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. 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.
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 (…)”. 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. 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