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Emergent Scale-free Social Networks in History: Burning and the Rise of English Protestantism


There is a large and rapidly increasing literature which analyses social networks for which substantial amounts of quantitative data are available. Further, there is a growing and related literature on what is referred to by economists as ‘information cascades’ on such networks.

However, there is little discussion of the specific events which lead to either the creation of a network in the first instance, or of how a network which is latent in terms of its awareness evolves into a network on which individual behaviour/beliefs are actually altered.

In this paper, we describe the process of emergence and evolution of a historical cultural and social network across which the opinions and behaviour of individuals were influenced. We also illustrate how empirical networks can be reconstructed relying principally on information contained in qualitative, historical sources.

The specific example we use is religious belief in England in the 1550s. We describe how the burnings of Protestant leaders by the Catholic Queen Mary (1553-1558) created a set of martyrs which was decisive in increasing support not just for Protestantism compared to Catholicism, but which led to the rapid disappearance of rival Protestant factions.

The network of awareness of key religious leaders already existed prior to Mary’s accession to the throne. But her actions converted this into a network on which individual beliefs were affected, in this case decisively for English history.