Prosopography of the Byzantine Empire (PBE) comes back to life

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.

Web technology was not as mature in the late 1990s as it is today. First, the PBE materials contained some amount of ancient Greek text, and although today Unicode support on pretty well any contemporary computer provides for the display of Greek as a matter of course, in the 1990s there was yet no adequate support to display Greek text on most computers. Thus, a Greek font was located (SPIONIC was used), and technical work was carried out to translate the Greek representation as it was in the database (extended Greek Beta-Code) into a representation that would work with this font. The font itself was also provided on the CD. Next, some degree of interactivity was thought desirable for this material. Thus, a small set of Javascript programs were hand-crafted and weaved into the CD materials to support facet-like filtering of data. In the late 1990s JavaScript was a much more limited creature than it is today (there was then no mechanism to get at the actual HTML of web pages, for example), and this use of Javascript to support enriched browser-based user interaction on humanities data was a very new and innovative development at the time. Finally, page layout technologies such as CSS were only in the earliest phases of development, so richer layout and navigation was created by the use of HTML frame technology.

Even by the time the PBE CD was published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd in 2001, it was becoming evident that an online version of PBE, served over the WWW, was becoming an appropriate way to make PBE available.  However, as it turned out, publishing PBE on the WWW had to wait many years. At last, due to the kind permission of Ashgate Publishing and a bit of work recently by John Bradley and Ginestra Ferraro (DDH), the full set of materials that were originally available via the CD have been at last been made available online for free at http://www.pbe.kcl.ac.uk. After being presented with a few modern-looking front pages, the user quickly finds him/herself being presented with web pages as they were designed in 1998-2001. However, not all of the technical design is exactly as it was on the CD, and a few features behind the scenes have been updated to reflect more modern browser standards. The special Greek font is no longer needed because the Greek text has been translated into Unicode for the online PBE version, and the Javascript interactive component has been updated to take advantage of more recent, and more satisfactory, components and practices.

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.
  • Finally, PBE represents a very early attempt to use Javascript in a Digital Humanities project to enhance client/browser side interactivity for its users. Javascript has developed a very long way from what it was like in the late 1990s, and it is now capable of supporting very rich and complex user interaction. However, even under the limitations of what Javascript could do in the 1990s, PBE’s use of it revealed some of what Javascript’s potential was as a tool to provide enriched interaction in humanities scholarly resources.

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.

2 thoughts on “Prosopography of the Byzantine Empire (PBE) comes back to life

  1. Dear John (and all the team at DH at King’s),

    This is just to convey Congratulations to you all for the transfer of PBE to open access on the Web. Although I was the happy owner of a disk, it was becoming increasingly difficult to make it work properly ( what with the problems of accessing Netscape and my computer ignorance), so it is great to have this kind of easy access. Thank you, too, for providing the history of the Project and giving proper credit to all those who developed it over the years. PBE is a fantastic research tool and will, I’m sure, continue to be made great use of for years to come! Thank You!!

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