This evening’s post is a guest contribution from my wife, Sienna Latham. She writes below about the role of data visualisation in her historical research.
I recently submitted my master’s thesis on English women’s chymical activities during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), exploring the intersecting histories of science, medicine, magic, women and religion. ‘Chymistry’ is a composite term acknowledging the fact that no clear, consistent distinctions were drawn between alchemy and chemistry in the early modern era. Like their male compatriots, my subjects harnessed chymical theories and techniques for both esoteric and pragmatic purposes. They practiced iatrochemistry (medical alchemy), incorporated chymical metaphors into creative works and sought the fabled philosopher’s stone, which promised both riches and freedom from disease. It’s useful to remember that science as we know it did not exist for Elizabethans, who engaged with God’s creation as natural philosophers and explorers; like scripture, the ‘Book of Nature’ was a potential source of divine knowledge and revelation.
So what does historical research have to do with data visualization? Not that much. Evidence of their low-profile relationship is mostly geographical, with maps hinting at the very different worldviews of the long-dead. Genealogical trees have been used to articulate family histories for centuries, while scanned manuscripts and printed images elucidate the corresponding text and ostensibly speak for themselves. That’s about it for the sorts of figures you would expect to find in a history thesis. But as I approached the end of the writing and revision process, it became clear that the complex social and familial relationships I had spent months examining required a different kind of visual representation. I’d expected variety in my subjects’ locations, beliefs, practices and communities, so the patterns that emerged were all the more striking, suggesting the influence of the queen’s own chymical affiliations. Each woman was a Protestant member of the gentry. More significantly, these gentlewomen all had strong ties to the court, known chymists and, indeed, to one another. But how best to convey these connections I had documented throughout the thesis? I turned to my husband Chris for help in compiling and representing this early modern social network.
He asked me to create a spreadsheet delineating my subjects’ relationships to each other, Queen Elizabeth, and the English chymical community surrounding John Dee, mathematician, magus and astrologer to the queen. By way of example, the heiress Margaret Hoby, author of the earliest known diary by an Englishwoman, ties everyone together quite neatly with her three marriages. She first wed Walter Devereux, the younger brother of Robert, who married Frances Walsingham, cousin to Grace Mildmay. Her second husband, Thomas Sidney, was the brother of Mary Sidney Herbert – incidentally, their late brother Philip, the most famous of the Sidneys, had been Frances’ first husband. Through her third husband, Thomas Posthumous, Hoby was linked to Margaret Clifford, whose brother John Russell married her mother-in-law. Though she lived in remote Yorkshire, Margaret Hoby’s childhood training in the home of Henry and Katherine Hastings as well as her close relationship with the chymist John Thornborough and his second wife connected her to the queen. As you can see, multiple marriages, shorter life expectancies, the importance of extended family and courtly affiliations led to extremely complicated relationships.
I used Google Docs to share this spreadsheet with Chris, who performed digital alchemy (er, wrote some code) and created the diagram above. For simplicity’s sake, we omitted the nature of the relationships; I had already described these in the text and felt that the figure’s emphasis should be on the community it portrayed. He assigned a color to each of my subjects and coded the links. In most cases, the connections between these women are indirect, as described earlier. However, direct links display both colors, as you can see with Mary Sidney Herbert and Margaret Clifford’s ties to the queen, whose central location underscores the importance of the court. Family members and peripheral figures appear in grey. While this representation does not contain any new information, it provides a clear and concise reference for the network of relationships described in the pages it follows and precedes. This image also clearly supports my assertion that community played a vital role in the transmission of chymical knowledge during Elizabeth’s reign. These particular women gained access to a male-dominated realm in part because they knew the ‘right’ people. They engaged with a royal court convinced of chymistry’s efficacy (though oftentimes painfully aware of its practitioners’ shortcomings) and skillful at appropriating its evocative images and metaphors for their own purposes, including the queen’s iconography.
A few accessible recommendations for anyone new to early modern magic and science and keen to read more: Keith Thomas’s seminal Religion and the Decline of Magic, Deborah Harkness’s fascinating The Jewel House and Charles Webster’s recent biography on Paracelsus, the itinerant Swiss physician-prophet. See also reasonably affordable works on chymistry by Allen Debus, Leah DeVun, William Newman, Tara Nummedal, Lawrence Principe and, so long as you balance them with other perspectives, Frances Yates. My supervisor Glyn Parry has an excellent book on John Dee due out soon through Yale University Press. For those on a budget – and those who aren’t – Adam McLean’s website is a tremendous resource for anyone curious about alchemy.