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Durham University

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Petitions and Petitioning from the Medieval Period to the Present

A research project of the Department of History, part of the Medieval, Early Modern and Modern research groups.


Throughout history, petitions have been one of the most popular and important forms of communication between people and authority. Petitions and petitioning are universal practices that cut across boundaries defined by geography, time and polity. Despite their universality and ubiquity, written appeals to authority, and the processes associated with their drafting, signature and presentation, have taken diverse forms and served myriad functions in different contexts. The emergence of e-petitions in response to falling levels of political participation in mature democracies demonstrates the contemporary relevance of petitioning as a theme for scholarly inquiry. This network crosses disciplinary, geographic and temporal boundaries to examine petitions and petitioning across Europe and north America from the medieval period to the present. The network adopts an international, interdisciplinary and comparative focus, and includes thirty scholars from the UK, Europe, USA and Australia, and from various disciplines, including history, law, literature, political science and sociology. The international collaboration at the heart of the network is underpinned by the partnership between Durham, Leiden and Birkbeck.


The project will foster new comparative perspectives and interdisciplinary dialogues on petitions and the practice of petitioning. One of the key aims of the network is to enable future research and collaboration through addressing key definitional questions and providing the first history of petitions and petitioning over the longue durée. Furthermore, the network will contribute to current debates about e-petitions and to this end includes participants from NGOs as well as from the UK Parliament’s Petitions Committee.


The network is structured around three workshops. The first, in Durham (12-13 July 2018), asks: What is a petition? How do we define petitions, and what concepts and methods should we adopt to analyse these universal documents, which nevertheless assume varied forms in different political and cultural contexts? The second workshop in Leiden (6-7 September 2018) will consider chronological patterns of change and continuity across the long history of petitioning. Critics of petitions, past and present, have long questioned whether they achieve anything, especially when requests are rejected or ignored by authority. The third and final workshop, in Birkbeck (11-12 April 2019), will ask when petitions matter and why. In what specific contexts do petitions make a difference and how? In addition to academic research papers, the workshops will invite reflection from practitioners on the use and administration of e-petitions in contemporary politics.


The findings will be disseminated in an edited book, which will provide a new comparative history of petitions and petitioning and which will set out an agenda for future research on the subject.


The project is funded by the following grant.

  • Arts and Humanities Research Council (AH/R008868/1)

Project Partners

Birkbeck College, University of London

Universiteit Leiden

Steering Committee

Dr. Richard Huzzey (Durham)

Dr. Maartje Janse (Institute for History, Universiteit Leiden)

Dr. Henry Miller (Durham)

Dr. Joris Oddens (Institute for History, Universiteit Leiden)

Dr. Brodie Waddell (Department of History, Classics and Archaeology, Birkbeck, University of London)


From the Department of History

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