From the Greek prospon, character and graphy, writing.
Prosopography has been defined as
The best explanation of which I have found is the following;
Prosopography is a method of historical inquiry (popularized in the 1930's) that studies collections of biographic material about people bound by family, friendship, patronage, commerce, political expediency or faith, to name a few. The technique can shed light on "collectivities," be they merchant guilds, parliaments, senates, courts, groups of landowners, etc. 4
It seems to involve cataloguing everyone that can be identified within, for example, a specific historical and geographical locale, and then seeking to establish who they were related to, who were their political allies, which places they frequented, which religious institutions they belonged to, who their friends were etc etc
Modern prosopography (naturally enough) seems to consist of constructing large databases the purpose of which is not necessarily to provide any historical insights per se, but rather to create an analysis tool that allows other historians to do so.
Specific examples, both emanating from Kings College, London provide the best illustration of the nature and purpose of prosopography.
- The Prosopography of the Byzantine Empire Project's goal is to record in a computerised relational database all surviving information about every individual mentioned in Byzantine sources during the period from 641 to 1261, and every individual mentioned in non-Byzantine sources during the same period who is 'relevant' to Byzantine affairs. (See www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/PBE/)
- The Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England Project (PASE) whose aim is to provide a comprehensive biographical register of recorded inhabitants of Anglo-Saxon England (c. 450-1066), accessible in the form of a searchable on-line database.(See www.kcl.ac.uk/humanities/cch/pase/pase.htm))
1 Donald Charles Jackman of The Pennsylvania State University see www.personal.psu.edu/users/d/c/dcj121/prosop.htm
2 The Unit For Prosopographical Research at Linacre College, Oxford
3 The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 2000. at www.bartleby.com/61/83/P0608300.html
4 Charles Casassa quoted from
See also the
Newsletter Of The Unit For Prosopographical Research