Collective Biography and Comparative History



Prosopography, the historical methodology that attempts to illuminate general social,
political or economic circumstances of historical periods by examining the social backgrounds
and careers of individuals, has experienced a renewed scholarly interest particularly
in response to the growing use of database technologies in historical research.
Through the inclusion of methods such as network approaches and comparative historical
analysis, the analytical scope of the field has been broadened and new opportunities for
interdisciplinary research have arisen. Yet the principal challenges remain: while prosopographical
approaches retain the benefit of complementing information provided by official
sources with micro-historical insights, the treatment of residual sources requires a
particularly rigorous understanding of the history of consulted documents and the reasons
for their preservation. In the context of medieval studies, the scarcity of source material
on ‘average’ individuals arguably implies that the prosopographical approach cannot
be defined as “the inquiry into the common characteristics of a group of historical
actors by means of a collective study of their lives” (Stone 1971); should medievalist
prosopographical approaches therefore rely on a comparative framework to identify general
patterns on the basis of a series of individual case studies?


In this session, we examine the application of prosopographical methods in the context of
trade and finance in late medieval Italy. A 1930 article by Robert Brun on the Tuscan
merchant and financier Francesco Datini (c. 1335-1410) and a more recent essay by
Louise Buenger Robbert on the remarkable career of the thirteenth-century Venetian patrician
Domenico Gradenigo illustrate, first, the methodological advancements made in
prosopographical research since its beginnings. Second, these works highlight important
regional differences in business organisation and the interdependence of politics and
commerce on the Italian peninsula as well as the methodological challenges resulting
from comparing individuals active in different historical periods. We may consider the
following questions:
1. Which aspects of Datini’s and Gradenigo’s commerce (e.g. business organisation,
financing of ventures) and personal circumstances (e.g. family background and
overall significance of the family, political influence) bear similarities? Which are
the main differences and to which extent can these be explained with reference to
specific historical and geographical conditions?
2. In terms of studied variables, is there a general pattern to be followed or does the
analytical focus need to be adapted according to the specific historical circumstances
under examination?
3. Given that the prosopographical method tends to emphasise the specific to the
detriment of the general, how can it be meaningfully applied in a comparative
4. Is (or should) the prosopographical method in medievalist research (be) confined
to the study of political and economic elites, or can it be used to generate typologies
of social spheres (cf. Carney 1973)?

Core reading:

Brun, Robert: "A Fourteenth Century Merchant of Italy: Francesco Datini
of Prato", in: Journal of Economic and Business History II (May 1930), No. 3, pp. 451-466.

Robbert, Louise Buenger: "Domenico Gradenigo: A Thirteenth-Century Venetian Merchant",
in: Kittell, Ellen E., Madden, Thomas F., Medieval and Renaissance Venice, Urbana
and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1999, pp. 27-48.

K. Verboven, M. Carlier, J. Dumolyn: A Short Manual to the Art of Prosopography, pp. 36- 41, 46-48, 55-58, 60-68

Bol, Peter K.: "GIS, prosopography and history", in: Annals of GIS 18 (2012), No. 1, pp. 3-15.

Further reading:

Prosopography of the Byzantine World

The Oxford Prosopography Project

K.S.B. Keats-Rohan: Biography, Identity and Names: Understanding the Pursuit of
the Individual in Prosopography

Carney, T. F.: "Prosopography: Payoffs and Pitfalls", in: Phoenix 27 (Summer, 1973), No. 2, pp. 156-179.

Gerritsen, Anne: "Prosopography and its Potential for Middle Period Research", in: Journal of Song-Yuan Studies 38 (2008), pp. 161-201.
See contributions to the “Prosopography of Middle Period China: Using the Database“ workshop (Warwick University, 2007)

R. H. Hartwell et al., China Biographical Database Project

Stone, Lawrence: "Prosopography", in: Daedalus 100 (Winter, 1971), No. 1, pp. 46-79.

J. L. Nelson et al., Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England

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