The Medieval and Renaissance Italy Prosopographical Database Project

Directors: Thomas F. Madden and Phillip R. Gavitt

The Medieval and Renaissance Italy Prosopographical Database Project is a major new initiative funded by the Graduate School and the SLU2000 Fund. Its purpose is to construct a large-scale interactive database of Italian prosopography that will reveal for researchers underlying political, social, and cultural trends in the history of these important city-republics. At present the project is focusing on Venice. Eventually this database will be made available to all scholars via a web-based search tool.

We are a utilizing a sophisticated relational database design that accepts all document types, integrating them for analysis. A relational database model is ideal for analyzing the widely divergent document types that survive from these periods. Unlike flat-file systems used in the past, the relational model allows the investigator to transcend the document as a model for electronic storage and integrate various archival materials into one system. It can accommodate all document types since it is based on the one thing all documents have in common --- people.

This relational database model can answer every question which scholars have previously put to document-based models and opens brand new vistas in much more complex questions about political, social and economic activities. Using this method allows a researcher to reassemble pieces of medieval Italian lives, reconstruct social groupings, or reveal family structures. If we use an analogy from archaeology, the difference between document-based and individual/event-based relational databases becomes clear. The notarial documentary record is rather like a hodge-podge of potshards scattered across an archaeological site. A document-based database is like an archaeologist who collects the shards and then classifies them according to color, size, and thickness. This allows the researcher to say things about the culture that lived at the site's prevalence to favor red or blue pots, as well as how durable the pots were, and how often they made thick pots and how often thin. The individual/event based relational database, however, allows researchers to actually piece those shards back together. The result is not the whole pot, but enough to suggest what parts of it may have looked like and how it related in use to other pots at the site.

Graduate student assistants working on this project require advanced skills in Latin and paleography as well as familiarity with Venice and other Italian cities. Because of the integrated nature of the database, it is necessary for assistants to undertake research into each individual they encounter in the archival documents so that that individual can be properly identified and placed within the overall social matrix. For example, when an assistant enters information from a will, s/he can put in the name of the testator, but it will also be necessary to search the database to discover whether this particular individual has been encountered before. Since it was not unusual for people in these societies to have identical names, the assistant must also attempt to identify positively the individual by comparing relatives, parishes, or other features. As the database grows, of course, this research has become more complex, but identifications more sure. Much of the data entry program is actually devoted to uncovering relationships in previously entered data. The process of building this database, therefore, is a slow one, requiring a assistants to spend far more time undertaking prosopographical research and documenting identifications than actually entering raw data.

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