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Durham University

Department of English Studies


Academic Staff

Dr Elizabeth Swann

Assistant Professor in the Department of English Studies

(email at

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, 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 '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 currently 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 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, humanist scholars, authors, 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.

Other ongoing research activities 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 essay on Boyle's experiments on phosphorus, and work towards an article titled 'Shadows in the Water: Over-reading Thomas Traherne'.

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

  • Swann, Elizabeth (2018). Review of /From Gluttony to Enlightenment: The World of Taste in Early Modern Europe/ by Viktoria von Hoffmann. French Studies 72(1): 113-14.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2018). Review of /Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen/, by Wendy Wall. Early Modern Culture Online 4(1).
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2018). Review of /Sociable Knowledge: Natural History and the Nation in Early Modern Britain/ by Elizabeth Yale. English Studies 99(2): 219-20.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2015). Review of /Passions and Subjectivity in Early Modern Culture/, ed. Brian Cummings and Freya Sierhuis. Renaissance Studies 30(3): 474-77.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2014). Review of /Sense and the Senses in Early Modern Art and Cultural Practice/, ed. Alice E. Sanger and Siv Tove Kulbrandstand Walker. Journal of the Northern Renaissance 6.

Chapter in book

Edited book

Other (Digital/Visual Media)


  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2020), 'A straine above mortality': The Ends of Knowledge in Early Modern England, Interdisciplinary Renaissance and Early Modern Seminar. University of Leeds.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2019), Robert Boyle’s 'Abstruse Phaenomina': From Philosopher’s Stone to Phosphorus, Secrecy and Openness in the Middle Ages and Renaissance. New York University.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2019), Shadows in the Water: Over-reading Thomas Traherne, Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America. Toronto.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2018), 'Those Fruits of Natural Knowledge': Rhetorical and Experimental Taste, Subjective Sciences: A Workshop on Taste and Connoisseurship in Early Modern Europe. University College London.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2018), Nothing Clearer, Nothing Darker: Robert Boyle’s 'Glimmerings of Light', Ordering Knowledge from Bacon to the Shelleys. University of Strasbourg.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2016), God’s Nostrils: The Divine Senses in Early Modern England, Early Modern Seminar. Durham University.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2016), Hazarding All: Risk and Knowledge in Early Modern England, Scientiae: Disciplines of Knowing in the Early Modern World. University of Oxford.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2016), Nosce Te Ipsum: Early Modern Senses of Self-Knowledge, Society for Renaissance Studies Biennial Conference. University of Glasgow.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2016), The Consolations of (Natural) Philosophy: Knowing Death in the Early Royal Society, London Renaissance Seminar. Birkbeck, University of London.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2015), Erotic Epistemologies in Shakespeare’s Narrative Poems, nnual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America. Berlin.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2015), The Meaning of Making: Self-Experiment and Knowledge, circa 1660-1730 B, ritish Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies Annual Conference. University of Oxford.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2015), Vulnerable Knowledge in Early Modern England, Centre for Renaissance and Early Modern Studies Seminar. University of York.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2015), Writing New Histories of Embodiment (seminar paper), Annual Meeting of the Shakespeare Association of America. Vancouver.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2014), 'Knowledge is Power'? Epistemology and Vulnerability in Early Modern England, Reading Early Modern Studies Conference. University of Reading.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2014), 'Readyng is the best medicine': Literary and Therapeutic Taste in Early Modern Miscellanies, Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America. New York.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2014), The Subject of Allegory: Sensation and Subjectivity on the Late Medieval and Early Modern Stage, International Congress on Medieval Studies. Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2013), 'A Taste of Spirituall Things': Spirituality and Sweetness in Early Modern Devotional Literature, Sensing the Sacred: Religion and the Senses, 1300-1800. University of York.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2013), Bitter Sin, Salvific Sweetness: Piety and Palate in Early Seventeenth-Century Devotional Literature, The Five Senses in Medieval and Early Modern Cultures. University of Bern.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2013), Dulce et utile: Diagnosis, Dietetics, and Taste in Early Modern Poetics, Reading and Health in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800. Newcastle University.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2013), The “Palate of the Understanding” Taste and Knowledge in Early Modern Culture, Centre for Medieval and Early Modern Studies Research Seminar. University of Kent.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2012), The 'tast of science': Natural Philosophy and Taste in Seventeenth-Century England, Society for Renaissance Studies Biennial Conference. University of Manchester.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2011), ‘Imitation Sweet': Early Seventeenth-Century Commonplace Culture and the Bibliophagic Trope, Eating Words: Text, Image, Food. University of Cambridge.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2011), ‘Loves sensuall Emperie': Erotic and Epistemic Taste in Ovids Banquet of Sense, The Senses in Early Modern England, 1485-1668. Shakespeare’s Globe and Birkbeck, University of London.
  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2010), ‘Question your teaspoons': Cutlery and Consumption in Seventeenth-Century England, Making Publics Summer Symposium. McGill University, Montreal.

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