Prosopography has been defined as an independent science of social history embracing genealogy, onomastics and demography. Karl Ferdinand Werner (‘L’apport de la prosopographie à l’histoire sociale des élites’, in Keats-Rohan ed. Family Trees, Woodbridge, 1997), traces the origins of the concept to the 16th century, when it was closely associated with the idea of collective, but individual, biography. Claude Nicolet defined its aim as the history of groups as elements in political and social history, achieved by isolating series of persons having certain political or social characteristics in common and then analyzing each series in terms of multiple criteria, in order both to obtain information specific to individuals and to identify the constants and the variables among the data for whole groups.
As Werner has written elsewhere, prosopography permits the political history of men and ‘events’ to be combined with the hidden social history of long-term evolutionary processes. Much of this hidden history is revealed by identifying the public offices held by prosopographical subjects, and hence prosopography is also directly concerned with the history of institutions. He says that, in short, prosopographical analysis concerns itself with the person, his environment and his social status, that is, a person within the context of family and other social groups, the place or places in which he was active and the function he performed within his society.
Perhaps the most significant of Werner’s towering achievements in this field has been his demonstration that attempts at understanding the European past are fatally undermined by the strictly chronological -Antiquity - High, Central and Low Middle Ages, etc, or the strictly regional, or worse, nationalistic, - ‘Romans’ v. ‘German’, ‘French’ v. ‘German’, - approach, made worse by the modern tendency to think in terms of race and racial or ‘ethnic’ identity. Prosopography does not seek nations avant la lettre, but examines the whole of a past society, its structure and the individuals who made it up, in order to trace the evolution of the social and cultural perception of nationhood embraced by persons lived within defined regions, perhaps separated from others by language and law and perhaps not, but whose chief claim to distinctiveness reposed in the recognition of the legitimacy of their ruler, who was not necessarily born in the region and who usually married outside it.