We’re delighted to share the reflections of Matthew Harrison, a graduate student at Princeton University. His dissertation, “Tear Him for His Bad Verses: Carping, Cavilling, and the Origins of Criticism,” explores the strange and wonderful vocabulary with which Tudor readers insulted, sniffed at, and objected to the shortcomings of particular poems and the art itself.
Many thanks to the 6 Degrees team for letting me play around with their data.
I requested the network data for three Elizabethan writers: Nicholas Breton (1554/5–c.1626), Barnabe Barnes (1571—1609), and Robert Greene (1558-1592). Though rough contemporaries in the burgeoning London literary scene, each imagines and constructs a career as a print author in somewhat different terms, taking very different relations to print and patronage. I wanted to know how much of the different writerly trajectories of these figures would be visible in their social networks.
First, a rough sketch of the three figures:
Greene, famously, is among those now known as “University Wits,” humanistically-trained writers who made careers out of writing for publication and the stage. The success of his pamphlets and prose romances made him, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, “England’s first celebrity author,” and the appeals to patronage of his early work disappear in favor of efforts to capitalize on his reputation.
The third son of the Bishop of Durham, Barnes seems to have lived on his inheritance while trying to fashion himself as a fashionable literary gentleman. (Thomas Nashe mocks him for showing up at court in “a strange pair of Babylonian britches, with a codpiece as big as a Bolognian sausage.”)
Finally, Breton, the son of a wealthy merchant, was a prolific writer of devotional and secular poetry and prose. His dedications approach a wide swath of potential patrons—city officials, country dignitaries and luminaries at court—with works that seem targeted to their taste and interests.
Image: Greene, in his winding sheet, imagined as writing from beyond the grave. From the title page of Greene in Conceipt, by John Dickinson
For ease of reading, I’ve put the top twenty or so results for each writer at the bottom of the page. These lists, while idiosyncratic, are fairly accurate: above the .5 confidence interval, the algorithm tends to be right that two people are connected (though, as we will see, what comprises a connection is an open question). One other encouraging result: the confidence intervals for Greene’s relationships are significantly higher than those of the others, while those for Barnes are quite low. With good reason: Greene’s DNB entry is five or six times longer, and a full-text search suggests he’s mentioned about that much more often in other entries. The algorithm is most confident when it has a larger sample with which to test its conclusions. The more often two names appear together, the more likely a relationship can be inferred. (I’ll raise a few problems with that inference in a moment.)
With this general background, I want to raise three challenges for thinking about and using Six Degrees data.
Did Robert Greene Know Philip Sidney?
With a confidence interval of of .83, the network suggests Greene knew Philip Sidney. A connection is possible— the two are contemporary, though they move in very different circles. And, indeed, Greene’s entry mentions Sidney six times. Yet each mention denies literary influence, claims such as the following: “Greene independently synthesized the same models as Sidney had…” or ” But Greene probably knew Sidney’s romance only indirectly…”. The DNB entry author takes pains to distinguish Greene’s mode of prose romance writing from Sidneian influence.
Should this be considered a connection? In terms of social network and literary influence, respectively, Breton and Barnes are each closer to Sidney. Yet Sidney’s prominence and their generic similarities mean that Greene’s work has been read in Sidneian terms since the 1590’s. Is that sufficient? It depends on the purpose for which we are using the database.
A related problem: Breton is connected to Henry Machyn, a parish clerk, because Machyn’s Diary is used to provide a colorful anecdote about his step-father. Indeed, I suspect the network data for Machyn would tell us far more about which entries draw on this source than about Machyn himself. (We can find the same sort of error in relations to Francis Meres, John Bodenham, Thomas Moffet, Robert Dow, Anthony Wood, and other individuals connected to important historical sources.)
Again, these complications tell us less about the shortcomings of the project than about the complexity of human relationships and their irreducibility to a network graph. Hence the Six Degree team’s emphasis on introducing multiple data streams and on allowing domain experts to tag and annotate relationships.
John Weld and Isaac Newton: Artifacts and Duplicates
One place where human intervention will greatly improve results comes in recognizing artifacts of the way the algorithm derives names from the DNB data.
Barnabe Barnes, you’ll notice, is connected both to “Thomas Nashe” and “Thomas Nash.” These aren’t two different individuals; it’s the same fellow, with his name spelled two different ways. (If I had included a little more data, you’d see Archbishop Matthews’ first name spelled both “Tobie” and “Toby.”) Making matters worse, in other entries, Barnes’s own name is sometimes spelled “Barnaby.”
On the other hand, the network suggests that Robert Greene knew Isaac Newton. Perplexing, until one realizes that it doesn’t distinguish between Robert Greene (the 16th-century writer) and Robert Greene (the 17th-century natural philosopher).
My favorite example is Breton’s proposed connection to one “John Weld.” There is no such person in the DNB meeting the five mention threshold for inclusion in this data set, so his appearance seems anomalous. Until a full-text search reveals that five different people named “John Weld” are mentioned once or twice apiece. The network amalgamates a 20th-century critic, a 17th-century sheriff, a cleric, and so on.
City, Country, and Court
The DNB favors people who have been deemed notable, while the 6 Degrees project threshold for inclusion restricts the data set even further. The resulting networks are male-dominated and overly emphasize weak ties to key political and literary figures over the everyday sorts of sociability that might have governed lives in the period. The given networks lack, for example, the city figures to whom Breton dedicated much writing.
Still more drastically, we don’t hear of the many servants, innkeepers, shop-owners, and apprentices that far outnumbered the “notables”: how different will these networks look, I wonder, when they can be supplemented with data from court cases, the State Papers, and college records?
The inferences the algorithm can already make are impressive. Thus in 1598, Barnabe Barnes tries twice (rather amateurishly) to poison John Browne, first poisoning a lemonade he gives him and then his glass of wine. Barnes is caught, tried by Sir Edward Coke, and ultimately gets off easy, presumably through intervention of some aristocratic connection.
The court records survive, so we can piece together quite a bit of social life in Elizabethan London: we even know the name of the two servants who are made to test the poisoned wine and become grievously ill. The Six Degrees project doesn’t have access to this data. Indeed, as I pointed out above, it doesn’t have much to work with regarding Barnes at all: about a dozen names in his entry. What it does know, however, are the associates of Barnes’s father, the Bishop of Durham. We find a number of Richard Barnes’s connections suggested (with low confidence intervals) as possible contacts of Barnabe’s. And as I researched the aftermath of the trial, I was surprised to find that some of the same names come up, as people to whom the younger Barnes had recourse. And I wonder whether more historical research might not validate more of these connections.
Its guesses, we might say, happen to have been validated by history. This is part chance, of course, but it also reflects a deep parsimony in human relations. If serendipity and error make it difficult for network analysis to completely capture the complexity of human social relations, nonetheless, often enough we know who you might guess we know. Though far from complete, a network like this one is an excellent place to begin.