Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England

[Image: Witness list of a royal diploma, S 497 (extract); Aelfwine]



The Oxford English Dictionary (online edition, revised September 2009) offers the following definitions of the word ‘prosopography’: ‘1. The description of the form or personal appearance of an individual; an instance of this. Now rare. 2. A study or description of an individual’s life, career, etc.; esp. a collection of such studies focusing on the public careers and relationships of a group in a particular place and period; a collective biography. As a mass noun: the study of such descriptions, esp. as an aspect of classical history; such studies or histories as a genre.’ The etymological origin of the word is ancient Greek meaning ‘face, person’, which was rendered prosopon in post-classical Latin, whence prosopographia, meaning a description of a person’s appearance or of an individual’s life.

The term ‘prosopography’ is now applied to studies in a wide range of Humanities and Social Science Disciplines. A common denominator linking these studies is that they all proceed from the collection and analysis of data relating to the careers and relationships of people within a particular group. The way in which these datasets are studied once they have been compiled vary considerably. For some prosopographical studies, the main objective is to compile and publish a dataset in a format which is valuable to other students and scholars in a particular field of research; for others, the compilation of prosopographical dataset is simply the first stage in wider process of analysis and interpretation.

PASE has been funded by the ARHB and AHRC to create a resource for scholars, students and anyone else with an interest in Anglo-Saxon England. The objective of the project has been to compile a prosopographical dataset for Anglo-Saxon England that is as comprehensive and accessible as possible given the available resources. Priority has therefore been afforded to achieving the greatest possible range and depth of coverage of the available primary sources, and to making the data as accessible as possible in the way it is presented and structured through the web interface. PASE has therefore focused more heavily on the compilation and presentation of data than on prosopographical analysis and interpretation.

However, the process of compilation is itself rigorous analytical work which demands considerable knowledge of the period, expertise in handling complex sources with sensitivity, and the deployment of careful judgment in the selection and presentation of data in the form of factoids. In addition, each parcel of data and factoid must be linked where possible to a particular named and numbered individual and, depending on the nature of the source material itself, it is sometimes necessary to make interpretative judgments to create such links. In general, the PASE researchers have sought to link data to particular named and numbered persons where it is possible to do so with a reasonable degree of certainty, leaving open the possibility that some of the ‘persons’ listed in the dataset may have been identical with one another.

This leaves abundant scope for prosopographical research, for instance to suggest or establish connections between persons named in the dataset, explore the data itself to reconstruct what is known if their careers, to write profiles summarizing or elucidating those careers, and to situate the material in relation to existing secondary literature. It is hoped that PASE will both stimulate such research, and that some of the results of will become integrated into the website (see Contacts). However, the addition of a comprehensive interpretative framework to the dataset lay beyond the scope of the PASE 1 and PASE 2 projects.

The application of computer technology has vastly enhanced the potential of prosopographical studies. In particular, it has made size manageable, and prosopographies these days are often very large. The key input in a prosopography’s value, though, and the major element in a project’s costs, is not the IT but the expertise of the staff involved in making the data-base and harnessing the IT power appropriately. In the UK over the past decade, the AHRB and, since 2005, the AHRC, has assumed major responsibility for the infrastructure of Humanities scholarship and hence for the funding of large prosopographies. PASE is one of several such projects involving the Centre for Computing in the Humanities at King’s College London to have received AHRC support. A sister project at King’s is the Prosopography of the Byzantine World. Another, the Clergy of the Church of England Database, is prosopographical in a more specialised sense. The balance between the compilation of data and subsequent interpretation in each of these projects naturally differs according to their specific research objectives.