Mapping manuscripts: A data-driven approach to early modern poetry networks

28 Mar 2023

Dr Erin A McCarthy. Image: Aengus McMahon

Dr Erin A McCarthy discusses her multidisciplinary, ERC-funded project about the transmission networks of early modern English poetry.

“What does 16th-century poet John Donne have to do with multimodal networks or data analytics?” you might ask. For University of Galway researcher, Dr Erin A McCarthy, the answer is quite a lot actually.

McCarthy focused on literature in school and university but was always interested in computers and technology. She received her PhD in medieval and renaissance studies from The Ohio State University in 2012.

Her postdoctoral work on the University of Galway RECIRC project played to her dual interests in literature and tech, and led her to an understanding that “network methods could help us understand the circulation of literary texts”.

Stints at Harvard University and at the University of Newcastle, Australia, followed, before McCarthy found herself once again in Galway, this time leading a multidisciplinary team on the STEMMA project, which has been funded by a European Research Council (ERC) Consolidator Grant.

‘My project, and others like it, illustrate why literary studies are valuable: they help us better understand what people have done and valued, why, and how it has changed over time’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

I am in the early stages of a project called STEMMA: Systems of Transmitting Early Modern Manuscript Verse, 1475-1700.

This project will, for the first time, computationally map and model the movement of English poetry through early modern social networks.

Although scholars have identified discrete groups in which manuscript poems circulated, the paths texts took between these groups are less well known. This project uses network analysis and graph theory to shed new light on who shared early modern English verse in manuscript, how, and to what ends.

The project grew out of my work as a postdoc on Prof Marie-Louise Coolahan’s ERC-funded project, RECIRC: The Reception and Circulation of Early Modern Women’s Writing, 1550–1700.

My research for that project focused on handwritten collections called manuscript miscellanies; my colleague Dr Sajed Chowdhury and I consulted around 750 miscellanies worldwide, trying to find evidence that anyone had read women’s writing. We found such evidence in 128 miscellanies, and we made detailed catalogues of them, comprising about 15,135 items in total.

I started experimenting with this data in Gephi. It soon became apparent that I needed a larger dataset that reflected my specific research questions.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

One thing that sets STEMMA apart from other humanities network projects is that it focuses on connections between documents and texts rather than people. It has been difficult to study poetry in this way because so many poems and miscellanies are either anonymous or pseudonymous, or full of names from long spans of time.

Setting aside the question of human agency, even temporarily, will let us take stock of surviving evidence without having to know much (yet) about who created it. Once we have a sense of the broader system, we might be able to figure out who some of the key people are, but I think this is a pretty radical break from the way we’ve studied manuscripts until now: as discrete artifacts that offer useful case studies.

That, in turn, should allow us to challenge traditional narratives that tend to foreground elite people (often young men in urban settings) and recover the roles of women, religious minorities, people in provincial and colonial areas, and other marginalised groups.

Moving beyond the early modern period, I anticipate that the project will also have a technological impact on the way we do manuscript research.

One of my goals is to develop a graphically navigable web interface that will allow users to explore the project’s data visually. We’ve moved from printed finding aids that had to be read more or less sequentially to web-based, but still text-driven, interfaces that allow for some combination of filtering, faceting and searching.

I’d like users to be able to explore connections between texts and documents the way one might look at a public transit map: how many paths get me from here to there?

What inspired you to become a researcher?

When I was studying at Arizona State University [for a BA in English literature] in the early 2000s, I remember there was a lecture, maybe two lectures, on metaphysical poetry.

In my memory, they were focused on John Donne, but maybe he just stood out because he was so weird and difficult. I got it into my head that I was going to write something about Donne ­­- I was going to figure out why he was so appealing. I went to the library and read everything I could find about Donne (which was quite a lot!). I found myself so thoroughly confused that I ended up writing that paper about Ben Jonson (Donne’s contemporary) instead, but I was hooked.

Years later, my first published article was about Donne, and a decade after that, he’s also at the centre of STEMMA, so I guess I got there in the end!

There are two big takeaways that have stuck with me: first, that it’s important to develop focused research questions, and second, that it’s hard to know what is going to spark your interest (or how long it’s going to take to find your way into it), so it makes sense to learn about and read as much as you can.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

Literary studies has been facing existential challenges at least as long as I’ve been alive; we thought the tenure-track job market was bottoming out as I was finishing graduate school, and it’s only gotten worse.

It took me so long to find secure academic employment that I started retraining as an air hostess, only to have Galway invite me to interview before I finished.

The Broadway musical Avenue Q opens with a song What do you do with a BA in English?, and The New Yorker ran an article recently called The End of the English Major, so I think we often find ourselves trying to justify doing this work at all.

But my project, and others like it, illustrate why literary studies are valuable: they help us better understand what people have done and valued, why, and how it has changed over time.

The other field I’m engaging with now goes by many names, including digital humanities, computational humanities and cultural analytics. All these names have their own nuances and come with their own challenges and opportunities, but I think they all require a little bit of a reflection on the way we do research and who we imagine to be our audience(s).

For example, projects like RECIRC and STEMMA are impossible to carry out alone. They rely on experts in different fields working together, and on institutions making it possible and worthwhile for people to collaborate.

And then we have to communicate our findings back to those different communities in ways that they can understand and find value in. I realised STEMMA was possible when I read about a mathematical concept called the multimodal network, but the way I explain that to my peers in English has to be different to the way I explain it to a digital humanities seminar or a data analytics group. It also means that I’m constantly upskilling, learning different technologies or, for the last year and a half, taking university math courses.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

I hope so! But I am not sure. I’ve split my time across three countries, and I think there are probably some differences between them. One thing I am convinced of is the value of thinking critically about where and how we get information, which is something I used to teach in my first-year writing courses, but is probably more urgent than ever.

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