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3 - The Scribes of Petitions in Late Medieval England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  20 August 2020

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Summary

In contemporary society, e-petitioning faces criticism on the grounds of accessibility; as documents that are easy to set up and to sign, they are viewed as potentially encouraging the promotion of frivolous causes or of ‘slacktivism’, political activism that has very little chance of achieving real-life impact and is largely aimed at promoting a feeling of well-being in the supporter. In the words of one journalist: ‘Opening a link, clicking on a send button … can anyone possibly take this seriously as a way of engaging in debate on any subject that matters? It's effortless moral outrage, requiring neither understanding nor commitment on the part of the clickers.’ By contrast, for the medieval petitioner, we would assume that understanding and commitment were prerequisites; no-one would go to the trouble of having a petition drawn up and presented who did not have a real grievance or belief that a particular issue required redress. The basis for comparison between medieval and modern petitioning is clearly very slight, but serves to underline the importance of accessibility and the role of the mediator. In contrast to petitioning today, the medieval petitioner required the services of a trained scribe who would be able to structure their request according to the appropriate forms. This chapter addresses the question of identity of these scribes, their role in the petitionary process and the implications this has for our understanding of petitioning as a means of accessing medieval justice. It draws on examples from petitions addressed to the highest English secular authorities: the king, parliament and chancellor.

The status of petitions is somewhat ambiguous; as Dodd has observed, ‘they fit comfortably neither into the category of records produced by the Crown nor into the designation of “local” documents written independently of influence from the royal secretariat’. Previously, several commentators have argued that the petitions surviving in The National Archives are not themselves the originals, but copies drawn up by the chancery clerks. This is now generally agreed to be a false supposition; however, the identity of those scribes responsible for drafting petitions remains a matter of debate. There are a number of potential scenarios in which petitions were drawn up.

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Petitions and Strategies of Persuasion in the Middle Ages
The English Crown and the Church, c.1200–c.1550
, pp. 64 - 87
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2018

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