What is prosopography? Prosopography is an approach to the study of history entailing the examination of individuals from the standpoint of the groups to which they belong, and of groups from the standpoint of their constituent individuals. The underlying principle is quite simple: when one wishes to have information about a group, one studies the individual members of that group, and when one desires a general profile of an individual, one familiarizes oneself with that person’s group. The medieval period of European history is a fertile landscape for prosopography, since a significant quantity of information on important individuals exists only in forms applicable to the study of groups. Powerful and significant individuals exist in the historical record sometimes only in the form of raw data – a name, a title, a vaguely defined family connection.
The study of government. It is accepted that the prosopographical approach relates especially to questions concerning government. One must conceive government not only in terms of persons performing specific regulatory functions, but as a system with fundamental attributes requiring identification and appreciation. With its emphasis on gathering data, prosopography may be helpful in determining the foundations of the system, in particular the basis in legal notions, or at least in testing hypotheses regarding fundamental attributes of the system. Since the law of the European middle ages (with the exception of canon law) exists primarily as unwritten customary law, prosopography is a major resource for understanding the medieval constitution, that is, the law relevant to government. This presupposes that the prosopographical approach is designed towards that end and not as an end in itself.
Public inheritance. The nature and scope of law pertaining to succession in public office should be among the primary objects of the prosopographical approach as it pertains to medieval European history. Twentieth-century historians have accepted a doctrine that the early middle ages knew no fundamental laws of succession. The princely dynasties that emerged from the dark ages supposedly won their rights of hereditary succession through usurpation of a royal right of installment. Even the hereditary nature of medieval monarchy is rejected, being viewed as custom established by particularly successful dynasties rather than as generally recognized legal principle. By collecting all information of possible relevance in implementing the prosopographical approach, instead of limiting ourselves to materials of prima facie relevance, we have a much better chance of gaining insight into these issues.
Current state of research. Where the royal office is concerned, the twentieth-century doctrine is sufficiently bankrupt that its proponents sometimes offer false representations in order retain their readership, which is as much as to say that they rely on the ignorance of their readers and actively nurture that ignorance. A part of understanding the question of heritability seems to hinge on understanding the errors of past scholars and even, in some cases, their irrational reaction to serious investigation. There is a pressing need to recognize the situation for what it is. Without accurate genealogical data, it will not be possible to know whether succession was conditioned by heritability. Moreover, there is only one right solution to each given genealogical question. The right solution is likely to be the one that is better supported in comparison to other solutions, even if it contains some speculate element.
Primacy of the sources. Almost since the very period in question, the study of aristocratic genealogy has been rife with speculation, invention, falsification, and myth-making. Despite a continuing and largely successful movement towards accuracy and authenticity in historical research, genealogical falsification is still occasionally pursued. If the inquiry is to be historical, inferences must be based solely on the applicable sources and related considerations. This presupposes the development and utilization of methods to help in determining how sources may contribute.
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The Medieval Prosopography and Legal History website offers separate sections devoted to royal succession, medieval counties, and early heraldry. The treatment of royal succession deals primarily with Germany and focuses especially on these areas: (1) a practical description of inherited right and its relevance; (2) candidacies that have proved difficult to explain; and (3) the possibility of political currents exerting a long-term influence. The section devoted to medieval counties is a progressive report on a large-scale undertaking designed to generate understanding of the application of principles of heritability in obscure but important cases. Finally, the section entitled early heraldry contains a brief introduction to early systematic heraldry. Heraldry is a problematical resource with the potential for contributions of unexpected value.