Using Machine Learning to Understand Notions of Charity in 17th-Century England

Headshot Photograph of Amy Weng

The Early Modern London project, led by Dr. Astrid Giugni (Lecturing Fellow in English and Information Science + Studies) ran during the 2022-23 school year with the generous support of the Center for Computational Thinking at Duke. The undergraduate students working on this project reconstructed key aspects of the lively printing and publishing world of early modern London.

Active around the time of Shakespeare, writers like Thomas Dekker and Ben Jonson did not work in isolation. Instead, they were members of a thriving, competitive commercial community—ranging from the authors themselves, to the printers, to the booksellers, and to the final audience of their works. At each step of this commercial chain, personal and professional relationships helped to shape the production and markets for the authors’ works.

This historical context came alive for undergraduate students in the Early Modern London project through their experimental applications of computational methodologies to humanities study. The existence of ready-to-use tools for Social Network Visualization and Analysis, such as Gephi, as well as powerful packages in R and Python, created the opportunity for a group of student-researchers to study these literary networks.

One of the undergraduate members of the project, Amy Weng, is a major in Computer Science and a minor in Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Amy’s research project, “Early Modern London Sermons: Using NLP to Determine Attitudes about Charitable Giving,” made use of natural language processing to examine a data set of 17th-century texts from the Early Print Lab. She extracted and studied biblical marginalia from seventy significant early modern sermons, seeking to understand notions of “charity” in the period. See her discussion of the project in the linked YouTube video. Amy’s work is an exciting example of how our instructors are experimenting with ways to include computational methodologies in undergraduate humanities education at Duke.