Social Expertise and Political Decisions in Early Modern Europe – deadline 28 February 2019

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Date / time
Date(s) - 3 May
All day


Although expertise is now central to governmental practices, the figure of the expert is in crisis. When urban infrastructures collapse or medical scandals are exposed, scepticism toward experts is increasingly visible: “We have had enough of experts” is a common lament. Because of this loss of confidence, people without particular qualifications claim a right to expert decisions that affect the world in which they live. Sociologists and political scientists have called this new approach “lay expertise” or “citizen expertise”. Although the phenomenon is presented as a 21st-century development, early modern European archives highlight the important role played by ordinary people in political decision-making, who were neither apart of elite society nor of government.

This workshop discusses the place of popular experts in early modern societies. French and English historians have already emphasized the role of artisans who provided expertise acquired through practice, crafts,and familiarity with economic transactions. This workshop, instead, aims to focus on the role of people who provided and possessed knowledge that can be described as “common”. Common knowledge can be defined as what inhabitants know about how social groups live in their local environment, whether it concerns social knowledge of the communities, uses of urban infrastructures, uses of common space or what historians called the commons – informal social arrangements of which authorities had no direct means of knowing about. This knowledge enabled inhabitants to participate in political decisions as social experts. Through interviews, consultation or petitions, institutions listened popular experts in the regular running of local affairs. These forms of participation imply that common knowledge could be more than mere gossip or fama, because such expertise became legal evidence endorsed by the authorities. In early modern Venice, for instance, inhabitants testified in legal procedures involving fishermen wishing to join the fishmongers’ guild. Historians of early modern England have similarly studied how popular experts were used as jurors or witnesses, for instance to explain land use at times of dispute.

The aim of the workshop is to bring together early modern specialists from different countries and regions to understand how this knowledge could become a juridical expertise to feed into political decision-making processes, and how inhabitants could become social experts.

Possible topics may include:

  • The authorities’ recourse to ordinary people in informing political decisions
  • The position of these experts in cities or rural areas and the acquisition of experiential knowledge
  • The procedures through which social experts operate
  • The actors’ point of view, including the strategic advantage of sharing social expertise.

Proposals (about 300 words) and a short biography can be sent by the 28th February 2019 to the following address :

Scientific committee: Filippo De Vivo (Birkbeck, University of London), Jérémie Foa (Aix-Marseille Université), Thomas Glesener (Aix-MarseilleUniversité), Vanessa Harding (Birkbeck, University of London), Claire Judde de Larivière (Université de Toulouse-Jean-Jaurès), Brigitte Marin (Aix-Marseille Université), Solène Rivoal (Aix-Marseille Université, Birkbeck, University of London).