Earlier this week I had the pleasure of being exposed to an incredibly exciting project presented by Dr Máirín MacCarron as part of a Digital Humanities Colloquium in University College Cork. The project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and is titled “Women, Conflict and Peace: Gendered Networks in Early Medieval Narratives (c. 330-735)”. It will analyse how early medieval history-writing fitted women and their networks into stories of conflict and peace-building, during a historical period that was marred by warfare, feud and religious conflict.
The project investigators come from a variety of disciplines so there is a broad range of expertise involved, enabling the information to be very comprehensive and powerful. The team comprises of physicists, computer scientists, engineers and historians which naturally all have differences in their approaches. This array of knowledge adds immeasurably to the project as it allows different perspectives and interpretations to be given as well as a range of approaches to elements of the project.
They’re pursuing the investigation of the role of women in medieval society with recognition to the fact that there’s a limitation to the amount we know of this society, as our knowledge depends on quite limited sources. The team is aware of the restricted amount of information and acknowledges the findings are based upon a somewhat incomplete dataset. Network analysis will always serve inadequate to a certain extent as there will always be gaps in the dataset.
They team is focused on networking the sources available to them and based off that trying to formulate the narrative on the society, specifically the representation, expectation and role of women. It’s transparently outlined that it’s important to recognise that the dataset is naturally incomplete and the information gathered will inevitably be limited, however in respecting this fact it allows them to extract everything they can from the material that is available.
One of the primary questions the team is looking to explore is the idea of women being connectors of men, often through the literature of the time women tend to have a peace weaver holding a harmonious presence in the stories. Very often however the marriages which are based upon simply resolving conflict have a tendency not to last for a prolonged period of time. The project investigates where women appear in these stories, what their role is as well as what impact they have.
There’s an interesting lack of clarity on the element of names in the stories, as some names are intentionally left out – particularly women’s names. It’s thought that this is due to an element of respect for not naming women if they are still alive but in other times it’s as a sign of insignificance or perhaps it’s some other reasoning altogether which is yet to be discovered.
The project focuses on social networks and dynamic networks, who is connected to who alongside temporal dimensions. Mainly honing in on narrative sources which have a message or integrate story relevant to the projects objectives. Another concern of the project is the idea of change over time, understanding the differences in how women were represented between various periods and how this is translated through the scriptures.
The data gathering element of the project is extensive, focusing on recording all of the characters in a text alongside all of their interactions. Using a spreadsheet to document the name of the character and everyone their connected to as they appear in the text. Distinguishing their gender, if they’re named or unnamed and the types of relationship they have to one another are all documented to provide insight into the social network.
The team is actively engaged in doing a close reading approach in which they hold an extremely admirable standard of attention to detail in their investigation. The level of complexity in which the team is interacting with cannot be accomplished by a computer programme, Dr MacCarron explained that this is due to the high levels of interpretation and deeper levels of understanding required to accurately assemble the information from the stories. As the project developed naturally the information selection process had to be adjusted to give justice to the information the team was exposed to. Adapting the categories is essential and being able to update the criteria as the project unfolded, an all to common concept when formulating this type of data based narrative.
The graph presented to show the findings so far in the project initially seems almost immenitible, understanding the colour key is fundamental to being able to read and begin to interact with the large quantity of information being displayed by the sophisticated graphs.The underlying information behind the graph is what is of value over the display, I’d argue that a proficient level of knowledge on the area or supporting text and documentation is essential in order to understand the intricate graph.
The complexity of the data is relevant to Digital Humanities and working alongside physicists to be able to have a comprehensive understanding of the narrative being formulated from the data and what it means within a complete and broad context. Giving the space to test hypothesis and create and element of ordered chaos, which Digital Humanities scholars have mastered the ability to do.
ww.sheffield.ac.uk “women-conflict-peace-gendered-networks-in-early-medieval-narratives”. 2019
MacCarron, Máirín. “Gendered Networks in Early Medieval Narratives”. DH Colloquium, UCC. 2019