This project focuses on the 18,000 digitized documents that comprise the series of “Ancient Petitions” held at The National Archives (TNA), Kew, UK (series code SC 8). These petitions –complaints, pleas for remedy, and requests for patronage – date between the late thirteenth and the late fifteenth centuries. They are written in all three languages of record of the period: Latin, Anglo-Norman French, and Middle English. In representing the voice not of the state but of its subjects, they provide particularly vivid evidence for a multitude of human experiences.
The project will analyze these documents – in their digital surrogate forms as published online by TNA – in order to identify scribes who worked on several petitions (including the bureaucrat poet Thomas Hoccleve and Chaucer’s scribe, Adam Pinkhurst) and to trace the contours of these scribes’ careers and their influence on the relationship between the state and its subjects. Typologies of petitionary form will be assessed, and the project will examine how petitions were influenced by, and contributed to, the development of political language in England in the later Middle Ages.
The documentary culture of late medieval England is currently a matter of significant interest to a wide range of palaeographers, linguistic experts, literary scholars, and political and cultural historians. The last twenty years has witnessed some significant applications of linguistic techniques to the study of petition-making. The question as to who controlled the writing of petitions goes to the very heart of current debates about the language of politics in later medieval England.
The present project has been deliberately developed to demonstrate to the scholarly community the importance and advantage of engaging with digital technologies in the study of petitions. To identify individual scribes obviously requires close engagement with the originals and with the various tools available to manipulate and enhance digital images. Equally, though, the project seeks to demonstrate how consistent reference to the appearance of petitions and the analysis of their shape, layout, and language can allow us better to appreciate their overall significance in late medieval documentary culture.