|Integrating institutions, networks, and agents: challenges arising from the application of the prosopographical method to late medieval nobility of the county of Zeeland|
|One may say that the most appealing prosopographical studies in historiography are not the collective biographies as such, but rather those in which broader political and social-economic questions are fruitfully addressed, using the prosopographical method among others. Therefore, traditionally, the prosopographical approach has been restricted to the study of well definable and limited groups, often political, ecclesiastical or intellectual elites linked to a certain institution or place. That is to say, that prosopography only becomes significant, if it enhances our learning of society in the past by placing the question ‘who where the actors?’ in a wider context.
The need of clear-cut research questions and a strict delineation in time and space is even more pressing when the prosopographical approach is applied to the study of more heterogeneous groups. First of all, the choice for such a group needs to be justified. Are the common characteristics of the individual members a modern construct or were they perceived as such by contemporaries? And to what extent are generalising conclusions about the research population as a whole possible? Secondly, the individual actors are embedded in multiple layers of institutions, networks, and families. Can a prosopograhical approach give a satisfying account for these structures that exceed the boundaries of the research population proper? And finally, a successful application of the prosopograhical method depends largely on the availability of archival sources, enabling the composition of a research group. What types of sources are more or less suitable to deduce heterogeneous groups from?
This paper explores the possibilities and limitations of the use of the prosopographical method for the study of heterogeneous groups in the late medieval and early modern period, emphasising the questions posed, and particularly, the interaction between, on the one hand, the individual actors and, on the other hand, institutions and networks of all kind. The questions raised will be discussed with the nobility of the county of Zeeland serving as an example.