The Algorithm’s Needlework Origins

by Whitney Sperrazza

According to her tombstone, Elizabeth Lucar was an exceptional maker. This sixteenth-century woman, who died at the age of twenty-seven, was memorialized in lines that praised the many skills of her busy hands:

She wrote all needle-works that women exercise
With pen, frame, or stools, all pictures artificial.
Curious knots, or trailer, what fancies could devise,
Beasts, birds, or flowers, even as things natural:
Three manner hands could she write them faire all.
To speak of algorisme, or accounts in every fashion,
Of women, few like (I think) in all this nation.

Lucar’s hands, this epitaph tells us, worked with pen and needle to create imaginative works (“what fancies could devise”) and recreate elements of the natural world (“even as things natural”). The tools connected within these lines — pen, frame, stool (and even hands) — testify to Lucar’s expertise with a range of verbal, visual, and tactile media.

As a writer, calligrapher (“three manner hands”), painter, and sewer, Lucar possessed many of the skills we have come to associate with early modern women’s work. More unexpectedly, though, these lines cite “algorisme” — an early form of the word “algorithm” — as another of Lucar’s skills as a maker. Let me be clear, the unexpected thing here is not that early modern women were doing math, but that this mathematical practice is clustered with a group of highly material craft practices.

Lucar’s epitaph is several stanzas long, and, in later stanzas, the writer praises other sets of skills — in one, Lucar’s musical talent (“both viall and lute”), in another, her language abilities (“Latine and Spanish, and also Italian”). There is a pattern to how the different skills are grouped. We have to ask, then, how does “algorisme” — or “accounts in every fashion,” as the epitaph glosses — fit with the other highly material making practices listed in these lines?

I take this unexpected placement of “algorisme” as an invitation to consider the craft origins of algorithmic practice. Today, “algorithm” is almost always associated with computers, and it’s easy to think of the term as synonymous with “computer program.” But an algorithm is conceptual and analog (rather than digital). It is the idea, worked out in the human brain or on a piece of paper, of the step-by-step solution for solving a mathematical problem. In the sixteenth century, the term “algorisme” referred to arithmetic that used Arabic rather than Roman numerals. It was also often described as a “craft” — work involving the hands that requires technical skill and know-how. One fifteenth-century mathematical treatise, for example, defines “algorym” as the “craft of Nombryng [Numbering].”

Tracing a deeper historical context for this term helps us understand why it’s included in the list of highly material making practices recorded in Lucar’s epitaph. Before the nineteenth century, an algorithm was very much a made thing. In fact, in one of the earliest printed arithmetic books, circulating in England just after Lucar’s death, the anonymous author claims that the “art” of “algorisme” is the foundation of all other crafts. “For what crafte is that,” the author asks, “but it somtyme dothe occupye” (or, make use of) all the different parts of “algorisme”?

The epitaph on Lucar’s tombstone was likely written or commissioned by her husband, Emmanuel Lucar, a practicing tailor and a member of the London Merchant Taylor’s Company. During this period in European history, tailors started using pattern books to construct clothing, so there was increased interest in the link between mathematics and textile work. Tailors’ measurements were based on human body parts (a foot- or hand-length, for example) and could range from town to town. Without a standard measuring system, the job required great skill in flexible and practical calculations. There was, in other words, a craft to the tailor’s system of calculation — an algorithm for textile work that aligns with the anonymous author’s claim that algorithmic craft is the foundation of all other making practices.

I don’t mean to suggest that Elizabeth Lucar had exactly the same skill set as her husband, a professional merchant tailor. But we don’t have any evidence of Lucar’s work as a multimedia maker beyond her tombstone epitaph. The epitaph forces us to confront the absence of a well-preserved archive of her made things, even as it prompts us to consider how we can best recover the history of women’s making. Like professional tailors’ work in the period, Lucar’s needlework and algorithmic skills seem to function in tandem, with her needlework informing her algorithmic work and her mathematical calculations informing her textile practice. The skill in flexible and practical calculations that we can trace in the work of sixteenth-century tailors finds a direct corollary in the highly material algorithmic work attributed to Lucar.

In fact, we might go a step further and consider the possibility that early modern women would have had unique insight into the materiality of algorithmic work because of the interrelated skills they employed on a daily basis. To test this speculation, we can start by turning to a genre that famously prescribed exactly what a woman’s daily activities should include: the conduct manual. Women’s conduct literature is a troubling genre. These books prescribed specific behaviors and actions appropriate for women within the bounds of a highly patriarchal society. Many of the authors claimed to be writing in response to women who had misbehaved in some way. Consequently, conduct manuals functioned as public chastisements for women and endorsements for men to correct, manage, and surveil women’s bodies.

As a by-product of their prescriptive work, though, can conduct books help us track women’s making practices? The skills that conduct books encouraged women to pursue will sound familiar — needlework, painting, reading, textile design. These are the same skills catalogued in Lucar’s epitaph. Because the writers of conduct manuals were especially interested in outlining appropriate forms of women’s work, these books document women’s skills as makers. In a particularly famous conduct book, for example, Juan Luis Vives specifically highlights reading books and working with textiles as “two crafts” that foster proper virtues for women (The Instruction of a Christian Woman, 1529). Reading and textile work, Vives notes, are “both profitable and keepers of temperance: which thing specially women ought to have in price” (Sig. C4r).

It is the phrase “specially women” that interests me here. Even as he prescribes specific skills in order to foster desirable “effeminate” virtues, Vives marks the exceptional status of women in relation to these skills. Engaging daily with texts, textiles, and other material forms, “specially women” continually participate in a cluster of interrelated practices that gives them a privileged understanding of how those practices work together. In other words, we can read Vives’ directive not just as a record of women’s skills but also as a testament to their particular insight into the relationships among different kinds of material making.

Vives’ book does not include mathematics or “algorisme” in the list of desirable skills for women (in fact, he cautions against allowing women to study math). But Lucar’s epitaph speaks back as a crucial reminder that “algorisme” was foundational to many of the skills Vives’ book does prescribe. Reading Vives’ directives and Lucar’s epitaph together, we glimpse women’s unique perspective on algorithmic work as a material practice.

Lucar’s epitaph offers an invitation to think about early modern women’s work as a rich site for an alternative history of the algorithm, a history usually dominated by figures in mathematics and computing. What would a history of algorithmic work look like if its roots were in needlework, writing, painting, embroidery, and textile design — the kinds of making practices marked by Lucar’s epitaph?

With such a foundation, could we establish a history of the algorithm — even a history of computing — that relied on women’s work? These questions build on ongoing work by historians of technology and artists. My goal is to connect these questions more directly to our readings of premodern literatures and cultures. Widening the places where we trace these histories, perhaps we can flip the usual script of computing history and find “specially women” at its core.

Whitney Sperrazza is an Assistant Professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Her research focuses on the relationship between women’s writing and STEM fields in the early modern period. She has published work with the Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, Women’s Writing, and Lady Science. You can find her online at whitneysperrazza.org and @wsperrazza on Twitter.

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