By Melissa Schultheis
There are few events that could put me to work before 8 A.M. on a Saturday with a smile on my face, but Networking Early Modern Women was certainly one of them. Networking Women and the subsequent “add-a-thon” trained participants to add early modern women and their relationships to the site Six Degrees of Francis Bacon, a digital humanities project that represents early modern social networks. As moderator Christopher Warren explained, women made up half of the population during this epoch but make up only 6% of entries in Six Degrees’ main source, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Networking Women aims to complicate such a male-centered view of history by representing the networks in which early modern women participated: “news networks, print networks, food networks, court networks, literary networks, epistolary networks, support networks, and religious networks,” the event’s “Rationale” explains, “in short, all networks.”
Tracking recipe writers’ and compilers’ networks will be tremendously helpful to our work: perhaps we will be able to say more about a recipe’s movement, evolution, and original location. We may be able to analyze more accurately disparities in early modern healthcare based on the social status, education, and wealth of writers and compilers. Or we may be able to draw parallels from the popularity of recipes and ingredients to a burgeoning global pre-capitalist society. The Recipes Project and EMROC have found another great ally, and I am thrilled to be a young scholar at a time when a myriad of disciplines can collaborate easily and share in the labor of representing the historically un- and misrepresented.
Of course, digitally reconstructing the social fabric of early modern society comes with both pitfalls and advantages. Racial and social-status diversity can be difficult to clearly represented due in part to language, cultural, and educational disparities. And representing women and their relationships has been problematic for contemporary researchers since, as Amanda Herbert notes in her keynote, “less scholarly attention has been paid to the way that women’s networks helped constitute and maintain a growing British empire in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.” Additionally, even when we broaden archival work to include hand-worked objects such as clothing and jewelry or traditionally overlooked pieces of historical writing such as account and recipe books, we run into masculine apparatuses that obscure women’s identities and thus their role in the period.
For example, as I added female recipe contributors mentioned in Aletheia Howard’s Natura Exenterata (1655), I struggled to identify these women elsewhere due, in part, to marriages and subsequent name changes—not to mention the possibility of alternative spellings for both maiden and married names. As you can see in the image of my entry for Lettice Pudsey, trying to locate the same early modern woman in more than one currently searchable source requires many open tabs: OED, ODNB, EEBO, Six Degrees, The Recipes Project, Luna, Google Docs and Google Book searches. While not an extensive search, the pursuit of more biographical information on Pudsey came up short that day, and with one relationship (to Mrs. Risley, who may be related to Thomas Risley (1630-1716) who practiced medicine) the node is floating in a network that I hope will one day have more to say about the woman it represents.
Traditionally, identifying early modern women has depended on identifying their relationships with and to men. And with so few early modern women in contemporary databases at this time, we will inevitably rely on early modern men to identify many of these women. So while Six Degrees now allows me to represent Howard’s relationship to recipe contributor Lady Cook and Coventry and gives Pudsey a place in this digital recreation, I can hear Hillary Nunn’s inquiry buzzing in the back of my mind: “If only that means we could say for sure who these people are.”
Of course, the paradox here is that as we add women and track their lineage, often through their relationships with and to men, we will begin to see more clearly the complexity of women’s networks, more accurately articulate their dependence on and independence from men, and better understand who these people are, while continuing to complicate narratives that portray early modern women only as victims of patriarchal apparatuses. Six Degrees is a tremendous resource for this work with the potential to grow with and adapt to contemporary research that augments the historical canon of the period.
Fundamentally interdisciplinary and collaborative, Six Degrees will be most helpful when working in a similar manner. The day of the add-a-thon I worked from a list of names compiled by Hillary Nunn and a transcription of the Natura that she shared with me. I worked from Google Docs with other contributors. I watched enthusiastic Twitter users discuss the day’s talks. I went from being two degrees from the project, to one. The day gave me a new support system, a new network, through which I can more easily learn who these early modern women are, while sharing that information with other scholars. As with any project that aims to shed light on underrepresentation, for Networking Women to more accurately represent early modern women’s social networks, it demands much from its contributors. We must look in margins and notes, as Amanda Herbert recommends, and search for women’s work in material items. We must think both creatively and together as we reconstruct the past, working with the conviction articulated so well that day by @DanAShore on Twitter: “Obviously #networkingwomen isn’t just about a single website. The hope is that inclusion in one resource leads to wider inclusion as well.”
Melissa was part of the EMROC (Early Modern Recipes Online Collective) contingent who participated in Networking Women. She is an M.A. student at the University of Colorado-Boulder. This post was originally published at her own blog.