Sienna Latham on Alchemy, Women and Data Visualisation

By Chris McDowall 10/11/2010 7

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.

Spreadsheet of subject relations.

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.

Elizabethan Gentlewomen and the Courtly Chymical Community

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.

7 Responses to “Sienna Latham on Alchemy, Women and Data Visualisation”

  • Fascinating research–and a fascinating way to turn it into a visual map. Interestingly enough, this is what I did to understand botanical community living on Lime Street. Did it take you a long time to know who was in the middle bubble, or was it evident all along it was Elizabeth? I thought for the longest time my central figure was L’Obel or Gerard but if I put them there I couldn’t make the network map correctly. It was only when I put Cole in the middle that even more connections were evident. So I’m wondering what would happen if you swapped out Elizabeth for one of these other figures, male or female? Would more or less network connections be evident and/or easily mappable?

    In any event, I think this is a terrific research tool and the kind of thing that would help many, many historians (and other scholars, too, but I can’t speak to that!) come up with creative answers to their research questions. Thanks to both of you for sharing it.

  • Quite the opposite, actually. My original proposal was too ambitious for a one-year thesis — I had planned to look at evidence of Englishwomen’s chymical practice during both the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (basically Jayne Archer’s excellent dissertation, the discovery of which midway through the first month totally rattled my confidence). Examining the women chronologically raised new questions. I wondered why, during Elizabeth’s reign, we suddenly find evidence of female practice. What had changed? Why do the same names keep cropping up? This inspired me around month ten or eleven to approach Elizabeth from the perspective of her female subjects: how had she interacted with the chymical world and vice versa (I focused on patronage and iconography), and what impact did this have on women? Gentlewomen in particular seem to have enjoyed a bit more freedom because of the charitable medical services they had the resources, leisure and knowledge to offer.

    The diagram is far from comprehensive, including only figures significant to the four gentlewomen. Elizabeth basically acts as a placeholder for her court, and Dee for the wider chymical community. If we’d had more than a couple days to work on this data, we could have created a figure for each of my subjects and added more people without sacrificing clarity. I love the idea of examining other natural philosophers, chymists and members of the court in a similar manner, placing different people at the center — it could illuminate the transmission of knowledge, tell us more about both the courtly and scientific communities and who knows what else? I could never have made the diagram myself, but I think both historians and visualization folks benefit from collaborations like this. It never hurts to gain a new perspective!

    Thanks so much for your comment — it’s really exciting to wake up to positive feedback from someone whose research and writing helped shape my thesis.

  • Alchemy an its history have been an interest of mine for a while now. It started from an interest in tinctures and grew from there. It always seemed to me that women were prominent in Alchemy, I had the impression it had alot to do with the philosphy of male/female balance (i.e the hermaphrodite) in alchemy which broke through traditional patriachal society. Id be interested in reading some of your research!

  • Wonderful data visualisation in her historical research.
    I have been doing my genealogy for the past 30 years and you had added so much more data to the Hoby tree.
    Thank you.

  • usefulidiot: Thanks so much for your comment. You’re correct — women feature prominently in alchemical symbolism, and one of the earliest practitioners, Maria the Jewess (ca. 1st-3rd century CE), apparently wrote, “Join the male and the female, and you will find that which is sought.” That emphasis on balance in all respects, including gender, is central to alchemy… making the rather scant evidence of female practitioners curious. The hermaphroditic imagery you mentioned became particularly popular during the medieval period and continued in the early modern era. I am unsure whether this kind of symbolism really bucked the patriarchal trend, or that there was even a simple dichotomy of dominant male/marginalized female interests. We find a rich tradition of intermediary Christian goddess figures at the same time that can be linked to the esoteric tradition. Check out Barbara Newman’s very excellent ‘God and the Goddesses’ for more on this subject. You might also be interested in reading a surprising (and convincing) piece William Newman wrote in 1998 on alchemy, domination and gender (in ‘A House Built on Sand,’ edited by Noretta Koertge). Anyway, thanks again for your interest! My thesis should be available online early next year.

    Glen: Thank you for your kind words. Margaret Hoby was a fascinating woman and I recommend reading her diary if you have not already. I also want to make clear that the diagram above features both familial and social connections (e.g. Robert Devereux was her brother-in-law through her first marriage, but Matthew Lister was her physician). Best wishes for your genealogical research.

  • This is astonishing. I am interested in connections between Jane Marcet and anybody (sounds broad and I apologize). I am interested in the visuals contained in still room manuals, which in part document the chemistry-knowledge of early modern women. I wrote recently about social authority in the text of Elizabeth of Kent’s still room manual/receipt book. Wish I had stumbled here earlier.