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)
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]