Tuesday 6 December 2016 – Ruth Ahnert – Tudor Intelligence Networks

Venue: John S Cohen Room, 203

Senate House
Malet Street
London WC1E 7HU

Download a map of the central precinct with directions for getting to the University of London Senate House.


We kill people based on metadata.’ These words, from the former director of the NSA, were the shocking revelation of 2013. The agency was systematically collecting the digital metadata of millions of Americans and foreign targets to determine potential sources of threat. This paper turns these methods onto the past, tracing intelligence networks in the metadata of 132,000 Tudor letters that survive in the state papers archive (now digitized at State Papers Online). By analyzing the metadata from these letters we are able both to map the social network implicated in this correspondence, and to measure the relative centrality of each of its members using a range of mathematical models from the field of complex networks. Co-opting the surveillance measures of one government, therefore, allows us to uncover the surveillance practices of another, historical government, and to discover how these practices were used to overcome – and often to execute – enemies of the state.


Ruth Ahnert is a senior lecturer in Renaissance Studies at Queen Mary University of London. She researches broadly in the area of Tudor culture and book history. Her first book The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century (CUP, 2013) explored the kinds of writing undertaken by Tudor prisoners. She has published articles and chapters on, amongst other things, Thomas Wyatt, trial narratives, the representation of prisons in early mode drama, and Henry VIII in popular culture. She edited a special issue of Renaissance Studies, entitled  Re-forming the Psalms in Tudor England (2015). More recently, her research has employed digital methods from the field of Complex Networks to study Tudor letters. Her project, Tudor Networks of Power (from which she will be sharing work today) has been funded by Stanford Humanities Center, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the AHRC, and the QMUL Innovation Grant.

She is  also involved in a number of centres and projects that seek to bring together collaborators interested in network analysis. With Joad Raymond she is Director of the Centre for Early Modern Mapping News and Networks (cemmn.net); she is on the steering committee of QMUL’s Digital Initiative Network; and next summer  she will co-direct an NEH-funded two-week institute at the Folger Shakespeare library with Jonathan Hope entitled ‘Early Modern Digital Agendas: Network Analysis’. With Elaine Treharne she is also series editor of the Stanford University Press’s Text Technologies book series.

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