Note from the Editor: I’m excited to feature another guest post with you all! This week we have James Baillie discussing how digital humanities and prosopographic methods can be used to better understand the history of the medieval Caucasus. Prosopography is a historical tool-set that is about charting the networks, connections and commonalities of people, often people about whom we otherwise know very little. It’s a tremendously important methodological approach, especially in pre-modern history where everything we know about even important figures may only add up to a few lines of text. In the days of yore, this all had to be done by hand (slowly and often missing things), but this is a field where the potential of information technology – that’s the digital humanities here – is very great indeed. That said, this is a form of historical work I generally do not do, so I’m very excited to have someone who does talk through some of the methods and how they can help us to understand the past.
Baillie is in the final stages of his Ph.D. at the University of Vienna and is also a Project Assistant with the Caucasus Digital Repository in the Austrian Academy of Sciences. His research demands not only that he be a historian but also experience with coding and other information technologies, an impressive dual skill-set to be sure!
And with that, over to James!
I’m James Baillie – a historian specialising on digital approaches to the history of the medieval Caucasus region. I’m based at both the University of Vienna and the Austrian Academy of Sciences, and am coming towards the end of my doctoral work. In this post I’ll start with a look at the Caucasus and why I take my particular approach to it, and then go on to the underlying method – prosopography, the study of collected historical person data – before looking at some of the conclusions we can draw from it, in order to give you a bit more insight into the particular processes of research I go through. Finally, I’ll wrap up with some thoughts on why this matters for the Caucasus and why all of this is important in a wider context too.
So, without further ado, welcome to…
High Medieval Georgia
The Caucasus – the mountainous region that sits between Anatolia, Iran, and the southern Russian steppes, between the Black and Caspian seas – has throughout recorded history been a diverse and contested part of the world. It was, in the High Middle Ages as now, a culturally varied region with a range of overlapping ethnic and political entities: the overlaps, as we shall see, very important for understanding the medieval period. As a quick aside on what we mean by medieval – I tend to use the European-style terms and rough chronological definitions of what is medieval here, and my high medieval focus stretches from the 11th to the very early 13th centuries. Scholars in the region, however, often have a different and much broader understanding of ‘medieval’ which has roots in Soviet schools of history that suggested that the longer periods of ‘serfdom’ in the region meant the ‘medieval’ or ‘feudal’ period lasted until around 1800. Within all this I focus on the history of Georgia in particular, or as it is natively known Sakartvelo (საქართველო), the land of the Kartvelian peoples.1 In traditional narratives, the medieval history of Georgia is the precursor history of a Georgian state. This arises from the needs of nineteenth and twentieth century Georgian historians both before and under Soviet rule: for those opposed to Russian domination, the country’s twelfth century rulers, who were able to project power far further, could help present Georgia rhetorically in the same frame as European states and nations. Both Georgian liberalism and nationalism have typically been West-facing projects over the last two centuries, in reaction to Russian imperial claims.2 Meanwhile, for the USSR in particular, the history of medieval statehood, suitably framed, was an acceptable form of history to be writing, portraying the state as protagonist versus the story’s antagonists, the nobility and church who might undermine state authority. The history of the medieval state as such was both important to Georgian liberals and nationalists and acceptable to Soviet authority, and flourished as a result.
The history that emerged from this is one of a “golden age” triumph of a series of increasingly powerful state rulers, most notably David IV “the Builder” in the first quarter of the 12th century and Tamar in the last quarter, who are portrayed as having successfully won two zero-sum contests. The first of these was an external one, between Christian Georgia and its Muslim rivals such as the Turco-Persian Eldiguzid dynasty. The second was the internal struggle, in which the great feudal lords as a class struggled to maximise their independence from the central power of the state, with the aim of becoming as independent as possible. Finally, however, the Mongol invasions crushed the power of this Georgian state. Much of this school of thought dates back to the grandfather of modern Georgian history, Ivane Javakhishvili: his work is not available in English but books like Mariam Lordkipanidze’s ‘Georgia in the 11th-12th Centuries’ and Roin Met’reveli’s more recent ‘Golden Age’ follow similar lines. For those new to the field, Stephen Rapp’s overview paper ‘Georgia before the Mongols’ is one of the best available introductory counterpoints to show the issues with how the traditional narratives are put together.
The traditional view of Georgia’s medieval history is not entirely wrong – but it is some way, too, from being entirely right. Two main critiques can be levelled: first, that it emphasises grand narratives based on classes of person, so the ‘nobility’, or the ‘church’, or indeed the Bagrationid dynasty’s monarchs across several generations, are often assumed to consistently have the same collective ideas and aims. This is often too simplistic a model for any real political system, especially when stretched over many decades. The second critique is that traditional histories tend to be very explicitly focused on the state and office-holding, and to use these elements to explain what’s going on: much ink tends to be spilt on topics like whether it was important that the creation of the formal title of Atabeg in around 1210 created a rival role of similar prestige to the Mtsignobart’ukhutsesi-Chq’ondideli, a senior religious advisor and vizier responsible for the royal chancery. I would certainly not attempt to claim that this was entirely unimportant, but I would suggest that comparatively insufficient attention has been given to the social context of power: who knew who, how ethnicity and gender affected people’s connection to power, and so on. It is in this context that a methodology that helps us examine those latter problems, that of prosopography, enters the chat.
Prosopography is the systematic study of groups of past people: it requires us to create formal, structured sets of data about people, but in ways that do not assume that what we aim for is a statistical data-set to run calculations on. Medieval chronicle sources are too selective and patchy to allow for that sort of statistical analysis. Indeed, the fact that premodern data are patchy is precisely why building prosopography collections matters. We might not be able to say much from individually looking at the small number of elite women recorded at the medieval Georgian court, many of whom get one or two source mentions, and we don’t have a consistently sampled data-set on all or indeed any of them. However, if we can collect all of those references together in a structured data system and look at them as a group, we can start identifying shared characteristics and build up a picture that we couldn’t see if we left them sitting individually in their respective bits of source material. Being able to find patterns as possible explanations or lines of research can open up new windows on the past by, in effect, rearranging the things our sources already said into new configurations and by connecting in bits of external data such as geolocating the places that sources discuss.
Another thing we get out of prosopography besides this change of perspective is a process of learning about our information by putting it into a structure to start with. One finds quickly that there are certainly limits on any such system – there are some things about the past that cannot be captured by systematising them, because they are too subjective or contextual. When I am at home in Vienna, the fact that I am a European is unremarkable, and the fact that I am British stands out because almost nobody else is asking for milk in their tea: conversely, when I return to my native island, my being British fades contextually into the background, but my firm sense of European identity is a much more contested, political part of who I am. It is relatively easy to capture the fact that I hold multiple identities, but not why and when they matter.
Structured data tends to lose that information – but despite that, we gain an awful lot by using it is a more rigorous assessment of our starting assumptions. On what basis are we saying someone was a “Georgian” or an “Armenian” in a historical context? Is it a specific designation given to them in a text, an assumption based on their name and family ties, or a contextual reading based on their religion and allegiances? Forcing ourselves to go through historical sources, person by person and place by place and event by event, and asking ourselves what claims we feel comfortable making is valuable – sometimes vital – work.
It might be useful here to give a more concrete example. Enter the Orbeli, or Orbelian, family. The Orbelis were at the heart of Georgian politics through the middle decades of the 12th century, holding some of the highest offices of the court. Intrigue was rarely far behind: they were deeply tied up in the events around the death of the short-lived Mepe (King) David V, and may have been responsible.3 They raised David’s son Demna through the reign of his younger brother Giorgi, eventually rebelling in an attempt to replace Giorgi with their protégé. Their defeat opened the way for Giorgi’s elder daughter, Tamar, to become the first woman to rule Georgia.
The English-language Wikipedia page for the Orbelis confidently states that they were an Armenian family. If we look at Georgian-language Wikipedia, it equally bluntly opens by stating that they were a family of eastern Georgian nobility. Which is correct? Well, when we look at our sources, both. The 12th century Orbelis were religiously Orthodox rather than Armenian apostolic, but clearly had roots in both communities – their fortress of Lori was in the Georgian-Armenian marchlands. Their family chronicle, written some decades later, further adds interest to the puzzle by claiming that they took names from both Georgian and Armenian, but were in fact a Chinese family originally that had turned up some thousand years earlier: this is almost certainly a family myth or heroic ancestry tale, but shows the complexity of how people in the 12th century wanted to present their own ethnic backgrounds. Even if the rough data-level solution (I tag them as both Georgian and Armenian) is a huge simplification, the process of gathering that data on an individual level can teach us a huge amount about how we try to fit people into categories. It can certainly be a quick lesson in the risks of accepting the defaults from one source tradition or of taking the assumptions of scholars who, even if doing very good work, simply weren’t interested in this part of the problem, used a word that seemed about right, and then moved on.
You can now appreciate, hopefully, what prosopography is – a structured system, but fundamentally a humanities method that remains open to multiple approaches and interpretations. But what does it tell us?
Heading back to the Caucasus, and skipping over several years of data entry and structuring (a project I may be continuing to add to for years to come), we certainly can reach some interesting conclusions about how medieval Georgian society worked that change our picture of the dominant, centralising state.
One thing is the importance of connectivity – which was often linked to ethnic identity. People often start looking at the past by assuming that being outside the dominant ethnic group was a disadvantage in historical societies – and that is often true, but the picture can be more complex. The Georgian commander of the armed forces (amirsp’asalar) was rarely a Georgian with no other ethnic background in the 12th century, with two mixed Georgian-Armenian families (the Mkhargrdzeli/Zakarian and Orbeli/Orbelian) dominating the post, plus figures like a Kipchak general called Kubasar holding the role. One likely reason for this is that these people had better connections to local nobility or sources of troops – Armenian-connected families may have helped legitimise Georgian claims on Armenian-majority regions, and Kubasar was appointed in the middle of a rebellion, probably to ensure the loyalty of large forces of Kipchaks who had been invited into Georgia a generation earlier in exchange for military service.
This wasn’t something I expected to find, at least in this form. One of my starting points was to look at regional rulers (eristavis) and evidence for decentralisation and local/regionalist sentiment within Georgia: but there’s actually little evidence that this was a motivating political factor. On the contrary, Georgia’s elite culture seems to have been quite centralised on the court. This was not because the state had effectively centralised its infrastructure and brought the nobility under its heel into serving the state, though: Georgian monarchs seem to have often aimed to increase, not decrease, the power of their vassals, on the grounds that this reflected significantly greater prestige onto them.4 The court could then become the social focal point for the south Caucasus, with the courtiers’ connections beyond it being vital for then turning that social focus into raising military manpower, governing cities, raising religious buildings, and other such functions.
Connectivity was probably also vital for women’s power. Queen Tamar is sometimes held up as the singular, sole example of feminine power in the 12th century Caucasus, but her aunt Rusudan was the widow of a Sultan who negotiated a key peace deal between the Seljuks and her brother Giorgi III. When Tamar faced down a coup at the start of her reign, her negotiators with the plotters were senior women from noble houses, too. Elite women tended to move between households and regions, and so their ability to form information connections – what in network science might be termed brokerage – gave them access to particular styles of power-as-diplomacy that were not necessarily as accessible to their male counterparts.
Prosopography can also help us redraw some of the maps of the region in the period. By systematically mapping out who was where, when, we get a better picture of where conflict zones actually were and the stability (or not) of control of different regions. The ancient Armenian capital of Ani was a particular political ping-pong ball, for example, but despite this, few maps of the period even show it as being near a ‘border’, preferring to map out the outer extent of places that were nominally captured at some point rather than taking a descriptive approach. The approach of doing political maps at “high points”, and showing them as consisting of matched borders in the manner of a modern country, can sometimes obscure as much as it tells us about the norms of a particular period.
Finally, prosopography can help us sort and cross-check our own ideas: structured data created from chronicles isn’t an ‘accurate model of the past’, but it can be an accurate model of our best assessments and estimates, and so we can check it for internal consistency. By connecting together a set of dates and other bits of time-span data (e.g. X happened 1 year after Y), we can actually check mechanically what the things we said about one event imply about the dating of every other event in the data, reducing a problem that could take days of manual calculation into a button-press. This, in turn, can identify problems or places where certain ideas don’t fit together – for example, the Orbelis’ aforementioned rebellion is presented in the family chronicle with some passages about a member of the family going to see Atabeg Eldiguz to ask for his support against Giorgi. The slight problem here is that Eldiguz is generally held to have died three years before the conventional date of the rebellion, which is the sort of thing that a computer is very good at pulling out of a set of rather tangled data and this can then lead onto some interesting reassessments of who was actually dealing with who, and when, and what that might mean for the politics of a particular situation more widely.
Models of the Past
In many ways, I hope not too many people reading this will be asking why this all matters. As part of the ACOUP readership, you probably find the back and forth of medieval politics interesting for its own sake. Nonetheless, I think it does matter much more widely, and I’d like to finish by talking a bit about why.
For the Caucasus, medieval prosopography matters because people understand who they are and who they ought to be firmly in relation to their past. Georgian politicians evoke David the Builder in speeches to claim him for their political brand, Tamar is brought up in political debates over gender and gendered violence in the country, and the Georgian government is funding a literal computer game about the battle of Didgori in an attempt to inspire national sentiment among the young.5 The strong connection between these figures and national and ethnic status makes having serious, at times difficult discussions about their very complex realities more important. A simplistic understanding of the past can mean a simplistic understanding of the present that is assumed to flow from it – and that, all too easily, can turn into a simplistic case for violence when ownership of the past is applied to ownership of culture and land.
Even if you’re not at all interested in the Caucasus region, though, you should care about prosopography for more or less the same reasons. How we fit the world into boxes matters, because those boxes then affect our thinking and decisions on a wide range of issues. In your own view of the world, who is part of what group? How do you assign them to that, and what can you or can you not imply about them on that basis? How do you take account of the overlaps, layers, and complications? How you handle all of these things is partly determined by the mental structures you use to understand particular aspects of the world: those sets of ideas about what information about people can look like then create particular ways that these pieces of information can fit together and can be processed.
What we should realise from this is that a data structure or a block of code are things that make implicit and subjective arguments about how to see the world. This is possibly the single most important basic insight that Digital Humanities as a field needs to impart, because it affects so much of the world around us. We live in an age where people are structuring data about each other all the time, and often treating both the information and structures as statements of absolute fact. Taking a humanities eye to those structures can show code for what it is: it is not for nothing that we refer to programming languages: whilst a computer may not be able to discern subjectivity, that simply means that it takes the programmer’s position as factual, not that it gains some imagined freedom from the doubt of humanistic positions and enquiry.
We also live in an age where people are modelling worlds all the time – and I’ll finish there on a lighter note, which is that I think this sort of data and modelling work can offer a tremendous amount when it comes to areas like game development and digital storytelling. I’ve been developing mods and computer games as a hobbyist for some years – indeed, that’s where I learned the coding skills that I’ve more recently used to put together my research database and the custom-built editing tools I use for it. This is an area where, by thinking about and playing with the data structures that tell us who characters are and how they relate to one another, we can create characters and social-political game elements that utilise those connections, and provide the depth that comes from people having complex, tense, overlapping identities and networks that change over time.
This has been a whistle-stop tour through two-and-a-bit sub-fields of history, and is definitely here only to give a flavour rather than the full drink. I hope, though, that this has taken you through some of the processes of digital humanities scholarship, given you a few glimpses into the lives of some fascinating people, and made a little of the case for this work and what it can bring us. Thank you for reading!
James Baillie can be found on Twitter (@JubalBarca), Mastodon (@JubalBarca@Scholar.Social), and the Exilian.co.uk web forums for geeky-creative projects which I help run and where I often write for the articles section. I pile up side projects at a disconcerting rate: these include in-development computer and tabletop RPG projects, convening the Coding Medieval Worlds workshops on games and medieval history, miscellaneous songwriting and storytelling pieces, and maintaining a blog on British liberal politics and policy.
- “Sa… o” is a common circumfix, also found in e.g. mepe for king becoming samepo for kingdom or mzareuli for cook becoming samzareulo for kitchen.
- By ‘imperial’ I don’t just mean ‘during the period of the formal Russian Empire’: the approach of the USSR to places like Georgia was still fundamentally imperial in practice, even if some parts of the ideology and rhetoric had nominally changed.
- The Georgian term mepe is gender-neutral for a reigning monarch (although Georgians at times inconsistently use dedopali, a term for queen consort, when talking about any other country’s queens, their own queens regnant are always mepe just as is the case for their male rulers and there is no contemporary evidence that this came with any assumption of masculinity or masculine traits).
- This would be a really interesting system to model in certain Crusader Kings 3 government forms.
- There is a trailer! It does not look entirely promising.