Six Degrees of Francis Bacon: a social network for early modern Britain

A new digital tool reveals exactly who was close to whom in the age of the Tudors and Stuarts

October 23, 2015
Source: iStock
Sir Francis Bacon had a prominent position in the webs of power and influence now pictured in a new digital tool

Today, social networks and information flows can easily be tracked though sites like Facebook and Twitter.

But, before the age of social media, how can we discover who knew whom and so, most likely, got to know what? A new digital humanities project, Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, has been created by Carnegie Mellon University and Georgetown University to answer precisely such questions for the early modern Britain of Bacon, Shakespeare, Milton and Newton. The site already identifies more than 13,000 individuals and highlights approximately 200,000 relationships.

“Are you researching Anne Boleyn to find out if she knew Thomas More, author of Utopia?” said project director Christopher Warren, associate professor of English at CMU. “Now, you can see that in an instant. But not only that, you can see all of the people they knew, thus giving you new ways to consider communities, factions, influences and sources.

It’s critical for scholars, because even experts have a hard time keeping so many relations in their heads. Meanwhile, newcomers have nearly instantaneous access to contextual information that’s often really difficult to access.”

“We’ve long known that John Milton didn’t just associate with other poets,” adds co-principal investigator Daniel Shore, associate professor of English at Georgetown. “Six Degrees of Francis Bacon makes it really easy to see how he was connected to various other spheres of society.

With a few clicks of a mouse, you can discover that Milton was connected to composers, musicians and cavalier poets through the singer and composer Henry Lawes. His polemical opponent Joseph Hall, the Bishop of Norwich, was his bridge to a sizeable slice of elite English clergy… And he was linked to the world of early modern science through Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society, as well as the educational reformer Samuel Hartlib.”

To create Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, Warren, Shore and Jessica Otis, postdoctoral fellow in data curation for early modern studies at CMU, mined 62 million words in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography to map just who knew whom between 1500 and 1700.

They drew on the expertise of CMU’s Department of Statistics and ensured that the site allows users to put in their own research and knowledge. Colour coding makes clear how many connections any individual seems to have had, those with least being flagged up in red.

Yet in many cases, argues Professor Warren, this is not because they were morose or antisocial, but “because they’ve generally been underserved in the history of scholarship” – and are therefore worthy of further research.

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