How can people without official political power push the authorities to act? Historically, one of the most common tactics was to present a petition or supplication. In early modern Europe, petitioning was ubiquitous. It was often the only acceptable way to address local and national authorities when seeking redress, mercy or advancement. As a result, petitioning was a crucial mode of communication between the ‘rulers’ and the ‘ruled’.
The Humble Petition of Jock of Bread (1648)
People at all levels of society – from noblemen and officeholders to paupers and prisoners to servants and slaves – used this tool in their efforts to have their voices heard. Some of them were mere begging letters scrawled on scraps of paper addressed to local benefactors while others were carefully crafted radical demands signed by thousands and sent to the highest powers in the land. Whatever form they took, they provide a potentially unparalleled source of evidence for illuminating how people responded to the challenges they faced in an era of rapid social, political and economic change. Widespread grievances about religion, governance, trade, taxes, charity and many other aspects of early modern life have been preserved in these documents.
On 18 March 2016, historians and literary scholars gathered at Birkbeck to talk about the history of ‘addressing authority’. This was, we conjectured, one of the most vital ways in which the supposedly ‘powerless’ were able to speak to ‘the powerful’. Indeed, as we discussed at the workshop, studying petitioning can complicate and challenge the idea of a dichotomous relationship between ‘rulers’ and ‘ruled’ in early modern society. However, although the event was a wonderful experience, we wanted to widen the conversation further by presenting our thoughts in an open forum and inviting responses from anyone with an interest in the topic.
We have therefore decided to host an online symposium here on the Many-Headed Monster, following the success of previous events on ‘History from Below’ and ‘The Voices of the People’. We will be posting short pieces from the workshop’s participants over the coming weeks. They include broad panoramic appraisals and close analyses of specific cases. Some posts focus on the tools, methods and theories that can be used to understand petitioning while others show what particular supplications can tell us about key moments in early modern history. Although most focus on British cases, there are also posts on petitioning in Nuremberg, Venice, the Netherlands and Europe as a whole. We hope that together they demonstrate the centrality of petitions in early modern societies, and remind us of their continuing power in both democratic and authoritarian states today.
A new post will be published every few days over the coming weeks. We begin with bird’s eye views of the broad landscape of petitioning across Europe (Würgler), England (Waddell) and London (Howard). Then we will zoom in on two very different types of petitions from women in England, specifically their mass petitioning about captured sailors in the 1620s-30s (Hudson) and their individual petitions about seized estates during the Civil Wars and Interregnum (Worthen). Next come three pieces on how petition-writers sought to use carefully crafted supplicatory techniques to encourage charitable alms-giving in English parishes (Tomlin), influence the secretive Venetian authorities (Antonini) or persuade the Dutch ‘public’ (Van Den Tol). Finally, the symposium focuses on the worrisome ways that petitioning might fail to spark ‘democratic’ politics in Scotland (Stewart) and might turn into a policy of surveillance in Nuremberg (Murphy).
The aim of this online symposium is not to present these pieces as a finished ‘publications’ for posterity. Rather we hope that they will serve as spurs to discussion. You are thus warmly invited to reply to these posts with your questions, comments, suggestions and critiques, or join the conversation on twitter via #AddressingAuthority.
- Andreas Würgler (Geneva), ‘Shaping the “I” and the State? Petitions in Early Modern Europe’
- Brodie Waddell (Birkbeck), ‘Was early modern England a petitioning society?’
- Sharon Howard (Sheffield), ‘The London Lives Petitions Project: What can you do with 10,000 18th-century petitions?’
- Judith Hudson (Birkbeck), ‘‘2000 wives’: Women petitioning on Barbary captivity, 1626-1638’
- Hannah Worthen (Leicester and The National Archives), ‘Addressing authority during the English Civil Wars: the petitions of ‘delinquent’ widows’’
- Rebecca Tomlin (Cambridge), ‘’Exhorting and Persauding’: Petitions, rhetorical strategies and the burning of Tiverton’
- Fabio Antonini (Birkbeck), ‘‘Prostrate before your most merciful feet’: A Venetian secretary’s plea for clemency, 1614’
- Joris van den Tol (Leiden), ‘Petitions and the duality of structure: Lobbying the seventeenth-century Dutch Atlantic’
- Laura Stewart (York), ‘‘Thair is na offence to supplicat’: presbyterians and petitioning in early Stuart Scotland’
- Hannah Murphy (Oxford), ‘Supplications and Civic Rule in Sixteenth-Century Nuremberg’
- Giacomo Giudici (Birkbeck), ‘Petitions, Information and Governance in 15th and Early 16th-Century Sforza Milan’
- Brodie Waddell, ‘Concluding thoughts’
Also, shortly after the launch of the symposium, two more pieces focusing on petitions appeared on other sites. In the first, Martin Almbjär examines ‘Petitioning parishes in Sweden in the Age of Liberty, 1719-1772’. In the second, Rachel Weil investigates ‘When Prisoners Complain’ by looking at the petitions of London prisoners in the early eighteenth century.
If referencing pieces published here, we suggest the following citation: Author, ‘Title’, in Brodie Waddell (ed.), Addressing Authority: An Online Symposium on Petitions and Supplications in Early Modern Society (2016).
We are grateful to the Royal Historical Society, the Birkbeck Institute for Humanities, the Department of History, Classics and Archaeology at Birkbeck, and Professor Julian Swann as Birkbeck’s Pro-Vice Master for Research, for providing the funding and venue for the workshop in March where these pieces were first discussed.