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Addressing Authority. The Politics of Petitioning


Admission requirements

This course is part of the (Res)MA History Programme. Students from within the specialization the course belongs to have right of way. It is not accessible for BA students.


Those in power have been publicly challenged by the less powerful for as long as we can remember, but the shape of these protests took have shifted dramatically over the centuries. However, there is one way of addressing authorities that has remained remarkably stable: petitioning. In many autocratic political systems, petitioning was the only legitimate opportunity for people to make their voice heard to those in power. Therefore, in historiography, the petition has recently been rediscovered as one of the best ways to uncover the voices of ordinary people who hardly ever left traces in archives. This is true for indigenous people and colonized people as well.

Many of these petitions were individual requests, asking rulers for jobs, pensions, or support in legal matters for instance. These could include request from poor, illiterate people, asking someone else to write their story down. In addition to that, the petition would go on to play a role in mass politics. In the context of European and North-American modern politics, so from 1780 onwards, a novel repertoire of protest developed, which included mass demonstrations, mass organization and also mass petitioning. In this new political context it turned out that petition campaigns had an enormous potential to inform an mobilize hundreds of thousands of people. These mass petitions challenged the political legitimacy of kings, governments and parliaments, and placed the question whether politicians should listen more to the people. In recent years the online e-petition has remained an important way in which people can voice their discontent, even if this e-petition has been criticised as being an easy form of ‘clicktivism’.

In this course we will be analysing the history and historiography of petitioning, not only in the modern history of Europe and North-America, but also in its colonial context. First we will analyse recent historiography on petitioning practices. Then we will analyse the petition as a historical source, and conduct our own archival research into petitions.

Course objectives

General learning objectives

The student has acquired:

  1. The ability to independently identify and select literature, using traditional and modern techniques;
  2. The ability to independently identify and select sources, using traditional and modern techniques;
  3. The ability to analyse and evaluate a corpus of sources with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  4. The ability to analyse and evaluate literature with a view to addressing a particular historical problem;
  5. The ability to independently formulate a clear and well-argued research question, taking into account the theory and method of the field and to reduce this question to accessible and manageable sub-questions;
  6. The ability to independently set up and carry out an original research project that can make a contribution to existing scholarly debates;
  7. The ability to give a clear and well-founded oral and written report on research results in correct English, when required, or Dutch, meeting the criteria of the discipline;
  8. The ability to participate in current debates in the specialisation;
  9. The ability to provide constructive feedback to and formulate criticism of the work of others and the ability to evaluate the value of such criticism and feedback on one’s own work and incorporate it;
  10. (ResMA only:) The ability to participate in a discussion of the theoretical foundations of the discipline.

Learning objectives, pertaining to the specialisation

The student has acquired:

  1. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of one of the specialisations or subtrack as well as of the historiography of the specialisation, focusing particularly on the following;
    -in the specialisation Politics, Culture and National Identities, 1789 to the Present: political practices, symbols and perceptions, nationalism, and national identities in a cultural and societal context from 1800;
  2. Thorough knowledge and comprehension of the theoretical, conceptual and methodological aspects of the specialisation Politics, Culture and National Identities, 1789 to the Present: international comparison and transfer; the analysis of the specific perspectives of secondary studies; a cultural-historical approach of politics and a political-historical approach of culture.

Learning objectives, pertaining to this Research Seminar

The student:

  1. Has acquired basic knowledge and understanding of the history of petitioning in Europe and beyond since the late 18th century, and its place in modern political history, with special attention to petitioning in colonial contexts;
  2. Has acquired a thorough understanding of the way petitions can be used to reconstruct political practices, ideas about representation and power, and conceptions of politics;
  3. Has acquired in depth knowledge of one particular case study;
  4. (ResMA only) Has acquired the ability to use a more complex corpus of sources in comparison to regular MA students; and/or the ability to set up and carry out original research which raises new questions, pioneers new approaches and/or and points to new directions for future research.


The timetables are available through MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar (compulsory attendance)

This means that students must attend every session of the course. Students who are unable to attend are required to notify the lecturer beforehand. The teacher will determine if and how the missed session can be compensated by an additional assignment. If specific restrictions apply to a particular course, the lecturer will notify the students at the beginning of the semester. If a student does not comply with the aforementioned requirements, the student will be excluded from the seminar.

Assessment method


  • Written paper (6500-7500 words, based on research in primary sources, excluding title page, table of contents, footnotes and bibliography)
    measured learning objectives: 1-8, 12-15, (ResMA also: 9 and 16)

  • Oral presentation
    measured learning objectives: 3-7, 15

  • Assignment (reflection on primary source)
    measured learning objectives: 1-8, 12-15

  • Participation in class and online:
    measured learning objectives: 1-2, 8, 11-14*


  • Written paper: 70 %

  • Oral presentation: 10 %

  • Assignment : 10 %

  • Participation: 10%

The final grade for the course is established by determining the weighted average with the additional requirement that the written paper must always be sufficient.


Assignments and written papers should be handed in within the deadline as provided in the relevant course outline on Brightspace.


Should the overall mark be unsatisfactory, the paper is to be revised after consultation with the instructor.

Inspection and feedback

How and when a review of the written paper will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the results, a review of the written paper will have to be organised. 

Reading list

To be announced through Brightspace, shortly before the first class.


Enrolment through MyStudyMap is mandatory.

General information about course and exam enrolment is available on the website.


  • For course related questions, contact the lecturer listed in the right information bar.

  • For questions about enrolment, admission, etc, contact the Education Administration Office: Huizinga.