Petitions and Petitioning from the Medieval Period to the Present

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University


Bringing together experts from eight countries and six disciplines, this research network will examine petitions from the medieval period to the present to study practices in comparison and in connection to each other. Petitions and petitioning have long been among the most important and popular forms of interaction between people and authority. These mechanisms reveal the processes underlying participation and representation across and within political cultures. As universal and ubiquitous practices, petitions have taken myriad forms and performed diverse functions, but they have typically been studied in specific chronological and geographic settings. Addressing the current context, in which e-petitions have emerged in response to falling political participation in mature democracies, provides a further pressing intellectual rationale for examining this theme now, as does the growth of digitisation projects that will transform access to petitions as sources.

As a subject, petitions cut across boundaries defined by time, space and polity, which is why this network adopts a comparative approach. To ensure a focus on a comparable group of polities, the network examines the development of petitioning within Europe and North America from the thirteenth century to the present day. Such a perspective will allow us to identify for the first time what was exceptional and generic about petitions in different national and temporal contexts, as well as how they were translated and adapted across these boundaries.

The expertise of researchers from History, Law, Literature, Communication Studies, Political Science, and Sociology will enable the network to critically examine the manifold functions of petitions and petitioning as practices across different contexts and from contrasting methodological perspectives. The network makes particular provision for early-career scholars and doctoral researchers, in order to build capacity and cross-fertilisation across academic disciplines and specialisms.

The network's three workshops will result in a new comparative history of petitioning, collaboratively authored by members of the network. Confirmed participants include researchers who have recently led major projects from the UK, USA, Europe and Australia. As such, the network will unlock further benefits from projects commissioned by a variety of funding bodies. Bringing together international researchers and projects in interdisciplinary dialogue will further the network's ambition to develop new collaborations. A key priority is catalysing new projects that will examine petitions and petitioning within even more ambitious comparative frameworks, particularly through examining these practices in global perspective.

The project has further significance in placing in broader comparative and historical perspective the rise of e-petitioning as the latest form of a practice that has been continually reinvented. To this end, the network engages public policy professionals who administer contemporary e-petitions systems and NGOs who organise e-petition campaigns. Findings will be disseminated to a wider public through working with Parliament's Education Service and digital platforms.

The three network events will answer (1) what is a petition?: how we should define petitions as distinct from other political, legal, and social engagements; (2) how has petitioning developed?: how have petitioning traditions been transformed, translated, and transmuted across time and space; and (3) why and when do petitions matter?: how petitions have shaped social and political change. A coherent multi-authored volume providing a new comparative history of petitioning is the primary output of the research network. Beyond this, the project will consolidate and direct a new generation of petitioning studies that examine distinct traditions in a wider comparative perspective and facilitate new thinking about this resurgent political practice.

Planned Impact

A research network on petitions from the medieval period to the present is timely in informing the work of professionals developing, evaluating, or exploiting new e-petitions systems as forms of political engagement today, as well as the wider UK public. Our pathways to impact will permit the network to inform the design and use of these contemporary reinventions of petitioning.

The network directly engages those administering the UK Parliament's e-petitions system, an organisation agitating for reform of representative institutions, and a charity that uses petitions as part of issue-based campaigns. By bringing together scholars of historical and contemporary petitions with those shaping a present-day petitioning system and exploiting it, the network offers a powerful opportunity to inform current practice with a fuller understanding of the history, meaning, and dilemmas of petitioning, as well as highlighting what is new or different about e-petitions. Moreover, the comparative and methodological insights generated from our international research network will be disseminated to a wider public audience, principally through sharing our findings with the UK Parliament's education and engagement service.

The exact relationship between petitioners' requests and the authority of a sovereign institution (or, in the past, individual) remains a vexed question. Professionals re-embedding petitions within twenty-first century representative institutions should be aware of different past practices when navigating difficult decisions about petitioners' real and perceived impact on the policy-making process. Such questions informed the UK Parliament's Petitions Committee's standing orders, when it was relaunched in 2015, and ongoing reviews of these principles should be informed by historical and contemporary scholarly analysis. Offering a comparative context from diverse geographical and chronological perspectives will assist in refining the questions we ask about the role of petitioning in a modern democracy.

The network will embed policy practitioners in our academic events, bringing into our discussions the clerk to the current UK Parliament Petitions Committee, the Director of Unlock Democracy, and the Head of Research for Friends of the Earth. We have Letters of Support confirming the participation of these organisations that we can produce, if required. As well as these confirmed participants, we would seek to include more impact stakeholders, particularly from outside London (such as officials from the Scottish Parliament), and have made provision in the budget for their attendance at the final workshop. The last event of the network will conclude with a roundtable discussion from these participants, offering their reflections on the research network and their challenges to researchers for future work. Follow-up interviews will capture the long-term impact of the network's deliberations on these individuals in shaping and informing the decisions of their organisations.

A dissemination event with staff from Parliament's outreach and education service will ensure that we can share the network's findings, ultimately, with a wider public audience by informing the work of these officers. Additionally, the network will disseminate findings from the project to the public and policy-making community through digital platforms with established audiences and wide reach, such as the petitions committee's 'Petition of the Month' blog or History and Policy. While these activities and pathways to impact are concrete, the investigators also anticipate further impact activities through print and broadcast media opportunities - though these are necessarily more speculative.
Description Significant findings and achievements from the network include
1) The network generated significant new knowledge in terms of broadening and deepening our understanding of the long history of petitions and petitioning in Europe and North America from the fourteenth century to the present. In particular, the network's findings (to be published as an edited book, currently in progress) amount to a new comparative history of petitions. The findings enable us to understand and identify patterns of continuity and change across time, place and different sorts of political system. Conceptually, the network sharpened existing definitions of petitions and petitioning which promises to be a major intellectual gain that will shape future scholarship. The findings also emphasise the distinct historic contexts in which petitions have the most impact.
2) The network improved, developed and spread interdisciplinary research methods and developed these skills among researchers, including Ph. D. students and early careers researchers, who were an integral part of the project. The network provided an essential forum for discussing, sharing and developing interdisciplinary methods, with inputs from historians, political and social scientists, legal scholars, literary scholars and media studies. In particular, the network spread best practice regarding quantitative, comparative, and textual analysis. At the same time, the network showcased and publicised the expanding range of digitised petitions sources from different countries associated with major national projects. Overall, then, the network identified and publicised important new research resources, but also developed and fine-tuned the research methods necessary to exploit them.
3) The network opened up important new research questions that will shape the next generation of scholarship. Crucially, by settling questions over definition and revealing connections between different contexts, the network will encourage future works to think more comparatively across time and space. Beyond that there are key questions that were opened up by the network for future research such as the relationship between petitioning, democracy and representation in the twentieth century, the role of petitions in modern authoritarian states, the function of petitions as a mechanism to resist or impose colonial rule, and the evolution of the petition as an instrument in modern international human rights frameworks.
4) The network achieved its mission of connecting academic research with contemporary debates on e-petitions. A key theme of the network was the historic role of petitions as a means of political participation for ordinary people and political campaigns, as well as their uses by states. The last workshop, addressing the question of when and why do petitions have the most impact, was framed explicitly to speak to contemporary debates over the role of e-petitions in modern democracies through detailed case studies. The network engaged key stakeholders, including officials from the petitions committees of the Scottish and UK Parliaments and the National Assembly for Wales as active participants, as well as representatives from NGOS, further highlighting the network's success in connecting academic research with those who administer or seek to utilise contemporary e-petitions systems.
Exploitation Route The intellectual agenda of this project has already been taken forward in a number of ways, not least through providing a context for recent and forthcoming publications by Network participants. Participants in the Network have secured funding for a raft of major national projects on petitioning in seventeenth-century England (AHRC), in the early modern and modern Netherlands (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences), and nineteenth-century America (Australian Research Council). The forthcoming edited book, which is the main scholarly output of the Network, has stimulated new and unanticipated interdisciplinary collaborations as well as commissions for areas not covered by the Network, such as twentieth-century global petition campaigns. The final doctoral theses submitted by postgraduate members of the Network have also been enhanced by their participation, and the Network has been fertile in generating ideas for exciting new post-doctoral projects.
Sectors Education,Government, Democracy and Justice

Description Impacts followed from the involvement of practitioners as active participants in the Network. These comprised 1) clerks from the petitions committees of the UK Parliament, Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales; and 2) Non-Governmental Organisations, including Friends of the Earth and Unlock Democracy. 1) Parliamentary officials reported back to their teams that as a result of the Network they had changed their thinking about the role of signatures and petitions as a result of a greater understanding of the historical context about petitioning. Furthermore, historical examples invited active questioning of the current practice of administering e-petitions systems, which officials found useful. Insights from the Network also informed changes that petitions committees in Cardiff and Westminster made to their public engagement strategies. As a result of the Network many of the academic participants were recruited to write blogs for the 'Petition of the Month' website hosted by the UK Parliament's Petitions Committee, which aims to promote broader public engagement with the current work of the Committee through historical case studies. 2) Campaigners reported as a result of the Network a greater understanding that process was often more important than outcomes (as historically most petitions were unsuccessful in terms of having their requests granted by authority) for petitioners. In particular, petitions were useful in terms of publicising a cause, representing and forming new communities, and putting issues on the political agenda even if the ultimate demand was not granted. This prompted a modification of practice in terms of how one of the NGOs communicates with stakeholders if a campaign has not achieved a specific demand.
First Year Of Impact 2019
Sector Government, Democracy and Justice
Impact Types Policy & public services

Description Impact on campaigners working for UK NGOs
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact The 2018-19 AHRC research network also integrated campaigners from two UK-based charities to discuss how 'the context of petitioning has changed' and to inform their use of petition campaigns today. One campaigner attending workshops in 2018 and 2019 reported learning from the researchers that 'the process is as important as the petition itself'; petitioning was 'not only representative of communities but can create them' since those signing would feel affinity with further activism regardless of whether a specific demand was met. This informed her organisation's practice when communicating 'a response to communities if a campaign has not succeeded in a specific demand'. Moreover, historical research enabled contemporary campaigners to think differently about how both petitioner and petitioned 'gain from the petitioning activity and that it is a two-way process, either benign or less so'. [Quotations from private correspondence and interview transcripts submitted as evidence in support of Huzzey ICS as part of Durham University's REF 2020 History submission]
Description Impact on staff administering UK legislatures' petitions systems
Geographic Reach National 
Policy Influence Type Influenced training of practitioners or researchers
Impact The network integrated staff administering e-petitions for the National Assembly of Wales, the Scottish Parliament, and the UK Parliament in the first and third workshops. Clerks from Westminster and Holyrood attended the first event, and they shared with their teams their changed thinking about the histories of 'signatures, and how they were (or were not) gathered, the ideas around "representation" and engagement' and 'the concept of petitioning as a communal act, a request for action or an expression of opinion inter alia' . As part of a 2019 roundtable for practitioners at the final event, a clerk managing the Welsh Assembly's e-petitions highlighted that it was 'incredibly valuable to someone doing my job to learn the long-term background' and to discover how nineteenth-century officials had acted to 'present barriers' to certain groups; 'hearing historic examples and people's analysis has led me to question some of the things that are features of modern petitioning' and to ask anew 'what are modern petitions for?'. Staff from the UK Parliament record that '[a]s a direct result of attending the workshop' in 2018 'we decided to re-launch our petition of the month section on the website' to bring historical case studies to the attention of current staff and petitioners. [All quotations from private correspondence submitted as evidence for Huzzey ICS as part of Durham University's REF 2020 submission.]
Description Petitioning and People Power in Twentieth-Century Britain (AH/T003847/1)
Amount £757,567 (GBP)
Organisation Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 07/2020 
End 07/2023
Description Practitioner panel of NGO campaigners and parliamentary officials from petitions committees for UK Parliament, Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales, AHRC Research Network on Petitions and Petitioning from the Medieval Period to the Present, Workshop 3, Birkbeck, London, April 2019 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact Practitioners who were invited to be active participants in the Network as impact stakeholders were invited to sit on a round table to conclude the final workshop and reflect upon what they had learned from their involvement in the project. The panel comprised representatives from two NGOs, Friends of the Earth and Unlock Democracy, and officials from the petitions committees of the UK Parliament, Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales. The audience consisted of academic researchers, and postgraduate students. The panel reflected upon how their views about the role of petitions - as users or administrators of contemporary e-petitions systems - had changed as a result of the Network and learning more about the history of petitioning in different contexts. In particular, panel members stressed how their understanding had changed in terms of the meaning of signing a petition, its links to other forms of participation, and the importance of process as well as outcomes. The round table stimulated further discussion about the expectations of authorities and petitioners, past and present, regarding the petitioning process, as well as the links to wider public engagement and participation, and consideration of when, why and it what contexts petitions were most effective in achieving change. A by-product of the panel, was that many academics were recruited to contribute to the UK Parliament's Petition Committee 'Petition of the Month' blog, which aims to promote public understanding of and engagement with the parliamentary e-petitions system through historical case studies.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Presentation at event at UK Parliament, for parliamentary officials and clerks, February 2020 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Policymakers/politicians
Results and Impact The PI spoke as part of a panel on historical petitions - the two other contributors were also participants in the network - to an audience of parliamentary officials and clerks as part of their training programme. The event was chaired by the former clerk to the UK Parliament Petitions committee. The aim of the event was to highlight the importance of a historical understanding of the long tradition of parliamentary petitioning (dating back to the medieval period) for contemporary practitioners, particularly in terms of the role of e-petitions and public engagement and participation with Parliament. The PI has received requests for further information from practitioners as a result to better inform their practice.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020