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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. 

I am currently working towards the completion of two monographs. The first, Knowing Taste in Early Modern England: 'Honey Secrets', 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. 

My second monograph, provisionally titled Error and Ecstasy: The Ends of Knowledge in Renaissance England, explores how a range of authors (including Christopher Marlowe, Francis Bacon, John Donne, Thomas Browne, Robert Boyle, and Margaret Cavendish) responded to a widespread emphasis, in religious and philosophical cultures, on the physical, psychological, and spiritual dangers of pursuing knowledge. The book has three main foci: the relationships between knowledge, power, and vulnerability; self-knowledge; and death and the afterlife. I address both the instrumentalization of knowledge towards specific 'ends' or aims (notably: acquiring power, cultivating virtue, and offering consolation), and expressions of resistance to such instrumentalization. 

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 historicizing what modern analytic philosophers call 'the paradox of fiction' (the question of why we respond with real emotions to fictional events).

I am also co-curating an online exhibition, hosted by the Fitzwilliam Museum and due to go live in 2019, titled Renaissance Spaces of Knowing: Privacy and Performance, which 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. 

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.


Authored book

  • Swann, Elizabeth L. (2020). Taste and Knowledge in Early Modern England. Cambridge University Press.

Chapter in book

Edited book

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