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Reviewed by:
  • Medieval Petitions: Grace and Grievance
  • Nicholas Vincent
Medieval Petitions: Grace and Grievance. Edited by W. Mark Ormrod, Gwilym Dodd, and Anthony Musson. Woodbridge, Suffolk: D. S. Brewer for York Medieval Press, 2009. Pp. x + 254. $95.

This collection of a dozen essays is an offshoot of a recent project to catalogue and investigate the series of “Ancient Petitions” (class SC 8) in the Public Record Office in London. The more than 17,000 medieval documents in this class, dating from the 1270s through to the fifteenth century, previously searchable only via a totally inadequate alphabetical index of petitioners, are now not only fully listed and abstracted but available as an online resource (, following links to “Ancient Petitions”). Now retrievable from this vast mountain of rhetoric, griping, and special pleading are precious nuggets not just of historical but linguistic and even literary detail, petitions from German merchants or the Hanse (pp. 37, 137 of the present collection), petitions written in the most lively and plangent of Middle English (pp. 222–41), and an entire routine of petitions in French, for the most part addressed to the King in the third person by semiprofessional clerks trained in the requisite technicalities of petitioning. Of the essayists here, none has made a greater contribution to the understanding of these documents than Gwilym Dodd, author of a recent monograph Justice and Grace: Private Petitioning and the English Parliament in the Later Middle Ages (2007). In his opening survey, Dodd sets out the bizarre circumstances in which “Ancient Petitions” were gathered together, from the 1850s onward, as an entirely artificial class within the Public Record Office, in the process bringing to light several thousand documents until 1805 believed entirely lost, although in the process willfully breaking up files which had been preserved intact for the previous six centuries. He makes a strong case for supposing that the vast majority of these documents were originally submitted as petitions to Parliament, from 1275 onward, as part of a great “leap forward” engineered by England’s King Edward I, in which petitioners were deliberately encouraged to submit their grievances to Parliament, itself reengineered as an assembly for the public demonstration of the King’s dispensation of grace and justice. As such, and given the loss of a large part of a parliamentary archive and of virtually all record of parliamentary discussion, the petitions represent one of our principal sources for the history of an institution fundamental to the study of medieval English history. Where, however, did Edward I obtain his ideas both of petitioning and of [End Page 537] public display? The answer here is only partially supplied by the other contributions to this volume. Serena Connolly demonstrates that petitioning and the submission of “libelli” of grievances was already an ancient tradition, with roots stretching back to the third millenium BC, more than two thousand such “libelli” and their responses from the Roman emperors finding their way into the Corpus Iuris Civilis. Although the vast majority of these concerned seemingly trivial private or local complaints, some, such as the petition to which the Emperor Honorius seems to have been responding when he wrote, in 410, to tell the inhabitants of Britain that they were now responsible for their own defense, were of fundamental historical significance. The precise form of such “libelli” is difficult to establish. Nonetheless, Patrick Zutshi, in a fine and significant essay on fourteenth-century petitions to the Avignon papacy, gives good cause to suppose that, like the parliamentary petitions or later petitions to the popes, they were for the most part phrased in highly formalized language, perhaps already in the third rather than the first person, transmitted via professional agents whose duty it was not merely to deliver such petitions but to ensure that they were granted a response. As revealed both by Zutshi and by Barbara Bombi, in an essay that takes its lead from Bombi’s recent edition of the register of the professional diplomatic agent Andrea Sapiti, the English parliamentary petitions form part of a European-wide tradition of petitioning whose roots must be searched not just in England itself but in those other European...