Tracking medieval careers and legal history

How to put life into history? History becomes alive when you can see or imagine real people. Having their names, knowing about their activities, their homes and work, beliefs and customs, facing laws or whatever happens to them, is surely the most powerful way to connect to history and to understand its importance. However, often you can find about people only data when you look at the groups to which they belonged. They might have been members of a guild, of a particular family, they might have followed similar careers or be supined for particular reasons. It is wonderful when you can combine both a personal approach and a more general way of looking at people’s life. In the field of medieval legal history it is increasingly possible to find information about the same people both in more general online databases and in more specialized databases. The particular historical auxiliary science dealing with people and their careers is called prosopography. In this post I want to look at some projects concerning medieval prosopography, and show some ways of tuning them to good use for legal history.

The wide fields of prosopography

Prosopography is a discipline developed for the study of Classical Antiquity. The very word has Greeks roots and means something akin to “writing the faces”. The Prosopographia Imperii Romani (3 vol., Berlin 1897-1898) by Hermann Dessau and other scholars is surely the most important pioneer work. The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire (3 vol., Cambridge 1971-1992) edited by A.H.M. Jones and other British scholars extended the range well into the early medieval period, for it covers the years 260 to 641. These large-scale projects are nowadays accompanied by a number of smaller projects, some of them even available online either as digitized books or as searchable databases. For medieval history with a very substantial link to the Roman Empire you can use for example for the period 641 to 1025 the Prosopographie der mittelbyzantinischen Zeit, a website of the Berlin-Brandenburgische Akademie der Wissenschaften, and for the period 1025-1250 the online version provided by King’s College London of M. Jeffreys (ed.), Prosopography of the Byzantine World (2011). At Bibliotheca Classica Selecta you will find a fine list of relevant works and websites concerning Classical Antiquity.

In this post I will focus on the European Middle Ages, starting with England. One of the databases for early medieval history is the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England (PASE) which contains names and data on people living in England between the late sixth and the late eleventh century. The database is accompanied by a sister project for the Domesday Book (1086), PASE Domesday. In order not to write inside this post an entire account of the history and online representations of the Domesday Book I will restrict myself here to a reference to the Domesday Book Net and to the information at the website of the British National Archives. I did not see there a link to Coelweb where you can find a database on the continental origins of English landholders, 1066-1166.

English ecclesiastical history is the subject of the series Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1066-1300 where you can search for ecclesiastical officers in the nine digitized volumes of the first series. At British History Online twelve volumes of the second series, Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae 1300-1541 have been digitized, too. You might try to combine the services of the first database with the Taxatio Ecclesiastica Angliae et Walliae Auctoritate P. Nicholai IV, a searchable online version of the edition from 1802 by the Record Commission of a uniquely preserved assessment of ecclesiastical wealth in England and Wales from the years 1291-1292. The second series can be combined for the archdiocese of York with the database for the York Cause Papers with cases from 1300 to 1858. For the period from 1541 to 1835 one can search for English clerics in the Clergy of the Church of England Database. For Early Modern history the portal Connected Histories, British History Sources 1500-1900 can do splendid services, but without even much searching the legal history of medieval England is served online almost as good.

As for Scotland it is well worth pointing to People of Medieval Scotland (1093-1314), launched last month. The project is connected with the projects on The Breaking of Britain (on the period 1216-1314) and the Paradox of Medieval Scotland (1093-1286).

Germany, Italy, France and more

When you approach the Romana Repertoria put online by the Deutsches Historisches Institut in Rome online research comes really into its own. At this website scholars have combined the Repertorium Germanicum (RG) and the Repertorium Poenitentiariae Germanicum (RPG). The RG is concerned with Germans appearing in late medieval papal registers in the holdings of the Archivio Segreto Vaticano. The RPG deals with supplications from the late medieval German Holy Empire to the Cancellaria Poenitentiaria, one of the highest papal courts. Clerics asked this court for dispensation or even absolution after having committed offenses. In 1992 the Swiss scholar Ludwig Schmugge (Zurich) started this project, and it is remarkable to see an online database based on the paper publications so soon after their publication. Both databases enable you to look not only for German clerics and other Germans in an important source for the history of the papacy, but also to look at possible questions and cases about them which they filed with a particular papal court.

Things get even more interesting when you combine the forces of the RG and the RPG with online databases of the Germania Sacra project of the Akademie der Wissenschaften in Göttingen. Recently the Klerikerdatabase for research about medieval German clerics has been redesigned. At Göttingen a number of the original volumes of the Germania Sacra have been digitized and made searchable online, too. This month an additional Personendatenbank has been launched for searching persons in both these volumes and the general database.

The Pius-Stiftung in Göttingen has under its aegis the series of editions and regests (systematic summaries) of medieval papal charters, such as the Germania Pontificia. Better than complaining about the absence of a digital edition of these vast series at its website is going to the digital version of the Regesta Imperii at Mainz and the accompanying online bibliography or using the numerous online resources provided by the Monumenta Germaniae Historica (MGH) in Munich. Stanford University has digitized twelve volumes of Italia Pontificia, but I had rather not present here a tour of charters online when this is given abundantly elsewhere, for instance at the university of Munich.

A link with the Germania Pontificia is provided by the online database of Italia Regia, a database aiming at an overview of charters issued by medieval kings and emperors, placita (court records) and pontifical charters for the Regnum Italiae. The subtitle of this Italian-German project, “Il potere pubblico nei secoli VII-XI. Diplomi, placiti, persone” is telling: public power from the sixth to the eleventh century in charters, placita and people is at stake here. It is difficult to choose other prosopographical databases from Italy. The least I can do is giving the link to the Florentine Tratte, a database at Brown University on officeholders in Florence between 1282 and 1532, which tends to be used in conjunction with the online catasto (tax register) for Florence from 1427. In Italy several universities have created online database concerning historic teachers and students. You can for example use a database on medieval scholars at Siena and Perugia or use the onomasticon for Perugia.

The database Ut per litteras apostolicas published by Brepols gives its subscribers – mainly libraries – access to the volumes with papal letters edited in the French series Registres et lettres des papes du XIIIe siècle and the sequel for the fourteenth century, two major source series. For the letters of pope Clement IV (1265-1268) you can find a preliminary version of a critical edition of 556 letters prepared for the MGH by Matthias Thumser at the Freie Universität Berlin. Brepols offers also subscriptions to Europa Sacra, a database with 30,000 records on medieval bishops, archibishops and patriarchs from the standard works by P.B. Gams, Series episcoporum ecclesiae catholicae (Regensburg 1873) and its successor, C. Eubel and others (eds.), Hierarchia catholica medii et recentioris aevi ab anno 1198 (Münster 1898-). To me it seems at first sight that you have to use the newer databases already mentioned here to supplement and rectify data in Europa Sacra. For information on late medieval and later bishops the website Catholic Hierarchy often is helpful, but alas unsourced.

For France, too, projects concerning medieval clerics exists. The Fasti Ecclesiae Gallicanae are the modern sequel to the volumes of Gallia Christiana in provincias ecclesiasticas distributa (…) (15 vol., Paris, 1715-1865). It includes bishops, canons of cathedral chapters, abbots and other ecclesiastical dignitaries. At his blog Pecia Jean-Luc Deuffic has listed links to digital versions of both these volumes and the three volumes of the Gallia Christiana novissima (1895-1900). The website of these French fasti points to similar projects elsewhere. You encountered here already the Germania Sacra and the Fasti Ecclesiae Anglicanae, but Helvetia Sacra and the Fasti Ecclesiae Portugaliae deserve mentioning, too. The Laboratoire de Médiévistique Occidentale de Paris (LAMOP; Université Paris-1 (Panthéon-Sorbonne)) has more cards on its sleeves. Recently it launched the Base des collegiales séculières de France (816-1563), a database for searching medieval secular chapters, secular meaning here not following a particular special rule for canons at collegiate churches. At Paris a website has been developed with data on clerics at the cathedral of Meaux, accompanied by a more general site on this project including maps and a bibliography; one has to register to get access to the database. Another prosopographical database from the LAMOP is Opération Charles VI, a database with people active during the reign of the French king Charles VI (1380-1422).

By now it is no surprise the LAMOP offers this academic year a seminar on medieval prosopography. For this discipline a journal exists, Medieval Prosopography, published since 1980 by the Western Michigan University. For modern history Oxford University has created an online tutorial for prosopography. The tendency for research along national lines is deplored at this Oxford website, and yet the new project for Scotland seems to be blissfully unaware of the dangers of limits along arbitrary borders. In fact the very way Scotland broke apart from England spurred this project. Interestingly some projects concerning Germany use the borders of the former Holy Roman Empire, including parts of Italy and the Low Countries. At the Germania Sacra website you will find a useful selection of links to projects for university registers (Matrikel) from Germany and in particular the Repertorium Academicum Germanicum (1250-1550). I guess it is wise with such projects to set yourself some borders in order to escape from starting an all-compassing or even utopian project. It might drag on infinitely or end as a dead-end indeed, by lack of funding or real scientific importance, because aims, methods and standards might easily have developed in different directions during the long periods in which such projects run.

The same wisdom helps me to end this post here. It is certainly not the definitive guide to online medieval prosopographical databases with particular relevance for legal historians. For medieval Britain the website on medieval genealogy offers a detailed presentations of online resources for medieval biography and prosopography. I skip even the customary Dutch twist, for example with online university immatriculation records for Dutch universities, but I give you in exchange the link to a database on Belgian magistrates from 1795 to 2005, Just-his, a website of the Université Catholique de Louvain. However, if you think that it is easy to expand on this post, please send me your comments and additional references!

A postscript

As for Dutch matriculation registers, I am afraid I mixed up things. Several Dutch alba promotorum have been digitized:

- Digitaal Album Promotorum, Utrecht University
- Digitaal Album Promotorum, Groningen University
- Album Academicum, Universiteit van Amsterdam

Utrecht University has a fine website on its professors since 1636, the Catalogus professorum Academiae Rheno-Traiectinae.

A second postscript

Medieval prosopography is a prosperous research field. Earlier this year I had already noticed in a post the website Prosopographia Burgundica, and I simply did not remember writing about it, but it deserves inclusion here.

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