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Pauper Letters and Petitions for Poor Relief in Germany and Great Britain, 1770–1914

Andreas Gestrich (University of Trier) and Steven King (University of Leicester)

ghil@ghil.ac.uk
 
 

Over the last two decades, historical research has shown a new and stronger interest in life testimonies (ego documents) of the lower classes – i.e. of people who could not, or normally did not, write, especially about themselves. In this context one type of source has met with increasing interest in in recent years – namely, letters, applications, and petitions written by or for paupers to their home parish in order to apply for relief. This project proposes to collect and edit a substantial online corpus of these narratives. In addition, it will analyse these texts in a framework that allows regional and international comparisons. The project is jointly directed by Prof Andreas Gestrich (University of Trier) and Prof Steven A. King (University of Leicester). Between 2011 and 2014, this project was supported by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) and the Art and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).

Pauper letters and applications for relief contain sometimes rudimentary but often extensive information on the applicants’ material situation, their family circumstances, and their relationships with their home parish, as well as on specific officials or friends from whom they expect support. This project proposes to collect and edit a substantial online corpus of these narratives. Primarily, however, it will analyse these texts in a framework that allows regional as well as international comparisons in two ways. First, the project will look at these texts from a socio-biographical perspective, analysing life-cycle aspects of poverty and the applicants’ narrative construction of their life courses. Second, it will look at these narratives from the perspective of semantics and analyse, in particular, the applicants’ interpretation of the causes of poverty, their constructions of entitlement to relief, and the changes in the religious and political vocabulary of these texts.