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School of English and Drama

Professor Ruth Ahnert, BA MPhil PhD (Cambridge)


Professor of Literary History & Digital Humanities



A network visualisation of Protestant correspondence, 1553–1558. Martyrs are marked with dark grey squares and so-called sustainers with light grey circlesI grew up in Great Yarmouth, and studied for my BA, Masters, and PhD at the University of Cambridge. After holding a postdoctoral fellowship funded by the Society for Renaissance Studies, I came to Queen Mary in 2010. 

By background I am an early modernist, with a particular interest in book history and epistolary culture. Publications in this area include my first book, The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century (2013), and edited collection Re-forming the Psalms in Tudor England (2015). Since 2012 my work has increasingly engaged in computational methods through various collaborations. Previous work on the application of qualitative network analysis to the study of early modern letters, undertaken in collaboration with Sebastian Ahnert, has been funded by Stanford Humanities Center, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the AHRC, and the QMUL Innovation Grant. I am currently Principal Investigator on the large interdisciplinary project Living with Machines based at the British Library and Alan Turing Institute, and Co-Investigator on the AHRC-funded project ’Networking the Archives: Assembling and analysing a meta-archive of correspondence, 1509-1714’. With Elaine Treharne I am also series editor of the Stanford University Press’s Text Technologies series, which publishes books positioned at the intersection between book history and digital humanities.


You can follow me on Twitter here

Image: A network visualisation of Protestant correspondence, 1553–1558. Martyrs are marked with dark grey squares and so-called sustainers with light grey circles


Research Interests:

  • Applications of data science to humanistic inquiry
  • Letter networks
  • Early modern surveillance and espionage
  • The theory, values, and practice of interdisciplinary collaboration

Recent and On-Going Research

Since January 2012 I have been collaborating with Sebastian Ahnert, a physicist at the University of Cambridge, using methods from the field of network science to examine the social and textual organization of letter collections. Following a pilot study on Protestant letter networks dating from the reign of Mary I (see Publications), we received funding to undertake a large-scale analysis of 130,000 letters held in the Tudor State Papers archive (accessed via State Papers Online). The book and accompanying online resource are scheduled to be completed in 2020. In 2018 we secured further AHRC funding to extend this work on the project Networking Archives, which will merge the early modern correspondence data collected in ‘Early Modern Letters Online’ with metadata from the State Papers Online for the period 1509-1714 to create the UK’s largest meta-archive of curated early modern correspondence metadata. The resulting dataset and accompanying infrastructure will allow researchers to interrogate and analyse epistolary metadata on an unprecedented scale and to pose new kinds of questions on the history of ‘intelligencing’ from the 16th to the 18th century.


This work on early modern letters has fed into two further projects. The first is an analogue output: an edition Letters of the Marian Martyrs with Thomas Freeman (under contract with OUP). The second is a short book, The Network Turn, co-authored with Sebastian Ahnert,  Nicole Coleman (Stanford), and Scott Weingart (Carnegie Mellon) on the uses of network analysis in the humanities, which is forthcoming from Cambridge University Press in 2020, open access as part of the Elements series.


I am also PI on the project Living with Machines, which will bring together large-scale digital collections and data, advanced data science techniques, and fundamental historical questions to look at the social and cultural impact of mechanisation across the long nineteenth century. Based around the British Library’s extensive digitised newspaper collections, but also linking to a variety of other sources , the project will both take a new look at the Industrial Revolution, and also engage with our own digital revolution through the use of computational methods in historical scholarship.




The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge University Press, 2013)  

With Sebastian E. Ahnert, Nicole Coleman, and Scott Weingart, The Network Turn: Changing Perspectives in the Humanities (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming)

With Sebastian E. Ahnert, Tudor Networks of Power (under contract with Oxford University Press, in progress)


Editions and edited collections

Re-Forming the Psalms in Tudor England, edited by Ruth Ahnert as a special issue of Renaissance Studies, 29:4 (2015)

The Letters of the Marian Martyrs, edited by Ruth Ahnert and Thomas S. Freeman (under contract with Oxford University Press, in progress)


Selected articles and chapters 

With Sebastian E. Ahnert, 'Networking the Republic of Letters'; and with Eero Hyvönen, Ruth Ahnert, Sebastian E. Ahnert, Jouni Tuominen, Eetu Mäkelä, Miranda Lewis, and Gertjan Filarski, ‘Reconciling Metadata: Semi-Automated Toolsin Reassembling the Republic of Letters in the Digital Age: Standards, Systems, Scholarship, ed. Howard Hotson and Thomas Wallnig (Göttingen University Press, 2019). Available Open Access here.

With Sebastian E. Ahnert, 'Networks', in Archives: Power, Truth and Fiction, ed. Alison Wiggins and Andrew Prescott (Oxford University Press, forthcoming in 2020).

With Sebastian E. Ahnert, ‘Metadata, Surveillance, and the Tudor State’, History Workshop Journal 87 (2019), 27-51

'Maps Versus Networks', in News Networks in Early Modern Europe, ed. Noah Moxham and Joad Raymond (Brill, 2016)

With Sebastian Ahnert, ‘Protestant Letter Networks in the Reign of Mary I: A Quantitative Approach’, English Literary History 82 (2015), 1-33  

'The Psalms and the English Reformation', Renaissance Studies 29:4 (2015), 493-508

With Sebastian E. Ahnert, ‘A Community Under Attack: Protestant Letter Networks in the Reign of Mary I’, Leonardo 47 (2014), 275  

‘Inscribed in Memory: The Prison Poems of Sir Thomas Wyatt’, in Henry VIII and the Court: Art, Politics and Performance, ed. Thomas Betteridge and Suzannah Lipscomb (Ashgate, 2013)

‘Imitating Inquisition: Dialectical Bias in Protestant Prison Writings’, in The Culture of Inquisition in Medieval England, ed. Mary Flannery and Katie Walter, Westfield Medieval Studies (Boydell and Brewer, 2013)  

‘Drama King: The Portrayal of Henry VIII in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons’, in Henry VIII in History, ed. Thomas Betteridge and Thomas S. Freeman (Ashgate, 2012)  

‘The Prison in Early Modern Drama’, Literature Compass, 9:1 (2012), 34-47  

‘Writing in the Tower of London during the Reformation, ca. 1530-1558’, in Prison Writings in Early Modern Britain, ed. by William Sherman and William J. Sheils as a special number of Huntington Library Quarterly (2009), 168-92


Encyclopedia entries  

‘William Marshall’, and ‘Robert Copland’, in Blackwell Encyclopedia of English Renaissance Literature, ed. Alan Stewart, Garrett Sullivan, Rebecca Lemon, Nicholas McDowell, and Jennifer Richards (Wiley-Blackwell, 2012)


See also my Queen Mary Research Publications profile


I would welcome enquiries from potential doctoral students interested in any of the areas of my research. I have previously supervised the following successful PhD project:

  • Lotte Fikkers, 'Women’s Testimony: Legal Records as Forms of Life-Writing, 1558-1649’ (2017)
  • Jennifer Cryar, 'Bridewell Prison and Representations of Deviancy in Early Modern London’

Public Engagement

For a full list of my media and public appearances click here.

See a Q&A on my research here

This Faculti video features me talking about my book, The Rise of Prison Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge, 2013): 

The following podcasts relate to my work on medieval and early modern Psalm culture. The first reflects on the enduring influence of the book of Psalms into the present day, and the latter reports on the conference I organised with Tamara Atkin, ‘Psalm Culture and the Politics of Translation’: