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22.03.13 Dodd/McHardy (eds.), Petitions from Lincolnshire c.1200-c.1500

22.03.13 Dodd/McHardy (eds.), Petitions from Lincolnshire c.1200-c.1500

From 2003 to 2007, the AHRC-funded “Medieval Petitions” project, under the leadership of the late Professor Mark Ormrod, produced an online catalogue of the SC 8 class of “Ancient Petitions” in The National Archives, London, together with digitized images of each petition, available free of charge to the reader. A class of documents that had previously been difficult to navigate and search was opened up to public inspection, and the years since then have seen the publication of quite a number of books on petitions and petitioning. This volume, produced by the Lincoln Record Society, is the latest.

The SC 8 class was originally a collection of petitions presented to the king in parliament, requesting favors or the redress of grievances that could not be dealt with by the common law courts. This was re-organized in the nineteenth century, and other similar documents added, to make a collection of requests from a very wide range of people--great noblemen, poor peasants, Jews, widows, alchemists, merchants English and foreign, towns, villages, guilds, soldiers, ecclesiastics of all types. The subjects on which they petition are equally varied, making the “Ancient Petitions” a valuable resource for the political, social, and economic history of late medieval England.

Working on a geographical basis, as this book does, enables Dodd and McHardy to showcase this variety. They use not only SC 8, but letters containing requests to the king from the SC 1 class (“Ancient Correspondence”), and bills requesting justice from the chancellor from C 1 (“Early Proceedings in Chancery”). In this way they are able to cover a wide range of requests, and to span the whole period between 1200 and 1500. The documents are well chosen, illustrating the full variety of life in Lincolnshire at this period. Of particular value is the bringing together of related petitions from different petitioners, such as those concerning Bardney abbey on 39-47, or the opposing petitions from Lady Wake and the people of Kesteven and Holland, concerning a lost boundary ditch, on 166-168. Placing these documents side by side allows the reader to see more than one side of an issue, and highlights the ways in which the different parties make their case. The documents are arranged in chronological order, which enables the reader to follow the development of petitioning style from the more direct language of the thirteenth century to the rise of the deferential and elaborate “curial prose” in the late fourteenth, and the transition from Anglo-Norman French to English in the fifteenth. This volume is presumably intended principally for local historians, but it is of much wider interest: the documents chosen are representative of national as well as local issues, and this book will be of use to students of the political, economic, and social history of England, of religion, and of the language and rhetoric of petitioning, amongst others.

An excellent introduction, which greatly enhances the collection, describes the differences between the three classes of documents, and puts them in the context of the late medieval English system of complaint and redress. It describes their rhetorical strategies and outlines the changes in language and format that they undergo. It situates them in the context of the political and economic history of the time, and includes sections on the landscape of Lincolnshire, its towns, and its churches and monasteries, as well as a useful map of the county. All of this is comprehensive and well-written, assumes no special knowledge, and will be of great assistance to the reader. There is no full translation, but each document is preceded by an English summary, and followed by extensive notes.

However, although this book has so much potential and so many excellent qualities, it is let down by poor editing, which has allowed many mistakes to creep into the text of the petitions themselves, and into their English summaries. Fortunately the texts in English and Anglo-Norman (the vast majority) are not badly affected, although even here there are problems that suggest that the text has not been fully understood: for example the transcription of “feit” and “feient” instead of seit and seient on 42, against both the clear manuscript reading and the sense of the text, which requires the verb estre; or the placing of a comma between the verb and its dependent infinitive in “e si ly plet veylle, comaunder” on 17. However, mistakes like these are relatively few. The problem is rather with the minority of texts that are in Latin, where the mistakes are sometimes embarrassingly elementary. For example, on 284 there is a list of heresies, one of which reads Curatus tenetur communicare parochianum suum in Paschate asserentem se nulli confessum nec cuique confiteri volentem sed penitus recusantem. This is rendered in the English summary as “A curate is bound to communicate his parishioner at Easter even if he has made no confession nor wishes to confess, except inwardly.” This ignores recusantem; a better translation would be “nor wishes to confess, but absolutely refuses,” which is some way from “inwardly.” In the worst example in the book (the first document, on 3) G. filius Petri etc. vicecomiti Linc’ salutem is translated “G. fitz Peter, sheriff of Lincolnshire, greetings,” when the dative vicecomiti clearly shows that it should be “G. fitz Peter to the sheriff of Lincolnshire.” The summary then goes on to ignore the word si (if), which is repeated twice, and to merge two separate sums of £20 into one, and thus completely misrepresents the text. To make matters worse, the word plegius is translated “guarantor” once and “pledger” twice, for no apparent reason. Nor are the mistakes confined to translation. On 12 are the words tempore omnium vicecomes predecessorum. Thinking that this was unusual, I checked with the digitized image, and found thatvicecomes was abbreviated to vic. Why expand to nominative singular, when the sense clearly requires genitive plural? The editors and their research assistant, Lisa Liddy, are all far too experienced to make this sort of basic error, and I can only think that pressure of time has led to corners being cut. This is a very real pity. If the Latin texts had only been thoroughly and carefully checked by someone familiar with the language, this could have been an excellent book, useful to a wide range of readers. As it is, I have to recommend it with the caveat that any Latin text, at least, should be read very carefully, and preferably with the original document to hand.