Why use digital history?
The goal of this project is to utilize components of the digital world to enhance the understanding of Catherine of Siena’s network system. A digital humanities project is a more suitable way to fully decipher Catherine’s complex network system because it enables viewers to visualize a network of people with connections to Catherine that a traditional thesis, structurally, could not fully depict and highlight all the myraid relations and nuances hidden in Catherine’s life. It also allows for a new and exciting way to analyze data and to showcase that data in visual and textual ways. Using specific network tools, this captured moment presents a vivid image that explains the power dynamics and social structure Catherine surrounded herself with during her successful saintly career. Additionally, a digital humanities project promotes accessibility to a wider public audience that a traditional thesis would not reach.
Digital humanities projects are the path forward for academics because it blends traditional academic practices along with the goal of reaching the public about what historians do for understanding the past. Digital humanities are relevant in the Age of Technology, and academic historians such as myself are broadening scholarly work to include the digital realm. Using digital humanities allows for outside researchers to make comparisons and conclusions and it diminishes the line between the general public and the sometimes private work that historians accomplish. The graphs and tools I use are available for everyone to see. Rather than just showing the end result, this project aims to show the audience some of the steps historians take to create a piece of scholarship. An example of this method is Steven Bednarski’s A Poisoned Past: The Life and Times of Margarida de Portu, a Fourteenthcentury Accused Prisoner.1 By showcasing the process of creating a final argument, others 1 can take different approaches all while understanding my path. It also allows me to showcase my decisions with the data visible.
The project also provides an interactive component that engages with viewers and allows them to pursue the information in their own way rather than the specific organization that a paper has. Digital humannities projects provides a space for viewers to self-educate themselves in a manner that makes sense to them. Innovating and interactive ideas encourage viewership and makes digital platforms a prime medium for information to be passed along.
I use the digital humanities as the tool to display my findings because of the wider audience, the visual component, and the ability to have an interactive data set. Additionally, digital technology is providing new ways to learn material, and as a creator it is providing new ways to analyze and discover information. My goal is two-fold, I expand on the use of network analysis and I present it in an interactive and engaging way that has uses in multiple settings.
My choice to use an interactive interface rather than static web pages came from the idea that viewers are more engaged in information that they can play with. Additionally, to fully understand Catherine’s network it is important to play with the different ‘characters’ involved in her life and how they interact with each other. Having the ability to visually see the evidence is a new way to understand the past, and personally is much easier to view and come to new conclusions.
It is also a way for viewers and other scholars to download my data and come to their own conclusions, which furthers the historical knowledge on Catherine and her life. Viewers can pursue the information in their own way that makes the most sense to their learning styles. This is where typically theses can lose an audience, by organization that is does not fit intuitively with the audience.
I particularly enjoyed the structure ofThe Inner Life of Empires project that Harvard University hosts. The website is clean and understandable which makes learning about this family enjoyable and does not feel like a chore. This project utilizes network visualizations to provide a wider context and a digital platform to allow the user to explore the material in their own way all while maintaining academic authority.2
Why use networks?
Using network analysis is a new way to formulate Catherine’s life that is inclusive of all those around her who helped her popularity rise. Network analysis creates a new picture of the social structure that followed her on travels, which has been neglected by scholars today because studies do not typically include the wider network surrounding her.3 These connections are easily missed because of the primary focus on Catherine alone and understanding her as a solitary unit or as part of a power couple with her confessor, Raymond of Capua, but my work on her network analyzes her relationships with travel companions and beyond.
Network studies understand that not all actors involved are aware of the network surrounding them, but they are still crucial to the success or failure of that network. Network analysis is rising in popularity among historians, Claire Lemercier argues that network analysis solves some historical issues because it takes, “reality as relational thus helps to go beyond purely micro or macro, agency-based or structure-based visions of the world.”4
The use of network analysis on Catherine’s life works well because of the network she purposefully made. Letters are an age old way to create a network system and Catherine fully utilized this system. She maintained communication with many of her recipients and wrote to an array of people from a multitude of classes, occupations, and genders. It provides a far-reaching network across city-states. Catherine had three levels of networks, her close companion group, the non-traveling group, and the wider range of letter recipients. The interactive graphs showcase the strongest connections Catherine had. I also synthesized other scholars depictions of Catherine's life to better understand her connections that were not apparent in reading her letters. Hopefully, other scholars, students, and the general public all find this new method approachable and easy to understand. This approach allows for others to repeat my strategy, and hopefully come to new and exciting conclusions.
What tools do I use?
Gephi is a tool for creating a visual network system that can handle multiple variables. I chose Gephi because it is a system that allows for customization for individual projects and it suited my needs. Other common network systems work better with modern social media networks and do not relate back to historical documents like Gephi. Using networks with historical documents is a new trend, therefore not all network tools accommodate the variables of historical documents such as date, location, contextual information about the time period, and historical persons.
To host my website, I chose to use Github Pages. My project required more storage space than Wordpress allows, and Github allowed me to host my own server online. The negative aspect of Github was learning how to code websites. Thanks to friends, Codecademy, and Google, I was able to learn enough code language to make my website functional.
I used many ‘How To Guides’ online that assisted in this process. Below are some links that provided the most support.
No one guide was perfect, but each provided information that helped understand the program. Experimentation proved to be the most valuable learning method for Gephi. Don’t be afraid to click on random buttons within the program to see what they do!
Github was a daunting leap into the world of coding and HTML programming. I chose Github because it allowed me to have my own storage space without requiring space on the school’s server, which gave me more freedom to create my website exactly how I imagined it to look.
The lovely members of the internet were an invaluable source for help when it came to coding problems and how to craft a page to my liking. Because each Github question can be specific to a project, there are forums available for individuals to find help.
The best help came from members of SIUE’s Interdisciplinary Research and Informatics Scholarship (better known as IRIS) lab on campus and the Github customer service. For some helpful links on Github see:
Exporting and embedding the interactive graph into github was challenging, but after viewing the source code from The Inner Life of Empires website and researching specific lines of HTML code, Dr. Despain, Ben Ostermeier, and myself were able to uplaod my Gephi graph. To embed network visualization graph from Gephi, download the source codegexf-js-master/ from Github and modify the .gexf file. To export your Gephi graph, in the toolbar select 'File' scroll down and then 'Export' -> 'Graph file...' which will have the extension of '.gexf'. Import the .gexf file to Github and replace it in the gexf-js-master folder.
My dataset came from secondary sources that are heavily enriched with primary sources that I did not have the resources to access myself. From these sources, I extrapolated the connections they discovered and some hidden beneath the surface that I detected. For example, historian Thomas Luongo takes a decidedly political approach to Catherine’s network and scholar Suzanne Noffke leans more towards the spiritual component of Catherine. I was able to connect these two scholars to create more connections. I also looked into primary sources of Catherine, her letters, hagiography, Prosseco Castellano, and The Miracoli of St. Catherine to track relationships that my secondary sources may have missed. Rather than creating my own .cvs file outside of Gephi, I chose to create my data within the program. I did this because I found it easier to manage and see the connections as I went giving me a better sense of change over time. It also allowed me to play with the settings while composing my networks that allowed me to see different variations of her networks.
I initially intended to use Catherine’s 380 letters as the basis of my visualization, however that would not show the complexity of who was influential in her network, only that she wrote to groups and individuals. This pushed me away from using only primary sources as my database and forced the inclusion of secondary sources. This is a pitfall to my research because I do not have access to the primary sources I claim to use. However, because my project’s main goal is to consolidate several scholars work to create new questions about Catherine’s life, it is crucial to understand how other scholars understand Catherine. I still used Catherine’s letters to understand the relationships between Catherine’s companions, as they are discussed in her letters. This primary source analysis is the true undertone to my project, understanding the relationships between her male and female companions, the relationships those involved in various governments had with each other, and how Catherine’s specific choosing of her companions impacted her success as a female saint in Fourteenth-Century Italy
Banner Photo: Buildings in Siena. By Jessica Mills, 2014.