Thirteenth–century papal petitions from England

Papal petitions are a valuable source for historians of the Medieval period—yet only a handful are still extant from the thirteenth century. Thomas Smith has travelled as a Leverhulme Study Abroad Student to Munich, Germany, to gain access to surviving contemporary sources in a painstaking attempt to reconstruct the cases brought by English petitioners and to track their progress through the papal court.

In the Middle Ages the papacy was one of the most important institutions in the western world. This was never truer than for the thirteenth century, when most historians agree that papal authority reached its apogee. Popes not only oversaw the administration of an international organisation of churches, but were also powerful political players in their own right, and engaged in high-level diplomacy with kings and emperors.

At the heart of this papal government was a system of petitioning, whereby supplicants from all over Christendom presented to the pope requests for justice in legal cases, or for the granting of favours, such as appointment to a church position. The number of petitioners presenting themselves at the papal court in Rome was enormous, and exerted a significant influence on the way in which the papal government operated and the decisions that the popes made. Petitions were presented by a broad section of medieval society—from lowly clergy in local parish churches, to ambitious nobles, and even up to kings and emperors. The study of their petitions therefore offers a glimpse into the varied concerns of the different segments of thirteenth-century society; it is especially important for the study of medieval women, who are massively under-represented in contemporary sources, yet appear prominently in petitions regarding marriages or convents of nuns, for example.

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Part of the collection of the Monumenta Germaniae Historica institute, Munich.

Appreciating how these petitionary processes worked in practice is crucial to our understanding of the papacy, and, because of the great international influence of the popes, medieval history more broadly. Yet for the thirteenth century, only a handful of the petitions themselves, the actual documents which contained the written requests of supplicants, are still extant. My postdoctoral research project at Ludwig–Maximilians–Universität, Munich, seeks for the first time to rebuild the cases of these lost petitions from thirteenth-century England on a large scale. The reconstruction of lost petitions and their context requires a combination of other surviving contemporary sources, such as papal letters, episcopal and royal letters, and chronicles, through which one can trace the progress of petitionary cases at local, national, and international levels. Access to a wide array of sources is therefore utterly crucial to the success of the project, and Munich is one of the best locations in the world to conduct this research. Munich is a famous hub for the study of the Middle Ages, and is home to a number of world-class research institutes, such as the Monumenta Germaniae Historica, which has an unparalleled open-shelf collection of primary and secondary sources devoted purely to medieval history, including specialist works on papal diplomacy which are difficult to access in Britain.

The award of the Leverhulme Study Abroad Studentship has also provided a unique and valuable opportunity to conduct research alongside leading medievalists in Munich, and through immersion in the distinct research culture here to learn from the different approaches that are being taken, and to apply them to my own research.