The Power of Petitioning

Dr David Hitchcock, Senior Lecturer in Early Modern History at Canterbury Christ Church University, tells us how he has used ‘The Power of Petitioning’ database.

Name of archive collection: The Power of Petitioning in Seventeenth Century England.

Tell us a little about one archive collection you have used as part of your research? ‘The Power of Petitioning’ is a collection of transcribed petitions from across England in the 17th and 18th centuries. It is a robust and well-organised digital archive with both text transcription (BHO) and eventually document scans. It is associated with an AHRC project of the same name run by Dr Brodie Waddell at Birkbeck.

I have used petitions in several of my publications past, current, and forthcoming; they are powerful windows into the ways that poorer inhabitants in early modern England could enter into dialogue with authorities in order to obtain welfare provision. In point of fact, the project has highlighted that the numerical majority of petitions to the benches in those two centuries were about exactly this; access to welfare and the amelioration of poverty.

What was significant about the collection? How did it benefit your research? Petitions show any number of interesting things: first, they are community documents, often cosigned by other inhabitants of a parish who are supporting the petitioner; they use a formal language of supplication and show sophisticated understandings of law, custom, and entitlement; and they contain important biographical detail and affective language, often literally ‘pleading’ with the magistrate or bench addressed and drawing on sympathetic circumstance. Accordingly when vagrancy appears in these documents it does so in a very ‘rich’ fashion, surrounded by a range of other details which permit a detailed analysis of how the possibility or threat of being made vagrant, ‘beggared’, could be deployed by contemporaries.

Do you have any top tips for other researchers accessing this collection? The archive is held by the BHO (British History Online), and the search engine does not ‘keep’ you inside the collection if you try to keyword search just in the petitions collection. What this means is that users need to navigate manually at the moment, digitally ‘flipping pages’ as it were. Given how fundamentally interesting petitions are, this does not really prove a problem. The database is also not yet set up to be used ‘at scale’, i.e. mined for quantitative information about petitioning. Don’t neglect the ‘guides’ which Waddell and Howard have published with the documents. They are detailed and very useful

Further Reading

David Hitchcock, Vagrancy in English Culture and Society, 1650-1750 (Bloomsbury, 2016).

David Hitchcock, ‘A typology of travellers : migration, justice, and vagrancy in Warwickshire, 1670–1730’, Rural History, Volume 23 (Number 1). pp. 21-39.

David Hitchcock, ‘The Body of the Vagabond’ in Sarah Toulalan, (ed), The Routledge History of Early Modern Bodies (forthcoming 2020).

Uses Power of Petitions explicitly:

David Hitchcock, ‘Vagrancy and Homelessness’, in Hitchcock and McClure (eds), The Routledge History of Poverty, 1500-1800 (forthcoming 2020).

About Georgina Brewis

Associate Professor in the History of Education, UCL
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