Knowledge, Belief and Literature in Early Modern England

7 May 2015 - 8 May 2015

Graham Storey Room, Trinity Hall

Knowledge, Belief and Literature was the second of two colloquia which aimed to explore the intersection of theology and literature in early modern England. As part of the broader, European Research Council-funded interdisciplinary project Crossroads of Knowledge in Early Modern England, the speakers were particularly alert to the project's overall thematic foci (doubt and unknowing, knowing and knowingness). In this colloquium we were also interested in change over time: one of the panel sessions explored how conceptions of knowledge, knowingness and doubt—and their relationship to religious belief—shifted between the late medieval period and the Enlightenment.  Professor Brian Cummings  (York), was the second Visiting Fellow to the project and gave a plenary address to the colloquium. The programme booklet from the event is available here.



Plenary Speakers 

Panel Members

  • Dr Kantik Ghosh (University of Oxford)
  • Dr Subha Mukherji (University of Cambridge)
  • Dr Jane Partner (University of Cambridge)
  • Dr Adrian Streete (University of Glasgow)
  • Dr Tim Stuart-Buttle (University of Cambridge)
  • Dr Elizabeth L. Swann (University of Cambridge)

Round Table chaired by Dr Joe Moshenska (University of Cambridge)

For further information please contact the Crossroads Research Project Administrator .



Supported by the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH) at the University of Cambridge and by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ ERC grant agreement no 617849


DAY 1 - Thursday 7 May

09.15 - 10.00


10.00 - 11.15


Plenary 1

Brian Cummings (University of York) Erasmus on Literature and Knowledge 

Chaired by Katrin Ettenhuber (University of Cambridge)

11.15 - 13.15

Panel 1 - Chronology

Kantik Ghosh (University of Oxford) 'Sophistae et verbosi': Theologians and Scepticism in Late-Medieval Europe

Subha Mukherji (University of Cambridge) ‘O she’s warm’: Evidence, Assent and the Sensory Numinous in Shakespeare and His World

Tim Stuart-Buttle (University of Cambridge) Taking out the Trash: Locke, Natural Law and Moral Knowledge

Chaired by Sophie Read (University of Cambridge)

13.15 -14.15


14.15 - 16.15

Panel 2

Adrian Streete (University of Glasgow) Thomas Traherne and the Problem of Infinity

Elizabeth L. Swann (University of Cambridge) Scientia potentia est? Knowledge, Pain, and Power in Early Modern England

Jane Partner (University of Cambridge) Seeing and Believing: Thomas Traherne's Poetic Language and the Reading Eye

Chaired by Koji Yamamoto (University of Cambridge)

16.15 - 16.30

Break - tea/coffee

16.30 - 17.45

Plenary 2

Regina Schwartz (Northwestern University) Knowing and Forgiving

Chaired by Jason Scott-Warren (University of Cambridge)

17.45 -19.00

Free time


Drinks reception (Chetwode Room) and Colloquium Dinner at 19.30 in the Graham Storey Room

DAY 2 - Friday 8 May

Coffee from 09.30

10.00 - 11.15

Plenary 3

Alec Ryrie (University of Durham) Faith, Doubt and Death in Protestant Narratives of Childhood

Chaired by Giles Waller (University of Cambridge)

11.15 - 11.30

Break - Tea/coffee

11.30 - 12.45

Plenary 4

Rowan Williams (University of Cambridge) Doubting Wisely

Chaired by David Parry (University of Cambridge)

12.45 - 14.00

Working lunch (roundtable discussion and sandwiches)

Chaired by Joe Moshenska (University of Cambridge)

Erasmus on Literature and Knowledge - Brian Cummings (University of York)

‘What we desire is that nothing may stand forth with greater certainty than the truth itself, whose expression is the more powerful, the simpler it is’. Erasmus’ preface to his edition of the Greek New Testament makes a claim that is at once unexceptional and radical. He appears to be doing something entirely traditional: basing the claims to Christian ‘truth’ on scripture. But what does he mean by ‘scripture’? Scripture, he asserts, is a type of literature, and therefore embodies a distinctive form of knowledge. It requires understanding of languages; of history, geography, the human sciences; also of rhetoric and the figures of speech; and indeed a theory of mimesis or representation and an account of affect. This paper will address the relationship between sacrae litterae and bonae litterae in a range of works from the Enchiridion (1501) to the Convivium religiosum (1522), looking especially at the New Testament works on literary meaning and the practice of theology: Paraclesis (1516) and Ratio seu methodus verae theologiae (1518). 

'Sophistae et verbosi': Theologians and Scepticism in Late-Medieval EuropeKantik Ghosh (University of Oxford)

Later medieval Europe witnessed a simultaneous efflorescence of university-life, with high-profile 'public intellectuals' playing a major role in controversy (and the foundation of many new universities), as well as of a range of extra-mural dissident religious movements. In this context, I will examine the high visibility as well as the increasingly embattled position of the medieval university and, in particular, its theological magisterium, as well as the learned discourses and methods associated with it. Simultaneously the source of and the (traditional) panacea for 'heresy', theological learning entered into a large-scale but uneasy engagement with extra-mural religious aspiration and debate as well as with developing ideas of 'orthodoxy', with Paris, Oxford, Prague and Vienna Universities (among others) playing a preeminent but deeply conflicted role in fifteenth-century controversy. I will suggest that the fundamental confrontations over the site of legitimate auctoritas which informed such controversy resulted in the emergence of a de facto scepticism in the realm of religious epistemology, a scepticism which was dealt with via the malleable category of 'heresy'. 

‘O, she’s warm’: Evidence, assent and the sensory numinous in early modern literature - Subha Mukherji (University of Cambridge)

In early modern England, the sceptical mistrust of the senses was a commonplace, as were religious warnings against their limits. But literary perceptions of the divine are arrived at, repeatedly, through the senses. Sensible tokens were, of course, valued in legal practice, despite a theoretical preference for probabilistic reasoning. Yet the sensory spiritual register of imaginative literature manifests an often antagonistic relation to evidence, unmooring the senses from their usual demonstrative domain. Their role, here, suggests a distinct understanding of the relation between knowledge, belief and faith. Moments that have seemed confused or baffling in their mixing of these languages and values at once make sense, and illuminate, an interdisciplinary transaction of ideas, if we know how to read their apparent strangeness. This talk will focus on the literary evocations of the ‘numinous’ and claim that it is here, rather than in straight-forwardly theological explorations, that the elusive narratives of the senses are to be traced. They are worth probing because they tell us a great deal about both a grammar of the ineffable, and about knowing as a process. In addition, they signal a diachronic point: that the pre-modern history of sensing the sacred feeds into the early modern in its literary manifestations, but in a manner too hybrid to have been recognised as a transformed theological percept. Shakespeare will feature centrally, as the theatre has a special role in this operation. Others, such as Herbert, may feature too.

Seeing and Believing: Thomas Traherne's Poetic Language and the Reading Eye - Jane Partner (University of Cambridge)

Vision plays a central role in Thomas Traherne’s theology. The pervasive motif of the ‘Infant Ey’ expresses his belief that the spiritual status of the individual depends upon their ability to look correctly at the world so as to perceive God in all his works; a process that enables the viewer to achieve an experience of heaven on earth.

This paper examines the ways in which Traherne’s theological ideas about sight are put into practice in the visual presentation of his poetry. Traherne uses the disrupted, multi-directional structure of his texts to assert the inadequacy of the rational mind and of conventional language to express mystical experience. This motif forms an important part of his formal poetic strategy to oblige the reader to view his texts through the ‘Infant Ey’. I take a new look at the sources and precedents for his innovative typography, examining in particular how his use of brackets derives from existing practices in the graphic organisation of knowledge. I consider how a more fully contextualised reading of Traherne’s style can lead to a fuller understanding of the way that he seeks to change the way that his reader looks at the world by changing the way that we read.

Faith, Doubt and Death in Protestant Narratives of Childhood - Alec Ryrie (University of Durham)

The meanings of childhood changed in seventeenth-century Protestantism. A narrative model for the Protestant life based on martyrology, in which the faith-story begins with conversion and ends with death, was complicated by the publication in English of Augustine's Confessions, which made life before conversion a worthwhile focus of interest for the first time. Autobiographical narratives modelled on the Confessions clearly show how some Protestants used this to recall their own childhood struggles with faith and doubt with surprising frankness. This was accompanied by a new focus on the possibility of children having a fully formed faith, as illustrated in several published narratives of pious children who died exemplary deaths, deaths of which they were often said to have had clear premonitions. This paper will trace these developments, considering how literary models, pious exemplars and lived experience related to one another, and asking how this fed into the full-blown children's revivalism of the eighteenth century.

Knowing and Forgiving - Regina Schwartz (Northwestern University) 

Justice relies heavily on a discourse of certain knowledge: evidence, proof, witness, testimony -- all are garnered in the effort to achieve such certainty.  I will ask how Shakespeare responds to this quest for certainty in the apparatus of punishing and how he depicts knowing in a different context, that of forgiving.

Thomas Traherne and the Problem of Infinity - Adrian Streete (University of Glasgow)

This paper re-examines the idea of infinity in the work of Thomas Traherne. By exploring his discussions of infinity in relation to the work of Aristotle, Descartes, More and Hobbes, I show how Traherne develops a distinct and idiosyncratic understanding of the concept. While he is undoubtedly attracted to the potential for humanity to know an unbounded, infinitely divisible, extended universe and deity, he also wants to hold on to a bounded, indivisible, finite knowledge of matter and God: this paper explores the consequences of this tension in Traherne’s poetry and prose.

Taking out the Trash: Locke, Natural Law and Moral Knowledge - Tim Stuart-Buttle (University of Cambridge)

At the outset of the Essay concerning Human Understanding (1689), John Locke presents himself as labouring to remove ‘some of the Rubbish, that lies in the way to Knowledge’. Locke’s sceptical endeavour was informed by a positive conviction: every individual, as God’s created being, possessed natural faculties which were adequate to the task of moral self-direction. Consequently all of Locke’s writings—epistemological, religious, political and educational—combine the explanatory and the pedagogical. They explain how the individual might acquire ‘sufficient’ knowledge to lead her to perform her duties under natural law as God’s creature, and they exhort her to expend the ‘pains and labour’ which this act demands. Only if she labours for truth in this manner would the harmony between the insights procured by reason (‘natural revelation’) and those delivered by the Scriptures become apparent. Yet for Locke it was clear that very few cultivated their natural faculties as they ought. It followed that similarly few were in a position to recognise both the reasonableness and necessity of Christ’s revelation. Locke offered Cicero as an exemplar of true philosophy, and a proto-Christian: Cicero showed how far reason had ‘reached’ in the absence of revelation; recognising philosophy’s limits, he identified a conceptual ‘space’ which, Locke argued, Christ’s revelation had filled. This presentation of Cicero, I suggest, indicates how Locke sought to accommodate doubt into the very fabric of Christian belief. 

Scientia potentia est? Knowledge, Pain, and Power in Early Modern England - Elizabeth Swann (University of Cambridge)

In his 1597 Sacred Meditations, Francis Bacon discusses the heretical belief that God has no involvement in or power over sinful human actions. According to this belief – and in contrast to Calvinist orthodoxy – God’s foreknowledge of human sinfulness does not necessitate His pre-ordination of sinfulness: when humans sin, they do so of their own free will. For Bacon, this argument is both objectionable and illogical. It is impossible, he asserts, to separate God’s omniscience and his omnipotence. In his own words, ipsa scientia potestas est. This statement – the first articulation of the now-axiomatic notion that knowledge is power – quickly gained in popularity, as it was applied by Bacon himself, and later by Hobbes, to the realms of the natural and human sciences, and subsequently came to influence twentieth- and twenty-first century scholarship. This paper argues that we have been too quick to take Bacon at his word. The association between knowledge and power, I argue, is strenuously constructed in the face of a much more pervasive early modern sense that the acquisition of knowledge usually entails experiences of pain, vulnerability, and abjection. Turning to Marlowe’s Dr Faustus, I suggest that the play both dramatizes the conflict between an established model of knowledge as dangerous and debilitating, and an emerging model of knowledge as a source of power, and reveals the extent to which this conflict was bound up (as it was for Bacon) in the charged question of reformed soteriology. 

Doubting Wisely - Rowan Williams (University of Cambridge) Abstract to follow.