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Dr Elizabeth Swann

Assistant Professor

Assistant Professor in the Department of English Studies
Department Rep (English Studies) in the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies


Academic Bio

I joined Durham as Assistant Professor of Interdisciplinary Literary Studies in September 2018, following stints as Research Associate on the ERC-funded project Crossroads of Knowledge: The Place of Literature in Early Modern England at the University of Cambridge (2014-2018), and Haslam Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (2013-2014). Before that, I completed my PhD in the Department of English and Related Literature at the University of York.

Current Research Activities

Broadly, my research interests focus on the relationships between literature, natural philosophy (aka early 'science'), and theology in England, circa 1500-1700; I am particularly interested in the ways that literary texts represent knowing and knowledge as an embodied, passionate, and historically situated set of practices and experiences. 

My first monograph,Taste and Knowledge in Early Modern England (Cambridge University Press, 2020), investigates the relation between the physical sense of taste, and taste as a metaphorical term used to denote various forms of knowledge and judgement (including, but not only, aesthetic taste). In the early modern period, I argue, taste in both these 'senses' played a key role in the cultivation of humanist erudition, in the so-called ‘scientific revolution,’ in theological debates about how best to access divine truth, and in the experience and articulation of intersubjective knowledge and sexual desire. 

I'm now working on a second monograph, titled Error and Ecstasy: The Ends of Knowledge in Renaissance England. Focusing on the complex relations between humanist moral philosophy, Reformation theology, and experimental natural philosophy, this book explores how a range of authors (including Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, John Donne, Thomas Browne, Robert Boyle, and Margaret Cavendish) wrote about the 'ends' of knowledge in two senses: its purposes or aims, and its limits or boundaries. The first section investigates the origins of the aphorism 'knowledge is power', arguing that in the period, rather than conferring authority, the pursuit of knowledge was often bound up with experiences of vulnerability, debility, and abjection. The second section addresses the challenges and paradoxes of self-knowledge as a means to ethical self-betterment. The third section considers how, in the wake of the Reformation, a wide range of authors, thinkers, and experimental philosophers adapted and transformed the classical notion that one of the purposes of philosophy is to provide comfort and consolation in the face of misfortune and impending death.

I am also in the process of completing a short book, or 'minigraph', titled Knowledge and Power: A Polemical History, which grows out of the first section of my longer Error and Ecstasy monograph. This book explores the origins of the ‘knowledge is power’ aphorism in early modern England, but it also investigates the afterlife of the aphorism in Enlightenment philosophy and politics, in twentieth-century critical theory, and in modern popular, political, and educational cultures more generally. I show how the assertion that 'knowledge is power' has, historically, been deployed both in a spirit of empancipatory optimism, and in a spirit of cynical suspicion. In either case, I argue, the principle is frequently inadequate, inaccurate, and even destructive, and has contributed (amongst other things) to a growing climate of anti-intellectualism in the twenty-first century. 

Other research projects include co-editing (with Subha Mukherji) a volume titled 'Devices of Fancy': Literature and Scientia in Early Modern England, which will include a sole-authored introduction and an essay on Robert Boyle's experimental efforts to produce the chemical element we now know as phosphorus. I am also working on an article titled 'Shadows in the Water: Over-reading Thomas Traherne'. This piece offers a brief history of over-reading in the Renaissance that emphasizes both its entwinement with excess and error, and its theological and literary value as an intentional interpretive strategy.

I have a growing interest in the field of Critical University Studies, particularly the ways in which the kinds of knowledge produced in universities in the twenty-first century is shaped by the historical, cultural, socio-economic, and personal contexts of research and teaching. Some thoughts about this topic are available as a blogpost here

I welcome enquiries from postgraduate students with interests in intersections between literature, theology, and natural philosophy, and the senses and embodiment, in Renaissance England.

Other Research Activities

I am co-curator of an online exhibition hosted by the Fitzwilliam Museum, available here. This exhibition, titled Renaissance Spaces of Knowing: Privacy and Performance, explores the locations in which knowledge was generated, moving from public spaces including the marketplace, the law-courts, the theatre, the church, and the schoolroom, to private and quasi-private spaces including the garden, the study, and the bedroom. 


Authored book

Book review

Chapter in book

Edited book

Other (Digital/Visual Media)