In historical studies, prosopography is an investigation of the common characteristics of an historical group, whose individual biographies may be largely untraceable, by means of a collective study of their lives. Prosopographical research has the aim of learning about patterns of relationships and activities through the study of collective biography, and proceeds by collecting and analysing statistically relevant quantities of biographical data about a well-defined group of individuals. This makes it a valuable technique for studying many pre-modern societies. Prosopography is an increasingly important approach within historical research. The term is a popular one, and the concept is easily inflated.
History of prosopography
Lawrence Stonebrought the term to general attention in an explanatory article in 1971. [Lawrence Stone, "Prosopography", "Daedalus" 100.1 (1971), pp 46-71.] The word is drawn from the figure "prosopoeia" in classical rhetoric, introduced by Quintilian, in which an absent or imagined person is figured forth -- the "face created" as the Greek suggests -- in words, as if present.
It is apparent that a certain mass of data is required for prosopography. [The classic early example of prosopography was the series of volumes of "Prosopographia Imperii Romanae", edited by P. von Rohden and H. Dessau, (Berlin), appearing from 1897, which amassed a database covering the governing class of the Roman
Principiate. ] The collection of data underlies the creation of a prosopography, and in contemporary research this is usually in the form of an electronic database. However, data-assembly by itself should not be seen as the goal of prosopographical research; rather, the objective is to understand relationships by analysing the data. A uniform set of criteria needs to be applied to the group in order to achieve meaningful results. And, as with any historical study, understanding the context of the lives studied is essential.
Katherine Keats-Rohanputs it:
:'Prosopography is about what the analysis of the sum of data about many individuals can tell us about the different types of connexion between them, and hence about how they operated within and upon the institutions - social, political, legal, economic, intellectual - of their time.’. (
Katharine Keats-Rohan, "History and Computing" 12.1, p. 2)
In this sense prosopography is clearly related to, but distinct from, both
biographyand genealogy. Whilst biography and prosopography overlap, and prosopography is interested in the details of individuals' lives, a prosopography is more than the plural of biography. A prosopography is not just any collection of biographies - the lives must have enough in common for relationships and connections to be uncovered. Genealogy, as practiced by family historians, has as its goal the reconstruction of familial relationships, and as such, well-conducted genealogical research may form the basis of a prosopography, but the goals of prosopographical research are generally wider.
The nature of prosopographical research has developed over time. In his 1971 essay, Lawrence Stone discussed an 'older' form of prosopography which was principally concerned with well-known social elites, many of whom were already well-known historical figures. Their genealogies were well-researched, and social webs and kinship linking could be traced, allowing a prosopography of a 'power elite' to emerge. Prominent examples which Stone drew upon were the work of
Charles Beardand Sir Lewis Namier. Charles Beard's " An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States" (1913) offered an explanation of the form and content of the U.S. Constitutionby looking at the class background and economic interests of the Founding Fathers. Sir Lewis Namierproduced an equally influential study of the eighteenth century British House of Commons, and inspired a circle of historians whom Stone lightly termed "Namier Inc." Stone contrasted this older prosopography with what in 1971 was the newer form of quantitative prosopography, whose concern was with much wider populations including, particularly, 'ordinary people'. An example of this kind of work, published slightly later, is Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie's pioneering work of microhistory, "" (1978), which developed a picture of patterns of kinship and heresy, daily and seasonal routine in a small Occitan village, the last pocket of Cathars, over a thirty-year period from 1294 to 1324. Stone anticipated that this new form of prosopography would become dominant as part of a growing wave of Social Science History, but this promise was not immediately realised, as prosopography and other associated forms of social science and quantitative history went into a period of decline during the 1980s. In the 1990s, however, perhaps because of developments in computing, and particularly in database software, prosopography experienced a revival and is now clearly established as an important approach in historical research.
Other examples of prosopographical research
Barbara Harvey's "Living and Dying in England 1100-1540: The Monastic Experience" (1993) is a prosopography that draws a group picture of monastic life, centered on the aggregate experience of the monks of Westminster Abbey. It explores some major themes of daily life— corporate and personal charity, diet, sickness and mortality, servants— in a mosaic formed of documentary flashes of momentary insight into a multitude of obscure lives that can never be pieced together into individual biographies.
Sociologist Michael Erben has also explored the use of prosopography to investigate what might be called a 'street biography' in "A Preliminary Prosopography of the Victorian Street", "Auto/Biography" Vol 4, 2/3, (1996). Sourced mainly from census records, the data used included not only the demography but also the spatial classifications, occupations, and domestic arrangements of a street in Victorian Oxford. This material forms what Erben describes as an Unaffiliated or Disinterested Group, i.e. spatial locale may be all inhabitants had in common, unlike the Intentional Groups, with explicit shared interests, of more traditional prosopography. The work shows that such Unaffiliated Groups can yield much information on subjects such as social mobility in a given place and time.
*Keats-Rohan, Katherine S. B. "Domesday People: A Prosopography of Persons Occurring in English Documents, 1066–1166". 2v. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1999.
*Keats-Rohan, Katherine S. B. (ed). "Family Trees and the Roots of Politics: The Prosopography of Britain and France from the Tenth to the Twelfth Century". Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 1997.
*Keats-Rohan, Katherine S. B. (ed)., "Prosopography Approaches and Applications: A Handbook". Oxford : Prosopographica et Genealogica, 2007.
*Lindgren, M., 'People of Pylos: Prosopographical and Methodological Studies in the Pylos Archives (Boreas). Uppsala (1973)
*Radner, K. (ed.), "The Prosopography of the Neo-Assyrian Empire". Helsinki, 1998-2002. [http://www.helsinki.fi/science/saa/pna.html]
Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire". Cambridge: University Press, 1971-92.
*Carney, T. F. "Prosopography: Payoffs and Pitfalls" "Phoenix" 27.2 (Summer, 1973), pp. 156-179. Assessing results of prosopography applied to Roman Republican history.
* [http://www.pase.ac.uk/ Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England] - a project designed to provide a comprehensive biographical register of recorded inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England (c. 450-1066), to be accessible in the form of a searchable on-line database, and intended to facilitate further research in many different aspects of Anglo-Saxon studies.
* [http://www.sibrium.org/en/Eligivs "Eligivs" - Anagrafica del personale di zecca] - Prosopography of the mint officials. With on-line access (Italian).
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