent to ‘her antient & intimate friend’ and that ‘there past no thing but Civill Complem[en]ts’ in them. Despite this, she was suspected for a Royalist and her estate was seized by the sequestrators. In the final part of her petition she wrote she ‘submissively begs’ that ‘she may be freed of this Brand’.[1] Elizabeth was just one of many widows who were ‘branded’ with delinquency because of their own actions or the actions of their husbands. They used the petition in order to lobby Parliament for the return of their lands. Continue reading

‘2000 Wives’: Women Petitioning on Barbary Captivity, 1626-1638

Our next post in the Addressing Authority Online Symposium has been written by Judith Hudson, an Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London. She looks here at how women used collective petitioning to push the English government into action in the early seventeenth-century.

In March 1626, the Duke of Buckingham, Admiral of the Fleet, was presented with the ‘humble petition of the distressed wives of almost 2,000 poor Mariners now remaining most miserable captives in Sally in Barbary’.[1]  The wives, with their ‘multitude of poor Infants’, requested that Buckingham intercede with the King for their husbands.  Throughout the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, English sailors in the Mediterranean, together with residents of coastal villages, were captured by North African and Ottoman Turk corsairs and sold as slaves in the markets of Algiers, Sallee, and other so-called ‘Barbary’ ports.  The experience of captivity became a collective one at this time, shared with the nation via testimony, sermons, and drama.  Numerous petitions seeking justice for the captives were laid before the Crown and Parliament by their local officials, their employers and priests.   The 1626 petition, however, was the first time that the wives of the captives would speak out.  For the next twelve years ‘distressed wives’ were to petition on a regular and organised basis.

Redemptionist Friars arriving to ransom captives: Pierre Dan, Histoire de Barbarie et de ses Corsaires (1637)

Redemptionist Friars arriving to ransom captives: Pierre Dan, Histoire de Barbarie et de ses Corsaires (1637)

Women had petitioned before as individuals, however a large group engaged in organised intervention seems to be something new.   In this post, which builds on an initial investigation by Nabil Matar, I’d like to suggest that the 1626 petition represents the start of a progression of collective female petitioning – women as a self-defined political lobby – that has usually been considered to begin in the years immediately preceding the Civil War.[2]  The ‘Civil War’ petitions, which include a diverse range of texts, from pro-Royalist petitions in 1642 to the Leveller petitions for the release of Lilburne and others, are frequently constructed as the corollary of a specific interlude of ‘female potentiality’, occasioned by the Civil War and by the rise of sectarian groups.  This is coded specifically as a new and radical engagement. [3]  However, well over a decade earlier, wives of ‘Turkish’ captives had organised themselves into petitioning groups to considerable effect. Was the Civil War really a unique catalyst, or can we see a similar dynamic in the Barbary texts of the 1620s? Continue reading

The London Lives Petitions Project: What can you do with 10,000 18th-century petitions?

Our next post in the Addressing Authority Online Symposium has been written by Sharon Howard, an early modern historian and a project manager at the Humanities Research Institute, University of Sheffield. Here she shows how use of a digital ‘macroscope’ can both reveal the changing nature of local petitioning in eighteenth-century London and make these documents more easily available to anyone with an interest in this important set of sources.

Last year at the Voices of the People symposium, Brodie Waddell argued the importance of amplifying the voices of the people through digitisation and online access. This, along with another symposium post by Jonathan Healey on petitions, got me thinking about the petitions addressed to magistrates in the voluminous records of eighteenth-century London and Middlesex Sessions of the Peace, which were digitised several years ago by the London Lives project.

Although already digital, these petitions have been difficult to access within the London Lives website because of the sheer size and variety of the Sessions Papers. I didn’t even know how many petitions there might be (other than “a lot”). The result of this musing was a plan to discover and extract every identifiable petition in the Sessions Papers, and make the resulting metadata and text corpus available as open data (more information can be found via the London Lives Petitions project website).

So: what can you do with 10,000 petitions? Here’s just one, a personal favourite, from Ester Cutler to the Middlesex Sessions in 1715:


Worthy gentellmen of the Court your humble petishnor Ester Cutler begs Consederacion being a Weddow Woman & nothing to live apon but what she can gitt out of Selling a few herbs so that she humbly desiers to be taken of that tax of paying to the poor your

humble petishenor

Ester Cutler

Ester and her petition offer much of compelling interest to me: she presents herself as a lone, poor, working woman, but a ratepayer, not (yet) a pauper. She could write, but far from fluently, and her spelling is idiosyncratic to say the least. I know that this petition is unusual: it’s rare for petitioners to write their own petitions and it’s missing much of the usual conventions and formalities. But just how unusual is it? Continue reading