Petitions in Social History

CFP: 'IRSH' special issue

Humble suppliants...: Petitions in Social History

Call for articles
International Review of Social History

The International Review of Social History has planned for its 2001 Supplement a special issue on petitions as a source in social history. Petitions have been used throughout history to voice demands, including those of working class and middle class citizens. The Review invites authors to submit proposals for articles that use petitions as source for social history. We explicitly invite proposals on non-Western societies and countries, and/or on non-modern periods.

Petitions are demands for a favour or for the redressment of an injustice. To be effective, a petition has to mention the ruler or ruling body it is addressed to, the request, perhaps a motivation and certainly the name (and often some other qualities) of the petitioner(s). These data make petitions a powerful historical source.


As the distribution of justice and largesse are important parts of ruling, rulers can hardly deny individual subjects the right to approach them to implore them to exercise justice. And subjects have done so, from Egyptian building workers in pharaonic times to illiterate Ecuador Indians in 1899, from anti-Catholic English women in 1642 to French workers asking for the repeal of the livret ouvrier in 1847, from Italian peasants complaining about noble banditry in 1605 to Brazilian slaves vindicating their rights against their owners in 1823, from Western European early modern guild members to German Democratic Republic workers demanding improvement of economic efficiency or voicing consumer demands (Baud 1998, Lee 1998, McDowell 1999, Reb‚rioux 1997, Rodrigues 1995, Povolo 1988, Zatlin 1997).

Where petitions became an accepted tradition, they could evolve into an institution which not only catered for the wishes of individuals, but also was used to elicit legislation. Not only in England, but also in countries like Germany, Russia and Japan, where rulers laid claim to rather absolute power, petitions were used by broad layers of the population to influence legislation (Kümin and Würgler 1997, Roberts 1994).

The right to petition could easily develop into a crystallisation point for other popular rights. This happened in western countries from the seventeenth century. The right to petition easily brings about the right to assemble to draw up, discuss and sign the petition. This can involve masses of subjects in the discussion of petitions (Tilly 1995). The meeting in which a petition is debated is an exercise in politics, as is the soliciting of signatures. This could involve large numbers of citizens. The Chartist petitions of 1839, 1842 and 1848 each had well over a million signatures to it. If numbers of subjects are allowed to sign a petition, and have it presented in their name, it is hard to see how they could be denied the right to present their petition themselves. But if a number of signers present a petition to a ruler or a representative body, this results in a demonstration. This happened for instance in 1779 when Lord Georg Gordon introduced a petition against relief of anti-Catholic measures in the British Parliament and took 14.000 supporters with him to Parliament to deliver the petition (Tilly 1995, p. 160). The 1894 and 1932 marches of unemployed veterans on Washington were legitimised as the presentation of a petition.

The usual way out for rulers was to forbid collective petitions. These were for instance against the law in pre-revolutionary France. In England, where petitioning was by that time regarded as an established right, the Long Parliament laid down in 1648 that petitions could not be submitted by more than 20 individuals. Under Charles II petitioning to convene Parliament was punishable as high treason. James II had bishops confined in the Tower for petitioning against his religious policies. These attempts on the right of petition led to its being included in the Bill of Rights in 1689. In the eighteenth century the right to petition was included in listings of individual liberties like the Bills of Rights of most American States and the Déclaration des droits de l'homme et du citoyen of 1791. In England by the late Eighteenth Century petitions had become the normal way in which the unfranchised could make their opinion known. Even if authorities frowned upon petitions as a way to voice demands and to mobilise and demonstrate popular support for them, this does not mean that they did not heed the opinions uttered in them. In fact, even the most autocratic of governments used petitions as a source of information about popular feeling.

All formal elements of the petition as described above, lend themselves to historical analysis: the ruler or ruling body the petition is addressed to, the request and its motivation and the name and other qualities mentioned of the petitioners. As to the ruler or ruling bodies, here petitions tell us something about the way government was perceived by the petitioners. They must see government as something which can be moved to decide in their favour, perhaps as a multilayered formation, in which one layer can be suggested to operate against another (Rodrigues 1995). Petitions tried to use perceived fissures within ruling classes, for instance by addressing a central authority with complaints about a local authority, or addressing a colonial power with demands based on the metropolitan system of justice (Friedrichs 1990, Kapteijns and Spaulding 1994). The segment or level of government to which a petition is addressed may give a clue here. Different segments of government may put petitions to quite different uses. Radical members of Parliament in the early Nineteenth Century United Kingdom used petitions to stage debates in Parliament, thus obstructing the functioning of Parliament. Their supporters fed this strategy with a stream of petitions. As new Parliamentary rules of order (1832, definitively in 1842) made this kind of obstruction harder, the number of petitions remained high, especially petitions carrying more than 10.000 signatures, as assembling large numbers of signatures was in itself a way of making political opinion visible (Leys 1955). As suffrage spread, this changed the meaning of petitions, which developed into a way to show the elected representatives which way popular feeling ran.

The request and its motivation can also be used for analysis. Of course, some motivations stated can have been given only for tactical reasons. The petition may borrow the language of ruling classes to defend subaltern ways of living. In some cases, like the Dutch Republic in the Eighteenth Century, the rules for petitions were so complicated that specialists were needed to draw them up. If the petitioners were illiterate, the help of a literate writer was per definition necessary. If these obstacles are taken into account, petitions lend themselves to linguistic or rhetorical analysis as texts (Bukhovets 1996, Davis 1987). And whatever influences the way in which demands are voiced, demands have to be voiced, as that is the point of a petition. When petitions are available in large enough numbers, they can be analysed statistically to determine the social and spatial distribution of grievances (Helgesen 1982, Hvidt and Rasmussen 1995, Shapiro and Markoff 1998).

Petitions identify those in whose names they are made. This enables us to identify the signers historically, using the information in the petition and/or what other sources tell us about the signers (Laguerre 1990, Offenstadt 1994). In this way we can analyse the social and economic position of the signers and determine the social profile of the supporters of different points of view (Bukhovets 1996, Knights 1993).

As is clear from the above, petitions were used by subjects, including quite humble subjects, in various cultures and political settings to voice their demands. They thus enable historians to hear working class and middle class voices which remain otherwise silent. The International Review of Social History will devote its December 2001 Supplement to petitions as a source for social history. Contributions on different analytical uses of petitions and from all historical periods and all regions of the world are welcomed. Contributions are expected to cover both the question how and under which conditions petitions can be used as a source for social history and to treat a substantive question. Examples of possible substantive questions are the ways subjects become linked to the state in state formation, the development of repertoires of collective action and the place of petitions in these, the formulation of public opinion, or the advantages of petitioning for rulers and ruled.

Submission of abstracts and articles:

Abstracts for proposed articles should be submitted at the latest by May 1st, 2000. Abstracts should be 400-800 words, stating clearly the questions that will be examined, the type of empirical material that will be used, and an outline of the main argument that will be developed in the article. You will receive a response by May 31, 2000. A first version of the article should be ready for the editorial committee of the Review by 1 October 2000; the final version should be completed by 1 December 2000. Please state clearly name, address, fax number and email address when submitting your proposal. Proposals should be sent to:

Dr Lex Heerma van Voss
International Institute of Social History
Cruquiusweg 31
1019 AT Amsterdam
Fax +31-20-6654181

Information on the IRSH:


  • Baud, M., 'Libertad de Servidumbre: Indigenista Ideology and Social Mobilization in Late Nineteenth Century Ecuador', in H.-J. Koenig and M. Wiesebron, Nation Building in Nineteenth Century Latin America: Dilemmas and Conflicts (Leiden 1998)
  • Bukhovets, O.G., Sotsial'nye konflikty i krest'ianskaia mental'nost' v rossiiskoi imperii nachala XX veka: Novye materialy, metody, rezul'taty (Moscow 1996)
  • Davis, N.Z., Fiction in the Archives: Pardon tales and their tellers in sixteenth-century France (Stanford 1987)
  • Friedrichs, C.R., 'Anti-Jewish Politics in Early Modern Germany: The Uprising in Worms, 1613-17', Central European History 23 (1990) 91-152
  • Helgesen, K., 'Supplikker pa 1700-tallet: et lite brukt kildemateriale', Heimen 19 (1982) 93-100
  • Hvidt, K. and H. Rasmussen, 'Socialistenadressen i November 1872', Arbejderhistorie (1995) 3, 22-32
  • Kapteijns, L. and J. Spaulding, 'Women of the Zar and Middle-Class Sensibilities in Colonial Aden, 1923-1932', Sudanic Africa 5 (1994)7-38
  • Knights, M., 'London's "Monster" Petition of 1680', Historical Journal 36 (1993) 39-67
  • Kümin, B and A. Würgler, 'Petitions, Gravamina and the Early Modern State: Local Influence on Central Legislation in England and Germany (Hesse)', Parliaments, Estates & Representation 17 (1997) 39-60
  • Laguerre, B., 'Les pétitionnaires du Front Populaire: 1934-1939', Revue d'Histoire moderne et contemporaine 37 (1990) 500-515
  • Lee, P.-A., 'Mistress Stagg's Petitioners: February 1642', Historian 60 (1998) 241-256
  • Leys, C., 'Petitioning in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries', Political Studies 3 (1955) 45-64
  • McDowell, A.G., Village Life in Ancient Egypt: Laundry Lists and Love Songs (Oxford 1999)
  • Offenstadt, N., 'Signer pour la paix en 1938-1939: Petitions et petitionnaires', Cahiers de l'Institut d'Histoire du Temps preésent (1994) 26, 249-263
  • Povolo, C., 'Processo contro Paolo Origiano e altri', Studi Storici 29 (1988) 321-360
  • Rebérioux, M., 'Pétitionner', Mouvement social (1997) 181, 127-132
  • Rio-Sarcey, M, 'Des femmes pétitionnent sous la monarchie de Juillet', in A. Corbin, J. Lalouette, M. Riot-Sarcey (eds.), Femmes dans la cité, 1815-1871 (Paris 1997)
  • Roberts, L.S., 'The Petition Box in Eighteenth-Century Tosa', Journal of Japanese Studies 20 (1994) 423-458
  • Rodrigues, J., 'Liberdade, humanidade e propriedade: os escravos e a assembleia constituinte de 1823', Revista do Instituto de Estudos Brasileiros 39 (1995) 159-167
  • Shapiro, G. and J. Markoff, Revolutionary Demands: A Content Analysis of the Cahiers de Doléances of 1789 (Stanford 1998)
  • Stern, S.J., 'The Social Significance of Judicial Institutions in an Exploitative Society: Huamanga, Peru, 1570-1640', in: G.A. Collier, R.I. Rosaldo and J.D. Wirth (eds.), The Inca and Aztec States 1400-1800: Anthropology and History (New York 1982), 289-317
  • Talsma, J., Het recht van petitie, verzoekschriften aan de Tweede Kamer en het ombudsvraagstuk: Nederland, 1795-1983 (Arnhem 1989)
  • Tilly, Ch., Popular Contention in Great Britain 1758-1834 (Cambridge MA and London 1995)
  • Zaret, D., 'Petitions and the "Invention" of Public Opinion in the English Revolution', American Journal of Sociology 101 (1996) 1497-1555
  • Zatlin, J.R., 'Ausgaben und Eingaben: Das Petitionsrecht und der Untergang der DDR', Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft 45 (1997) 902-917

Posted: 27 March 2000