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School of English and Drama

Professor Ruth Ahnert, BA MPhil PhD (Cambridge)


Professor of Literary History & Digital Humanities



I 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 quantitative network analysis to the study of early modern letters has been funded by Stanford Humanities Center, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the AHRC, and a 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. 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




Research Interests:

Research Interests

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

Recent and On-Going Research

Unusually for a humanities scholar, most of my recent and ongoing research has been undertaken in collaboration. I am currently PI of Living with Machines, a 5-year project funded by UKRI’s Strategic Priorities Fund, which poses both a data-driven approach to history, and a human-centred approach to data science. The project brings together a 28-person team made up of historians and literary scholars, data scientists, curators and library professionals, computational linguists and digital humanists, to study the impact of technology on the lives of ordinary people in the long nineteenth century (c. 1780-1920). Until recently I was also Co-I on the project Networking Archives, which has merged 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 (soon to be publicly released) allows researchers to interrogate and analyse epistolary metadata on an unprecedented scale and to pose new kinds of questions about the shape of epistolary archives, the communication networks that can be reconstructed from them, and what that tells us about the management of information in the early modern era. The work has culminated in a co-authored book (under review), an edited collection (forthcoming as a special issue of Huntington Library Quarterly in Spring 2023), and an accompanying suite of analytical tools. Other work in the area of letters and network analysis includes this interactive visualisation of 120,000 Tudor letters from the State Papers Archive, and a forthcoming book, Tudor Networks of Power, with Oxford University Press (spring/summer 2023).

I also recently published a short open access book on the value of network analysis for the study of culture, entitled The Network Turn: Changing Perspectives in the Humanities (Cambridge University Press, 2020), which I co-authored with Sebastian E. Ahnert, Nicole Coleman (Stanford), and Scott Weingart (Carnegie Mellon). It contends that networks are a category of study that cuts across traditional academic barriers, uniting diverse disciplines through a shared understanding of complexity in our world. Moreover, we are at a moment in time when it is crucial that arts and humanities scholars join the critique of how large-scale network data and advanced network analysis are being harnessed for the purposes of power, surveillance, and commercial gain.



Books (published and forthcoming)

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

Ruth Ahnert, Sebastian E. Ahnert, Nicole Coleman and Scott Weingart, The Network Turn: Changing Perspectives in the Humanities (Cambridge University Press, 2020). Available open access here.

Ruth Ahnert, Sebastian E. Ahnert, Tudor Networks of Power (forthcoming, Oxford University Press, spring/summer 2023)

Ruth Ahnert, Emma Griffin, Mia Ridge, Giorgia Tolfo, and the Living with Machines Team, Collaborative Historical Research in the Age of Big Data: Lessons from an interdisciplinary project (forthcoming with Cambridge University Press, November 2022)

Digital Projects

Kim Albrecht, Sebastian E. Ahnert and Ruth Ahnert, Tudor Networks -  interactive visualisation available here. See introductory video here.

Edited Collections (published and forthcoming)

Ruth Ahnert, Philip Beeley, Esther van Raamsdonk, and Yann Ryan (ed.), Network Analysis and the Early Modern Archive, a special issue of Huntington Library Quarterly (forthcoming, June 2023)

 Ruth Ahnert, ed., Re-Forming the Psalms in Tudor England, a special number of Renaissance Studies 29:4 (2015), 493-680

Select Articles and Chapters (published and forthcoming)

Ruth Ahnert, Philip Beeley, Esther van Raamsdonk, and Yann Ryan, ‘Introduction: From Archive to Network’, in Network Analysis and the Early Modern Archive, ed. Ahnert et al (forthcoming, see above)

Rachel Midura, Sebastian E. Ahnert and Ruth Ahnert, ‘For Your Eyes Only: Intercept Letters in the British State Papers, 1580–1603’, in Network Analysis and the Early Modern Archive, ed. Ahnert et al (forthcoming, see above)

Ruth Ahnnert and Sebastian E. Ahnert, 'Networks', in Archives: Power, Truth and Fiction, ed. Alison Wiggins and Andrew Prescott (Oxford University Press, forthcoming in 2023). 

Esther van Raamsdonk and Ruth Ahnert, 'John Milton’s Network and the Republic of Letters', in Digital Approaches to John Milton as a special issue of Reformation and Renaissance/Renascence et Réforme (2022)

Yann Ryan, Sebastian E. Ahnert, and Ruth Ahnert, ‘Networking Archives: Quantitative History and the Contingent Archive’, Proceedings of the Workshop on Computational Humanities Research (CHR 2020),

Mariona Coll Ardanuy, Federico Nanni, Kaspar Beelen, Kasra Hosseini, Ruth Ahnert, Jon Lawrence, Katherine McDonough, Giorgia Tolfo, Daniel CS Wilson, Barbara McGillivray, 'Living Machines: A study of atypical animacy', Proceedings of the 28th International Conference on Computational Linguistics (2020), DOI: 10.18653/v1/2020.coling-main.400

Ruth Ahnert and 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 Tools’ in 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.

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

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

Ruth Ahnert and Sebastian E. 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

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

Ruth Ahnert, ‘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)

Ruth Ahnert, ‘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) 

Ruth Ahnert, ‘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) 

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

Ruth Ahnert, ‘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


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)

Current PhD students

  • Caitlin Burge, ‘Letters, Networks of Power and the Fall of Thomas Cromwell, 1523-1547’
  • Jennifer Cryar, 'Bridewell Prison and Representations of Deviancy in Early Modern London’

Public Engagement

Video media

This video introduces the interactive visualisation, Tudor Networks, that I developed in collaboration with Kim Albrecht and Sebastian E. Ahnert: see here

This is a video discussing my monograph, The Rise of Prison in the Sixteenth Century (2013):


Research on letter networks featured on episode 1 of Niall Ferguson's three-part documentary ‘Networlds’ directed by Adrian Pennick (aired March 2020 on PBS and BBC Worldwide):


Featured on ‘The Radio 4 Psalter’, in which Michael Symmons Roberts describes the

beauty of Psalters and sets out to make his own for radio (Radio 4, 6 August 2014).

Research coverage in print

The New Scientist issue 2920 (5 June 2013)

James O’Malley, ‘How big data is changing history’ blogpost, Little Atoms:

James O’Malley, ‘Ahead of Avengers: Infinity War, who is the best connected Marvel Cinematic Universe character?’ Gizmodo, 28 March 2018.

Blog posts

See the Living with Machines blog here:


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