‘Miserabele personen’ en hun toegang tot het stadsbestuur. Pro-deo petities in achttiende-eeuws Antwerpen

Griet Vermeesch

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‘Miserable persons’ – including widows, orphans and ‘the poor’ – were entitled to petition their city governors free of charge, because of their destitution. Which ‘poor’ qualified for such entitlement is hard to derive from normative sources. Historiography offers inconsistent interpretations. Simona Cerutti, on the one hand, had asserted for eighteenth-century Turin how poverty related first and foremost to ignorance of local laws and lack of local ties, and less to material circumstances. Katherine Lynch, on the other hand, has stressed the importance of early modern poor relief to local poor in the creation of civic communities. If such interpretative scheme is applicable to ‘pro deo’ petitioning, the local belonging of such petitioners instead of lack of local ties must have been characteristic. A full-text analysis of 213 petitions offered to the Antwerp city government during the eighteenth century helps to explore the nature of poverty of social groups who managed to access the city government free of charge. They did so to acquire some relief in the form of an allowance, an authorisation or – more often than not – the arbitration of interpersonal conflicts. All in all, little pro deo petitions were registered in the so-called rekwestboeken. It appears that only a specific group among the large sections of urban poor qualified for the status of ‘persona miserabilis’. They more often than not belonged to the local community, their poverty was a fairly recent experience and related to downward social mobility. The article also argues that only those who found a legal professional willing to help submitting a ‘pro deo’ petition, managed to do so. In short, the city government of eighteenth-century Antwerp was difficult to approach by lower social groups.
Original languageDutch
Pages (from-to)1-27
Number of pages27
JournalLow Countries Journal of Social and Economic History
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2015


  • Early modern history
  • Low Countries
  • Legal aid to the poor
  • Social History
  • socio-legal history

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