Prosopography and Genealogy

A prosopography is a form of collective biography; the historical view of a group, rather than of an individual. It is not a collection of biographies but an analysis of a well-defined whole. It can, and most often does, provide the groundwork for a particular biography, however. This sort of study is invaluable to genealogists because it lays out some primary source material with which to begin a research project.

A distinction between genealogy and prosopography is:

Genealogy can be useful for prosopographical research. But a lineage or a family may also be chosen as the subject of a prosopographical study. The difference between a genealogical study and a prosopographical study of a family or lineage is that in the case of a genealogy the internal family relations are prevalent, whereas the research focus in a prosopographical study is on the relations of members of the family with the outer world; the contacts (through functions, services, marriages, networks etc.) they have outside their family and the way these affect the history and influence of the family. Attention is not only directed towards family members but also towards in-laws, friends, clients, business contacts and so forth. Even one-time contacts may be important.

(“A Short Manual to the Art of Prosopography,” by Koenraad Verboven, Myriam Carlier, and Jan Dumolyn, p. 40 [p. 6 in the PDF])

This comparison shows how much detail modern genealogists need to consider in their research. The social networking facet of prosopographical research, in particular, is more important these days, as shown by the recent publication of the last volume in Robert Charles Anderson’s The Great Migration series of books.

K. S. B. Keats Rohan also discusses the usefulness of genealogy and prosopography complementing and being distinct from each other in “Biography, Identity and Names.” The author is of one of the sources cited by Mr. Anderson in his “Joys of Prosopography” article.

Mr. Anderson’s article “The Joys of Prosopography: Collective Biography for Genealogists,” in the American Ancestors magazine, discusses applying the principles of prosopography to genealogical research with his own Great Migration study, Marsha Hoffman Rising’s Ozarks study, and Henry Z. Jones’ Palatine study as examples. (American Ancestors, Winter 2010 (Vol. 11, No. 1), 25) [see the New England Historic Genealogical Society site]

The Unit for Prosopographical Research, at Linacre College, Oxford [this site uses frames] has quite a bit of useful information, besides the two papers cited above. They focus their work mostly on classical and medieval historical studies, but include materials relevant to more modern times, as discussed in part in the two papers. They also have an extensive bibliography at their site.

Prosopography is not for the faint-of-heart, nor for the casual researcher, as discussed by all of the authors above. This sort of research can take years of effort and involves a level of detail not often seen in genealogies. Mr. Anderson’s task, alone, took 23 years to complete. The benefits of a well-done study are immeasurable due to the inclusiveness of the materials covered and new information provided. The Great Migration series will live far longer than Savage’s Genealogical Dictionary has.


© 2011 N. P. Maling – Sea Genes Family History & Genealogy Research

[updated 24 November 2022 NPM]