One of King’s oldest digital prosopographical project has recently returned to life, and is now freely available online at http://www.pbe.kcl.ac.uk.
The Prosopography of the Byzantine Empire (PBE) began as a project back in the late 1980s to produce a prosopography of individuals who appear in sources from the early Byzantine Empire (641-867 AD).
The principal compiler and editor for PBE was John Robert Martindale with Dr Dion Smythe as Research Associate and Dr Mary Whitby as Research Assistant to the project. PBE was supported by the British Academy from the beginning (and, indeed, the Academy has generously continued to support work in this area up to the present day), with a scholarly committee formed of prominent scholars including Professor Robert Browning (chair of the project until his death in 1997), Professor Averil Cameron (chair), Professor A.A.M. Bryer, Dr Larry Conrad, Professor Donald Nicol, Sir Dimitri Obolensky, Professor Charlotte Roueché, Professor John Haldon, Professor Judith Herrin (deputy chair), Dr James Howard-Johnston, Professor Paul Magdalino, Mr John Robert Martindale, Dr Rosemary Morris, Professor Margaret Mullett, Mr Harold Short, Dr Dion Smythe and Dr Mary Whitby. An agreement of collaboration was signed in 1993 between the British Academy (for PBE) and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences (for PmbZ).
After the PBE work was done funding was acquired (initially from the precursor to the current AHRC, the AHRB) to begin prosopographical work on a third period of the Byzantine Empire – a project that came to be called the Prosopography for the Byzantine World (1025-1150); available at http://www.pbw.kcl.ac.uk.
PBE has an interesting story to tell to Digital Humanists, since, unusually for its day, the project was conceived of from its very beginning as a digital project to be published in some kind of electronic form. It was taken up by what was then King’s College London Computer Centre’s Research Unit in Humanities Computing (which eventually became what is now the Department of Digital Humanities at King’s). Thus, staff within the RUHC were actively involved in the conception and development of PBE as a digital product: initially Gordon Gallacher, Mark Stewart, and (when he joined the department in 1997) John Bradley. Throughout, the work was planned and coordinated by Harold Short (who was technical director). Indeed, in the mid and late 1990s there emerged a then highly original vision for prosopography when Gallacher, Stewart and Smythe developed a model to represent prosopography as a structured data project based around a relational database for storage.
In the 1990s it was not at all obvious in what form a digital publication that would be accessible to Byzantine scholars should be published, especially since the data itself was held on a centralised relational database held at King’s. Furthermore, at the time many Byzantine scholars did not have ready access to the internet and were not yet familiar with the World Wide Web. Thus, the publication was originally conceived of in terms of a Digital CD disk that would hold the materials, and could be purchased and then used by scholars on their own personal computers. Even when, in the later 1990s, the CD medium still seemed the way to go, it was still not clear what software would be used to make a PBE CD usable on any computer Byzantinists would be likely to have. After some early prototyping by John Bradley, it became evident that the database data could be expressed in terms of a set of HTML web pages, and after approval of the PBE committee, he developed the procedures that extracted the data and generated the materials that were put onto the CD as a set of highly interlinked HTML pages (approx 13,000 pages). The original disk even included a version of the early web browser NetScape that could be installed from the disk itself if the CD user did not already have a web browser on their computer.
One could argue that the PBE project represented an important stage of development for the Digital Humanities, and certainly for DH at King’s.
- It was the first at King’s of the kind of highly collaborative academic projects that blended academic and technical innovation, and that aimed to explore the potential of digital publication. This approach, proposed and developed originally by Harold Short, proved to be highly successful, and provided the model for more than 40 subsequent highly successful multi-year collaborative projects that have operated at DDH according to similar principles. The Clergy of the Church of England database, the Fine Rolls of Henry III, the People of Medieval Scotland, the Art of Making in Antiquity, and many others are the fruit of this approach.
- PBE was the first project where the factoid approach to structured prosopography was developed and then used. The factoid approach, originally developed by Gordon Gallacher and Dion Smythe, has undergone further development from its form in PBE, but has been used very successfully in a good number of structured prosopography projects including the Prosopography of the Byzantine World, the Prosopography of Anglo-Saxon England, the Breaking of Britain project, the Making of Charlemagne’s Europe project, and has been taken up by other prosopographical projects worldwide.
- The PBE CD represents a very early attempt to think about how to publish highly structured data over the WWW in a form that was effective for humanist use. Subsequent work on how this should be done can be traced over many years in the approaches used by several other long standing online research projects at DDH such as the Stellenbibliographie zum “Parzival” Wolframs von Eschenbach, Corpus of Romanesque Sculpture in Britain and Ireland, Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi Digitisation Project, British Printed Images to 1700 and Early Modern London Theatres.
PBE was originally published on CD with the conscious aim by its committee of keeping its cost as low as possible so that it would be affordable to as many researchers as possible. Since then, the WWW has made it possible to publish freely available complex resources to any scholar with access to the internet, and this development is clearly still in the process of transforming scholarship. We are very grateful to Ashgate publishers for agreeing to permit this material that was originally published by them on the CD to be now made freely available to an international scholarly community.