Prosopography killed my love
Once upon a time, when I was on the verge of taking my comps and leaving the safety of coursework for the scary world of the thesis, my Doktorvater said to me, "you will meet many exciting and wonderful topics out there. Make sure you pick one you can not only love, but live with, because your relationship with your topic will last longer than many marriages." So I found a topic. I was never deeply in love with it, but it was interesting, and intriguing and there were lots of sources. How could I tire of this topic when there was so much to learn?
Time passed. I dissertated at the pace of a malnourished and dehydrated snail. Other people who weren't German started working with the same sources and publishing. Still, I finished and ended up with a thesis that I think still stands up, although it is now far too narrow for a book; there are too many overlaps with what's out there. And there is still much to do. I have a topic for a book that comes out of a paper I did last year, based on a small part of a chapter of the thesis. I think it's a really interesting and worthwhile topic. It is, ironically perhaps, one of the topics I'd tended to avoid -- my thesis is old-fashioned administrative history backed up with prosopography. It's Verfassungsgeschichte und Personennamenkunde. Now I'm working on the same documents, but looking at women and the roles they played. Never saw that coming, even though I did my undergrad thesis with a Bynum student, and wrote (not very well) on Orderic Vitalis' representations of women. I'd like to go back to that some day and re-do it, I think. If you decide to, please credit me for the idea.
But somewhere between when I started writing and when I finished, a topic that had little attention in German and virtually nothing in English and French has begun to draw more and more attention by French and English scholars. I'm rather pleased that conclusions I drew are being borne out in the research of others. I sometimes go through moments of panic that I'm still out of the loop and will just end up looking stupid, but those moments are relatively few and deal more now with the fact that I teach a far heavier load than those other people working in closely related areas. My confidence is bolstered by the fact that the two most important scholars working in French and English tend to reiterate their own and each other's work and seem to be making self-referential baby steps even more than they are offering new information. Or perhaps, like some of my own thesis, they are as much adding to the corpus of secondary material in their own languages (because we all rely on the same German scholarship, which really hasn't moved too far in the past 20 years) as they are adding new interpretations.
I've been doing a lot of catch-up reading this summer, much of it on this more recent stuff in English, and mostly in French. My thesis had a couple of chapters that relied on an onomastic approach for building a prosopography. The prosopography is important, because Carolingian administration was based in large part on the use of existing kinship networks among the magnates. Identifying the people and where they fit into those networks is vital to the kind of work I do. It's also frequently dull. It's duller in German. It's pre-global-warming glacier-paced dull in French.
So the other night, I finished one of those seemingly seminal articles on family, power, and social structure (and let me tell you, the number of books and articles that have combinations of famille, pouvoir, and structure sociale in the titles are myriad). 30-odd pages that were interesting, but really not necessary to what I am working on except in a "look! citations!" kind of way. What I took away was actually a little disheartening, as it happens. In reconstructing and redefining social relationships and their relationship to political power under the Carolingians, the author built up a picture of a kinship network that stretched throughout much of the Empire. She relied largely on onomastic evidence, supported by documentary and narrative sources, and made a convincing argument. But I think inadvertantly, she also demonstrated the weaknesses of prosopography and onomastics in particular; in fact, she illustrated many of the caveats offered by Werner and Tellenbach on this kind of study. At the same time, she reinforced my own belief that we have to be very careful about using this stuff -- because in Carolingian Europe, all the leading families really are related to each other. It's therefore very difficult to separate family politics from individual ambition. As I said, it's a bit disheartening, because really, so many of our interpretations of the period are rooted in the idea of family rivalries. Fortunately, it's not an insurmountable problem; look at European politics from the rise of the Habsburgs on, for example. Look at World War I, where a bunch of people related to Queen Victoria were all fighting each other. Hell- look at the Carolingians themselves: being related didn't keep Louis the Pious's sons from fighting each other or their father. So, not insurmountable.
Having said all that, though, I have to say that my marriage to my topic is rocky these days. To get to the parts of it that I love, I have wade through a ton of prosopography that I find increasingly meaningless. The effort of daily maintenance makes me wonder if I really want to keep the relationship going. Fortunately, I suspect that getting back to our roots, the sources themselves, will renew my enjoyment of the topic, and maybe get us back to where we can put the prosopography in its proper place, as a necessary, if dull, support, and not the the primary focus.