History at Leicester

Pauper letters and petitions for poor relief in Germany and Great Britain

AHRC Project Grant (£241,808)

May 2011 - April 2014

Professor Steven King

For over two decades historical research has shown a new and intensified interest in life testimonies (ego-documents) of the lower classes, i.e. of people who could or normally did not write, particularly not about themselves. German historians have so far ignored a type of source which has met with increasing interest in British research over the past years, namely letters, applications and petitions written by or for paupers to their home parish in order to apply for relief. Such ‘pauper narratives’ are preserved in British as well as in German archives, often in large numbers. They contain sometimes rudimentary, frequently, however, extensive information on the applicants’ material situation, their family circumstances, their relationship to the home parish or to particular officials or friends from whom they expect support. This project proposes to collect and edit on-line a substantial corpus of these narratives. Primarily, however, it will analyse these texts in a framework which allows regional as well as international comparisons in two ways: Firstly, the project will look at these texts from a socio-biographical perspective. It will analyse life cycle aspects of poverty as well as the applicants’ narrative construction of their life courses; secondly, it will look at these narratives from a perspective of semantics and will particularly analyse the influence of political language (e.g. Chartism and the labour movement) on the interpretation of the causes of poverty, their construction of entitlement to relief and the changes in the religious and political vocabulary of these texts.

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