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.

The long-term history

The first, and perhaps most obvious, is the fact that attempting to understand ‘early modern’ petitioning in isolation is a fool’s errand. As discussion between Dave Postles and Andreas Würgler revealed in response to the very first post in the symposium, the distinctiveness of petitioning in this period has not been fully explored. For example, by the later Middle Ages, the papacy already had a long tradition of receiving and responding to quasi-bureaucratic supplications and, as a major project at York has shown, thousands were sent to the English crown by this time too. Meanwhile, at the other end of the period, Richard Huzzey and Henry Miller’s project on ‘Petitions, Parliament and People’ is now revealing how some of the most dramatic and extensive British parliamentary petitioning came in the ‘long nineteenth century’

So, was there anything distinctive or unique about petitions and supplications between c.1500 and c.1800? David Zaret has made the case that petitioning was transformed from private supplication into a facet of ‘public opinion’ in England during the Civil Wars and Interregnum. Yet I am not entirely convinced and, even if this was true of England, Laura Stewart’s piece shows that this probably doesn’t apply to other seventeenth-century polities such as Scotland. Perhaps, as Judith Hudson found, the emergence of mass petitioning by women in the 1620s might have a better claim to being an early modern innovation? Are there other ways in which early modern petitioning was different from what came before or after it?

Politics and beyond

The second issue that the symposium has illuminated is the danger of examining petitions and supplications through a single lens. They have most often been placed in a purely political or constitutional narrative, wherein they are studied as extraordinary expressions of partisan pressure or ideological mobilisation. While some undoubtedly did serve this function, these documents can reveal just as much – if not more – about the histories of day-to-day governance, organised charity, economic lobbying and many other apparently ‘non-political’ concerns.

In fact, the remarkably huge number of petitions recorded by local authorities in Milan (514 in 22 months in the early sixteenth century), Nuremburg (more than half of entries in the council minutes for the 1550s) and London (c.10,000 in the eighteenth century) suggest that people were much more likely to be involved in supplications about social or economic matters than in politically driven petitioning campaigns. This does not, however, imply that we can ignore political history when studying these documents. For example, Hannah Worthen’s piece on the petitions of ‘delinquent’ widows during the English civil wars demonstrated that many supplications mixed together the ‘high politics’ of loyalty to parliament with the traditional rhetoric of family hardship. More broadly, we still have much to learn about these sorts of overlaps. How did grand political events influence ‘everyday’ supplications? And how did the distinctly conventional habit of petitioning about non-political matters influence the radical and innovative mass petitions launched during this period?

Tools of rule

Finally, this symposium forced me to more seriously consider what we might call the ‘dark side’ of early modern petitioning. We tend to think of this mode of communication as empowering, allowing people who might otherwise lack a voice in the polity to speak up and make themselves heard. We have long known that it could also indirectly reinforce the established order by legitimating and strengthening the bonds of paternalism and deference, but we have perhaps underestimated the extent to which it could be used directly as a tool of authority. Sharon Howard’s analysis of the London petitions shows that almost half of them were sent by parish officials, primarily in order to rid themselves of responsibility for relieving paupers. Likewise, it seems that the secretive men who ran the Venetian chancery deployed very sophisticated supplications for personal advancement and occasionally blatant nepotism. Privileged ‘superiors’ were as likely to use petitioning as their ‘inferiors’.

This also extended to the practice of turning supplications into direct tools of government.  In Nuremberg, as we learned from Hannah Murphy, the city increasingly came to demand that citizens supplicate for permission to move, marry or publish. Forgetting or refusing to ask permission ‘became grounds for censure’. In Milan, Giacomo Giudici showed that the Sforza dynasty used the hundreds of petitions it received every year as ‘conveyors of valuable information’. They were able to rely on this stream of supplications from both within the city walls and in far-away dominions to build up their knowledge of the people and places over which they claimed authority. In other words, petitioning not only offered ideological legitimation to early modern rulers, they also provided a practical means of mapping and monitoring their dominions. So how much weight can historians put on the notion of petitions as a ‘weapon of the weak’ if they were also a crucial part of early modern authorities’ arsenal of rule?

* * *

This symposium has, at the very least, demonstrated that petitions and supplications were a multifaceted, pervasive and powerful element in early modern society. Each one can provide insights into lives that might otherwise be entirely undocumented. They were often initiated by the poor or the marginalised, meaning that those aiming to do ‘history from below’ must take them seriously. Although they were not unmediated ‘voices of the people’, they can still offer partial access to perspectives that are rarely recorded. Yet they were also used by the rich and powerful to bolster their authority, making them excellent sources for historians of politics and government. As such, we must continue to make them more accessible for both professional and lay researchers.

What’s more, scholars cannot simply mine petitions and supplications for information about whatever topic happens to interest them. They need to be understood as deliberate acts was well as valuable sources. Each supplicant was thus not only creating a text but also trying to provoke a response. Put simply, petitions constituted an essential element the social and political order – neither the authorities nor their subjects could get by without them.

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3 thoughts on “Addressing Authority: some concluding thoughts

  1. Good stuff as usual. As usual, I ask a question: outcomes; success rates; i.e. incentives to continue to petition. On politics (again, I am Anglo-centric) Kathleen Wilson addresses the mobilizing of political petitions in the late 18th century around contemporary political ‘crises’. Otherwise, pondering.

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

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