Shaping the ‘I’ and the State? Petitions in Early Modern Europe

Our first piece in the Addressing Authority Online Symposium comes from Andreas Würgler professor of Swiss history at the University of Geneva and author of several publications on early modern petitioning. He offers an overview of the role of petitioning across Europe at this time, focusing in particular on how they can reveal both the microhistories of individual lives and the broader history of the emergence of early modern states.

The petition of Margrete Liechtenstein (Staatsarchiv des Kantons Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland, Sig. A 92.1, No. 69)

The petition of Margrete Liechtenstein (Staatsarchiv des Kantons Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland, Sig. A 92.1, No. 69)

On 27 April 1583, Margrete Liechtenstein wrote a supplication to the Zurich city council. In her letter, she petitioned the authorities for a job as a teacher in the city’s school. She claimed that she sought this favour because she was a widow and mother having no income. Since her husband’s death three years earlier, her friends and ‘other good people’ had been supporting her and her three-year-old son. Margrete apologized for her shaky handwriting – which was not very likely to qualify her as a teacher – and explained that ‘fear and anxiety made my hand tremble, so I was not able to produce any single nice character while I was shaking all over as if I had a cold fever’.[1] But as she had ‘trained herself in reading and writing since her youth’, she would like to teach the children and earn her livelihood instead of depending on charity. The council decided to give her some grain, but did not consider her able to be employed as a school teacher.

This supplication is one among thousands shedding light on an individual’s fate and on the social strategies used to cope with hardship: only after relatives, friends and neighbours were not able to help any more did Margrete turn to the city’s authorities – and she got temporary assistance, but no lasting improvement of her situation. Millions of other ordinary people like Margrete addressed petitions to local or central, secular or ecclesiastical authorities. In an attempt to persuade the recipients, they both revealed personal information about their conditions of life and undertook an exercise in deliberate self-fashioning. As petitions and supplications were made in the most varied situations they record their authors’ needs and hopes, interests and experiences, attitudes and activities. Although these sources were written by ordinary people – mostly with a little help from a friend or a professional writer on a modest fee – state, church or other institutions dealt with them carefully – and preserved them in their archives. Some of these institutions even copied out orally presented requests and grievances into their registers.[2]

Petitions provide unmatched advantages for anyone who wants to study ordinary people as historical actors. Petitions, requests, and supplications – or however they were called in changing times and regions – were produced by individuals or groups of every age, status, class, ethnicity, religion or gender. Some are thus potentially ‘ego documents’ of individuals while others are testimonies of particular group identities.[3]

To petition, or in a broader sense to ask for something, is an everyday practice used in public as well as in private contexts. Perhaps it was the sheer banality of petitioning that prevented earlier scholarship from studying these sources systematically. Certainly traditional top-down assumptions about kings and generals as the main (and only) actors of history have been important obstacles to the analysis of the relation between power and petitions. But since the emergence of research from bottom-up approaches which try to gauge ordinary people’s influence – not only on local daily life, but also on fundamental early-modern developments such as state-building or confessionalisation – these texts have been (re)discovered as precious sources.[4]

A late 16th-century satirical image of women supplicants (Christina Hofmann-Randall (éd.), Die Einblattdrucke der Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg,  Erlangen: Universitätsbibliothek,  2003, p. 355)

A late 16th-century satirical image of women supplicants (Christina Hofmann-Randall (éd.), Die Einblattdrucke der Universitätsbibliothek Erlangen-Nürnberg, Erlangen: Universitätsbibliothek, 2003, p. 355)

Looking at the routines of early-modern state activities through registers documenting everyday business, researchers have been surprised to discover the large amount of time that governments reserved for dealing with petitions. Every aspect of life could be the subject of a petition: asking for tax relief, for grace in case of a penalty or a punishment, for assistance in case of poverty or accident. Some petitioned for a job, for a licence to open a shop, to settle down and to practice a profession, others asked local authorities to imprison their own misbehaving teenagers or adult children. Exiled confessional refugees applied for residence or citizenship in their host city or territory.

All these individual cases had the potential to produce an official response and thus shaped state (or church) activities. Some petitions, especially those handed in by ad hoc or organized (professional or minority) groups or even larger parts of a given population, might not only ask for a favour but also suggest a general resolution for a common problem. In short, they could propose new laws. It is very likely that quite an important number of new laws in the German and Italian territorial states or in the kingdoms of France and England were triggered by petitions. Thus, petitioners contributed to the early modern state’s legislation.[5]

By addressing the authorities, ordinary people tried to win particular favours or influence broader policy. By doing so, they also, intentionally or not, ascribed power to these authorities. By asking for a grace or a new law, they presumed that the addressed institution was able to solve the problem.[6] In this way, petitioning became a key part of what has been called ‘empowering interactions’.[7]

By constantly petitioning for relief or new orders (and also by denouncing disorders) to the ruler, subjects triggered the expansion of state action and even creation of new state institutions, as has been shown for such diverse examples as the Holy Roman Empire, the Holy See, the Duchy of Bavaria, the free town of Frankfurt am Main, diverse Italian states and of course the English and French monarchies.[8] So the early modern state was partly the result of government reaction to popular petitions. These institutions arose from constantly repeated actions, among which supplications were especially important.[9]

This does not mean that we can forget about the roles of kings, generals and bureaucrats in history. Indeed, their part in this game was crucial. Mostly it was up to them to decide how to address the problems brought to their knowledge. They could just refuse to offer any answer or resolution – but only to a certain extent, for any ruler’s image would be severely damaged by the suspicion not to take their subject’s concerns seriously. So smart rulers instead choose to answer and decide. They did this according their own interests and strategies. And their decisions on particular requests had often great impact on individual lives. If decisions by powerful institutions took the form of general laws, they affected the society as a whole. Such new laws might just adopt petitioners’ suggestions, but such new ordinances also might not meet the petitioners’ expectations at all.[10]  Further, it must be underlined that although rulers were quite often ready to do favours to individuals,[11] they only very rarely agreed to new laws that were likely to benefit their subjects if that involved handing over significant powers to their inferiors.

But starkly refusing the people’s petitions might be risky too, because frustrated individual petitioners could easily turn into angry collective rebels. In the city of Frankfurt am Main the city council’s refusal to answer a citizen’s supplication with only three points in 1612 provoked such an escalation of the conflict that the council was soon confronted with more than 400 demands by the citizens and corporations. This became a violent revolt against some members of the city council as well as against the Jewish community of Frankfurt, and lead to the occupation of the town by imperial troops from 1614 to 1616.[12]

Petitions were ambivalent. As instruments of everyday political communication, they could be the medium of submission as well as the medium of resistance. But they still offer a unique opportunity for historians to grasp biographical and social, economic and political information about ordinary people which is not otherwise accessible.[13] Petitions may reveal new aspects of the relationship between individuals, groups and institutions. Ultimately they can tell us about the shaping of the ‘I’ of countless individuals as well as the shaping of the early modern state.

[1] Staatsarchiv Zurich: A 92.1, No. 69 (Supplikation from Margrete Liechtenstein, 27. April 1583).

[2] Natalie Zemon Davis, Fiction in the archives: pardon tales and their tellers in sixteenth-century France, Cambridge: Polity Press, 1987; Andreas Würgler, “Voices from among the ‘Silent Masses’. Humble Petitions and Social Conflicts in Early Modern Central Europe”, in: International Review of Social History 46 (2001), Supplement 9, pp. 11-34.

[3] André Holenstein, “Bitten um den Schutz. Staatliche Judenpolitik und Lebensführung von Juden im Lichte von Schutzsupplikationen aus der Markgrafschaft Baden(-Durlach) im 18. Jahrhundert”, in: Rolf Kiessling / Sabine Ullmann (eds.), Landjudentum im deutschen Südwesten während der Frühen Neuzeit, Berlin 1999, pp. 97-153; Würgler, Andreas, “Asymmetrie und Reziprozität. Herrschaft und Protektion in Suppliken der Frühen Neuzeit”, in: Tilman Haug / Nadir Weber / Christian Windler (eds.), Protegierte und Protektoren. Asymmetrische politische Beziehungen zwischen Partnerschaft und Dominanz (16. bis frühes 20. Jahrhundert), Böhlau: Köln, Weimar and Vienna, 2016, pp. 279-294. Cf. Greyerz, Kaspar von, “Ego-Documents: The last Word?”, in German History 28/3 (2010), pp. 273-282.

[4] Peter Blickle (ed.), Gemeinde und Staat im Alten Europa (Historische Zeitschrift, Beihefte Neue Folge, vol. 25), Munich: Oldenbourg, 1997; Heinrich Richard Schmidt, “Sozialdisziplinierung? Ein Plädoyer für das Ende des Etatismus in der Konfessionalisierungsforschung”, in: Historische Zeitschrift 265 (1997), pp. 639-682, 680.

[5] Beat Kümin and Andreas Würgler, “Petitions, gravamina and the early modern state: local influence on central legislation in England and Germany (Hesse)”, in: Parliaments, Estates, and Representation 17 (1997), pp. 39-60; Peter Blickle (ed.), Gemeinde und Staat im Alten Europa (Historische Zeitschrift, Beihefte N.F., vol. 25), Munich: Oldenbourg, 1997.

[6] Cecilia Nubola, “Supplications between Politics and Justice: The Northern and Central Italian States in the Early Modern Age”, in: International Review of Social History 46 (2001), Supplement 9, pp. 35-56; Cecilia Nubola and Andreas Würgler (eds.), Suppliche e “gravamina”. Politica, amministrazione e giustizia in Europa (secoli XIV-XVIII), Bologna: Il Mulino, 2004.

[7] André Holenstein, “Introduction”, in: Willem Pieter Blockmans, André Holenstein and Jon Mathieu (eds.), Empowering interactions: political cultures and the emergence of the state in Europe, 1300–1900, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009, pp.-34.

[8] Helmut Neuhaus, Reichstag und Supplikationsausschuß. Ein Beitrag zur Reichsverfassungsgeschichte der ersten Hälfte des 16. Jahrhunderts, Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 1975; Ludwig Schmugge, Kinder, Karrieren. Päpstliche Dispense von der unehelichen Geburt im Spätmittelalter, Zürich: Artemis & Winkler, 1995; Renate Blickle, “Laufen gen Hof. Die Beschwerden der Untertanen und die Entstehung des Hofrats in Bayern. Ein Beitrag zu den Varianten rechtlicher Verfahren im späten Mittelalter und in der frühen Neuzeit”, in: Historische Zeitschrift, Beihefte N.F. 25 (1997), pp. 241-266; Andreas Würgler, Unruhen und Öffentlichkeit. Städtische und ländliche Protestbewegungen im 18. Jahrhundert, Tübingen: bibliotheca academica Verlag, 1995, pp. 61-70; Nubola, “Supplications between Politics and Justice, pp. 35-56; Yves-Marie Bercé, La dernière chance. Histoire des suppliques, Paris: Perrin, 2014, pp. 11-34.

[9] Gerhard Göhler, “Wie verändern sich Institutionen? Revolutionärer und schleichender Institutionenwandel”, in: Leviathan: Sonderheft 16 (1997), pp. 21-56, 28.

[10] Andreas Würgler, “Desideria und Landesordnungen. Kommunaler und landständischer Einfluss auf die fürstliche Gesetzgebung in Hessen-Kassel 1650-1800”, in: Historische Zeitschrift, Beihefte N.F. 25 (1997), pp. 149-207.

[11] Thomas Robisheaux, Rural society and the search for order in early modern Germany, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989.

[12] Andreas Würgler, “Revolts in Print: Media and Communication in Early Modern Urban Conflicts”, in: Rudolf Schlögl (ed.), Urban Elections and Decision-Making in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009, pp. 257-275. In general: Yves-Marie Bercé, Revolt and Revolution in Early Modern Europe, Manchester: Manchester UP, 1987 [orig. French: Paris 1980, 22013]; David Zaret, Origins of Democratic Culture: Printing, Petitions and the Public Sphere in Early Modern England, Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000.

[13] Cf. Otto Ulbricht, “Supplikationen als Ego-Dokumente. Bittschriften von Leibeigenen aus der ersten Hälfte des 17. Jahrhunderts als Beispiel”, in: Winfried Schulze (ed.), Ego-Dokumente: Annäherung an den Menschen in der Geschichte?, Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1996, pp. 149-174, v.a. 161-166; Claudia Ulbrich, “Zeuginnen und Bittstellerinnen. Überlegungen zur Bedeutung von Ego-Dokumenten für die Erforschung weiblicher Selbstwahrnehmung in der ländlichen Gesellschaft des 18. Jahrhunderts”, in: ibid., pp. 207-226; 42; Andreas Würgler, “Dancing with the Enemy? Introduction”, in: Cecilia Nubola and Andreas Würgler (eds.), Ballare col nemico? Reazioni all’espansione francese in Europa tra entusiasmo e resistenza (1792-1815) / Mit dem Feind tanzen? Reaktionen auf die französische Expansion in Europa zwischen Enthusiasmus und Protest (1792-1815), Bologna: Il Mulino / Berlin: Duncker & Humblot, 2010, pp. 9-22.


8 thoughts on “Shaping the ‘I’ and the State? Petitions in Early Modern Europe

  1. I’m not sure what is distinctive about early-modern petitioning by comparison, say, with Dodd’s work (with Ormrod and Musson) on medieval petitioning and the ‘state’. Is there a critical mass of petitioning hitherto not produced? Is there a conjunction with new forms of institutions of ‘state formation’ (e.g. Star Chambers, new equity jurisdiction)? Is there more response to petitions because of the attenuation of lordship, so that there is more inclination to receive and intervene?

    • Excellent questions, Dave. I don’t have the answers, but I will say that it would be great to get some medievalists, early modernists and modernists all in a room to talk about changes and continuities in petitioning across the centuries. I almost went for that when organising this workshop, but instead decided to try to focus on bringing in a non-British perspective at the cost of a narrower chronology.

  2. Pingback: Addressing Authority: An Online Symposium on Petitions and Supplications in Early Modern Society | the many-headed monster

  3. Thank you, Dave and Brodie, for your interesting questions and comments. When I am writing about early modern supplications and petitions, I do not intend to exclude other periods, I just restrict myself to the symposium’s topic and my major field of research. But of course, I rather think that petitioning – in a broad sense – might be a universal phenomenon. For many parts of Europe however, it could be difficult to find the critical mass of documentation before the second half of the 15th century.

    But if you look e.g. at the papal “state” (as far as the term goes for the Middle Ages), you will find, registered by the most developed European bureaucracy, impressive series of petitions even earlier. Some series (1431-1521) have been published during the last years by the team of Ludwig Schmugge. There is also research about petitioning in antiquity or non-European societies – but these are beyond my reach.

    Looking to the 19th century in Europe, petitions are losing, I think, some of their political potential in so far as other forms of participation emerge. This new forms allow e.g. to elect the “lawmakers” in the parliaments. In Britain as well as in other European countries, political participation by elections was expanded to broader parts of the population during the 19th and 20th centuries. In the Swiss case the new forms of participation include – besides the elections on national, cantonal and communal level – the right to collect signatures in order to have a general vote about cancelling a new law made by parliament (called “referendum”, since 1874) or about adding a new article to the constitution (called “initiative”, since 1891). But almost everywhere, writing supplications and petitions remains important in many political and even more in many private and informal contexts.

  4. Daniel Bender posted this below the next piece in the symposium, but I believe it was meant for this one…

    Petitions used We as the pronoun of choice (and safety in numbers). Petitions from commoners were based on a beautiful sentiment: The King loves the people and wants to know their innermost thoughts. In England, there was once a reality behind the dreamy fiction: Henry VII did stop gentry teardowns/predatory acquisition of small holdings. The petitioners in Norwich (in the tragic summer of1549) recall this, nostalgically. But Kett and 23 shire representatives signed a petition as death warrant: Kett was eviscerated, hung from the battlements. As was his brother. Local magistrates ordered carpenters to build gallows executing the petition writers on a field with an estimated 3,000 slain commoners. Then as now, only very large numbers–a hypothetical 20% of the populace rather than 5% ? –would be able to unsettle authorities to the point that actual negotiation would be permitted. Most early modern petitions were steam, released for the satisfaction thereof.

    • Many thanks, Daniel, for pointing to this problem. Of course you are right, collective petitions usually prefer to use the collective “We” to demonstrate unity and power as well as to reduce individual responsibility. Nevertheless, many individual supplications are written in the first person and deliberately say “I”.
      Maybe, there is a problem of translation. On the European continent, the term “petition” is very rarely used before the French Revolution. Most languages make a difference – even if not consequently – between individual petitions that are usually called “supplications” (in German sources with the originally Latin terms “Supplikationen” and “Suppliken” or the German terms “Bitte, Bittschrift, Ansuchen” and many others; in French “suppliques, requêtes, demandes” and so on in other languages). Collective petitions, however, are mostly referred to as “gravamina” (Latin term) or “Begehren”, “Klagen”, “Artikel” and so on (German terms).[1] So the phrase “shaping the ‘I’” is primarily linked to (mostly individual) supplications, whereas the phrase “shaping the state” is referring to both collective (mass) petitions as well as the (masses of) individual supplications – even if many individual supplications were refused or not even dealt with by the authorities.
      It is evident that gaps between ideology and reality exist – in Kett’s Norwich rebellion and elsewhere. The German proverb promising that “Drinking water and petitioning are allowed to everybody”[2] did not prevent many “leaders” of protest movements from being arrested and imprisoned for years just for having handed in “petitions” (gravamina).[3] Petitions and supplications were of course an outlet for anger and disappointment. But not only.

      [1] Andreas Würgler, “Voices from among the ‘Silent Masses’. Humble Petitions and Social Conflicts in Early Modern Central Europe”, in: International Review of Social History 46 (2001), Supplement 9, pp. 11-34, 12-19.
      [2] Helmut Neuhaus, Supplikationen als landesgeschichtliche Quellen. Das Beispiel der Landgrafschaft Hessen im 16. Jahrhundert [part 1 and 2], in: Hessisches Jahrbuch für Landesgeschichte 28-29 (1978-1979), 110-190 and 63-97, part I, p. 137.
      [3] Andreas Würgler, Unruhen und Öffentlichkeit. Städtische und ländliche Protestbewegungen im 18. Jahrhundert, Tübingen 1995, pp. 54-57, 94-97.

  5. Pingback: Addressing Authority: An Online Symposium on Petitions and Supplications in Early Modern Society – Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities

  6. Pingback: Addressing Authority: some concluding thoughts | the many-headed monster

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