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Stanford Humanities Center Fellow Q&A: Renaissance Studies scholar Ruth Ahnert


Stanford Humanities Center fellow uses network analysis to examine Protestant letter writing in Tudor England.

One might not think a scholar of Tudor England would use network science to better understand her historical field, but Stanford Humanities Center fellow Ruth Ahnert is doing just that. A professor in Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London, Ahnert's work focuses on the literature and culture of Tudor England, with a specific emphasis on religious history, prison literature, and letter writing. She is the author of The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2013). 

Ahnert defines network science as an interdisciplinary field that emerged in the late 1990s, with the discovery that many real-world networks (such as social, communication, neural, and transport networks) share similar organizational characteristics and can be analyzed using the same mathematical and computational tools. For several years now, she has been collaborating with Sebastian Ahnert, a Physics professor at the University of Cambridge, to apply quantitative network science to early modern letter collections.

Her project, called the "Tudor Networks of Power," is deeply rooted in the digital humanities, and will culminate in a monograph and interactive network visualization web-tool. Ahnert posits that in the current era of big data, network analysis has something to offer humanities scholars. She recently talked with us about her work:  

How did you become involved in applying network science to this particular historical period?
The short answer is: by being married to a physicist. My own research background is in Tudor literature and culture. In 2008 to 2009, my husband, Sebastian Ahnert, was a visiting postdoctoral student at Northeastern’s Center for Complex Network Research, and I began to read up on the field of network science. I became curious as to whether network science methods might be able to reveal new insights about the Protestant community I had studied during my doctoral research. Members of that community wrote covert letters to one another during the Catholic reign of Mary I. It wasn’t until 2012, when I’d finished the manuscript of my first book, that Sebastian and I had the time to explore this question, but we quickly discovered that the analysis of letter networks could yield a new perspective on old archives. Our first publications came out in 2014 and 2015.

Now we are now tackling a much bigger body of Tudor letters: 130,000 letters preserved in the British governmental archives. These government archives (now digitized at State Papers Online) include letters passing between government officials at a regional, national, and international level, as well as intelligence coming to the government from other sources.

What does ‘intelligence network’ mean when talking about Tudor correspondence?
We might draw an analogy with the National Security Agency (NSA’s) analysis of phone and email metadata. Using this metadata the NSA were able to examine the social networks of selected individuals in order to identify their associates, their locations at certain times, their traveling companions, and other personal information that could indicate whether they might pose a threat to national security.

We are doing something similar with our Tudor letters: from the letter metadata (sender, recipient, time, place), we are able both to visually map the social network implicated in this correspondence, and to measure the relative centrality of each of its members using a range of different mathematical tools. From this we can begin to uncover the international channels along which intelligence could be transmitted, the administrative structures that enabled communication between local and national bodies, and the people whom that government had under surveillance. Unlike the NSA, however, we can also delve into the contents of these communications to see exactly what intelligence was being transmitted, tracing the process of its dissemination among the members the social network. 

What would people be interested in learning from your findings thus far?
In our earlier research on Protestant letters we discovered a category of people within this social network whose significance had largely been overlooked in previous scholarship. The influence of a person within a social network is typically quantified by measuring their centrality. ‘Betweenness centrality’ (a network measure) counts the number of times a specific person lies on the shortest path between two randomly selected people within the social network. The top 20 people by this measure are mostly predictable: 14/20 are martyrs (the figures who have dominated histories of the Protestant Reformation); another was a leader of a separatist group called the Freewillers. But it also highlights a group of people who we can collectively describe as 'network sustainers’: these include letter couriers as well as financial sustainers, a group of mostly female figures who sent Protestant prisoners money, clothes, food, and others means of physical and emotional support. The significance of these network sustainers increased as the reign of Mary I progressed. The Protestant network was significantly reduced by Mary’s program of executions (in her short reign almost 300 people were executed and more died in prison), but, crucially, the network did not fragment because it was held together by these letter couriers and financial sustainers. This finding showed that we should not underestimate the role of apparently minor figures (and women especially) in the maintenance of faith in this period of intense persecution. As such it offers a hypothesis about the organization and structure of underground communities, from persecuted minorities to terrorist cells: that their success depends upon infrastructural figures as much as powerful leaders.

Why is it valuable to study the Tudor Period in this way? What can we learn from it?
The value of the methods we are using is not specific to the Tudor period. Rather it is a response to the recent explosion of digitized historical and literary archives. Our current project has us working with a body of material (130,000 letters) that it would take around two decades for a single person to read in totality. Network analysis allows us to see the global picture of that correspondence in order to highlight sections of that network—sub-communities of correspondents, or letters written within a specific window of time—that may merit closer attention. The method therefore does not seek to replace traditional methods of close reading, but rather provides a new way of navigating a vast archive. But perhaps more importantly, it seeks to challenge our existing assumptions about which parts of the archive are significant, and to shine a light on areas that may have been previously overlooked.