Crossroads of Knowledge in Early Modern England: the Place of Literature


ERC-funded research project

CRASSH and the Faculty of English, University of Cambridge

This project uncovers the interface between imaginative literature and epistemology in its wider sense in early modern England (1500–1700). This period of intense literary production also saw the cultural forces of humanism and the Reformation collide; crucial shifts in the law; scientific advancement; and dramatic expansion in trade and travel. At stake across the board was knowledge: its theories and technologies, its excitements and anxieties. We examine intersections between literary forms and apparently disparate areas of thinking about ways of knowing; at the same time, we remain attentive to the thresholds between these more explicitly epistemic disciplines. Research is to be organised along the four disciplinary strands in the first four years, with literary intervention as a running thread. 

  • Theology
  • Natural philosophy
  • Economic thinking
  • Law

The final year will consolidate the project with specific events.

Subsequent disciplinary segregation has obscured the understood relations among these disciplines: epistemic transactions vital to the experiences of knowledge and belief which so deeply vexed and shaped the period’s thought.

Our point of entry is the specific intervention of literary texts in this conversation. What does literature know, or tell us, that other discourses cannot, or do not, because of their disciplinary investments? What aspirations to objectivity or assurance will it not share with science, religion or the law? How does it complicate economic ideas of insurance by translating them to affective notions of risk and surety? And crucially, how do these cognate practices engage with literary constitutions of knowledge? To recover the multiple frame against which this culture articulates its conceptions of knowledge, we read these fields as coeval but distinct. We grapple with the methods of each discipline; in our deployment of literary engagements, we do not posit literature as ethically superior but as methodologically productive for this enquiry. Through the thematic foci of knowing and knowingness, doubt and unknowing, we aim to recover a so-far uncharted history of the blind spots of knowledge, thereby rewriting the story of early modern epistemology.

This project, based jointly at the Faculty of English and CRASSH, is funded by an ERC Consolidator Grant, and is led by Dr Subha Mukherji, Senior Lecturer at the Faculty of English.



Funded by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013)/ ERC grant agreement no 617849.

For further information please contact


Principal Investigator

Dr Subha Mukherji (English, University of Cambridge)

Post-doctoral Research Associates

Dr Rachel E. Holmes
Dr Tim Stuart-Buttle
Dr Elizabeth Swann
Dr Rebecca Tomlin

Advisory Board

Professor Sukanta Chaudhuri (Jadavpur University, Kolkata)
Dr Natasha Glaysier (Department of History, University of York)
Professor Nicholas Hammond (Department of French, University of Cambridge)
Professor Jonathan Hope (Professor of Literary Linguistics and member of Digital Humanities Research Group, University of Strathclyde)
Professor Rhodri Lewis (Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford and Fellow of St Hugh’s College)
Dr Alexander Marr (Department of History of Art, University of Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity Hall)
Dr Craig Muldrew (Faculty of History, University of Cambridge and Fellow of Queens’ College)
Professor Claire Preston (Professor of Renaissance Literature, Queen Mary University of London)
Dr Richard Serjeantson (Faculty of History, University of Cambridge and Fellow of Trinity College)
Professor Barbara Shapiro (Emeritus Professor of Rhetoric, University of California, Berkeley)
Dr Michael Witmore (Director, Folger Shakespeare Library, Washington D.C.)
Dr Rowan Williams (Master of Magdalene College and former Archbishop of Canterbury)
Dr Nicolette Zeeman (Faculty of English, University of Cambridge and Fellow of King’s College)

Ex-officio Member

Professor Steve Connor (Grace 2 Professor of English and Chair of the Faculty Board of English, University of Cambridge; Fellow of Peterhouse)

Exhibition Advisor

Dr Jane Partner (Trinity Hall)

Affliated Scholar

Dr Koji Yamamoto


Mrs Gaenor Moore


Forthcoming events:

Matter at the Crossroads: Literature and Natural Philosophy in Early Modern England, Trinity Hall - Friday 25 November 2016

Previous events:

Crossroads of Knowledge: Literature and Theology in Early Modern England, Fitzwilliam College – Saturday 14 February 2015

Crossroads of Knowledge: Knowledge, Belief and Literature in Early Modern England, Trinity Hall - Thursday 7 May - Friday 8 May 2015

Interdisciplines: Drama, Economics and Law in Early Modern England, Fitzwilliam College - Saturday 17 October 2015

Change and Exchange, Trinity Hall - Friday 29 April - Saturday 30 April 2016

Visiting Fellows

2014-2015 - Theology Strand

Professor Debora Shuger (UCLA) 

Professor Shuger's interests range across a number of fields: Tudor-Stuart devotional poetry and prose, theology and biblical exegesis, legal history, political thought, rhetoric, life writing (biography, memoirs, diaries, etc.). Under the right circumstances, she also shows interest in gender, sexuality, colonialism, Classics, and Shakespeare. Along with the books listed above, she is the co-editor of Religion and Culture in Renaissance England (1997) and contributed the essay on early Stuart religious literature to the new Cambridge History of Early Modern English Literature (2002); she has also published articles on Spenser, Shakespeare, Sidney, Milton, Donne, Jonson, Middleton, rhetoric, hagiography, and mirrors. She has been a fellow at the the Liguria Study Center, the National Humanities Center, the Huntington Library, and the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin, as well as recipient of Guggenheim, NEH, and UC President's fellowships. Recent graduate seminars have focused on political theory from antiquity through the late Middle Ages, 17th century life-writing, Elizabethan religious prose, the sacred literature of the Jacobean era, early modern English law, Saint Augustine, and Renaissance commentaries on Paul's Epistle to the Romans.

Professor Brian Cummings (University of York)

Professor Cummings  was appointed at York in October 2012 as one of sixteen Anniversary Professors appointed across the arts and sciences to promote the University’s international research profile in its 50th year. Before moving there he was Professor of English at the University of Sussex, where he co-founded the Centre for Early Modern Studies in 2004. In Spring 2014 he was Distinguished Visiting Scholar at the University of Toronto, based at the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies. He has also held Visiting Fellowships in Los Angeles, Munich, and Oxford, and he was previously Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. Among a number of academic honours he has given the Shakespeare Birthday Lecture in Washington D.C. in 2014, the Clarendon Lectures in Oxford in 2012-13, and the British Academy Shakespeare Lecture in 2012. From 2009-2012 he held a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship, and in 2007 he was a British Academy Exchange Fellow. He is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries, one of the oldest learned societies in the world.

2015-2016 - Economic History Strand

Professor Valerie Forman (NYU Gallatin)

Professor Forman’s research and teaching interests lie in the literature and culture of 16th- and 17th-century England and Europe, the early modern Caribbean, early modern drama, early modern women writers, early modern economic history and political theory, and Marxist theory. She received a PhD in literature from UC Santa Cruz, where she specialized in Renaissance and 17th-century English literature and culture and 16th-century French literature. Before coming to Gallatin, Professor Forman taught in the Department of English at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Her first book, Tragicomic Redemptions:  Global Economics and the Early Modern English Stage (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008), explores the relationship between innovations in the theatre and new economic practices necessary to the beginnings of global trade, including that among England, the East Indies, and the Ottoman Empire. Her second book project, which turns to trade and cultural relations in the Caribbean, is entitled Developing New Worlds: Property, Freedom, and the Economics of Representation in Early Modern England and the Caribbean. She teaches courses on theatre and politics, labor, and global markets, and the rise of globalization in the early modern period.

Dr Ceri Sullivan (Cardiff University)

Dr Sullivan's first career was in the City of London as a senior charterted accountant and banking analyst and her second as a Finance Director through VSO. She now teaches early modern literature and modern political drama and her research interests deal with whether one may persuade oneself in devotion, focusing on  Catholic texts in her publication (Dismembered Rhetoric: English Recusant Writing 1580-1603).  Further publications explore how a merchant represents himself and reads others'  representations in the real and dramatic markets (The Rhetoric of Credit:  Merchants in Early Modern Writing). and whether, if the conscience  is structured as a language, the consequence of the divine I am is You aren't  (The Rhetoric of the Conscience in Donne, Herbert and Vaughan). Her  next book will be Private Prayer in Shakespeare's Histories. Imagine a society where every single adult was trained in - and practised - composing short original texts, every single day. This project asks an audacious but compelling question: at the turn of the seventeenth century, did changes in writing private prayers underlie major developments in drama? Required to pray independently, convinced their private prayers had an impact on the course of events, the laity developed literary - indeed, specifically dramatic - skills: in characterisation, in counter-factual narrative, and in striking verbal forms. Playwrights interested in experiments in form, particularly Shakespeare, gleefully seized on this novel expertise in their audience.

2016-2017 - Natural Philosophy Strand

Professor Jonathan Sawday (Saint Louis University)

Professor onathan Sawday studied English at Queen Mary College (University of London) and University College London, where he took his PhD in Renaissance Literature. He has taught at British, Irish, and American universities, most recently at the University of Strathclyde, in Glasgow, Scotland where he held the Chair in English Studies. He has held fellowships at the Huntington Library (California), the Russian State University for the Humanities in Moscow, and been a visiting scholar in the Centre for Renaissance Studies at the Newberry Library in Chicago. He has held awards and grants from the Fulbright Association, the British Academy, The British Council, and the UK Arts and Humanities Research Council. He is a Fellow of the English Association (FEA), the Royal Society for the Arts (FRSA), and of the Royal Historical Society (FRHistS). He is on the advisory board of the Journal for Literature and Science and on the editorial boards of Medical Humanities and Writing Technologies. Professor Sawday is a cultural historian. His research is focused on the intersection between science, technology, and literature particularly (but not exclusively) in the early-modern period. Currently, he is working on the idea of blanks or voids in literature, art, and culture. He is also working on an intellectual biography of Robert Burton (1577-1640), the inscrutable author of The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), the first (and probably longest) psychoanalytic work published in English. 

Dr Michael Whitmore (Folger Shakespeare Library)

Dr. Witmore was appointed the seventh director of the Folger on July 1, 2011. Upon his arrival, he worked with the Board of Governors to draft a Strategic Plan for the institution, adopted in June 2013. He was formerly professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and before that he served as associate professor of English and assistant professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. The recipient of numerous fellowships, he has held an Andrew Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of California, Los Angeles, a research fellowship and a curatorial residency fellowship at the Folger, and a predoctoral fellowship at the Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte in Berlin. He was awarded (but declined) an ACLS Digital Innovation Fellowship for the academic year 2011-12. Dr. Witmore earned an A.B. in English at Vassar College, and an M.A. and Ph.D. in rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Among his more recent projects, he launched the Working Group for Digital Inquiry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and organized the Pittsburgh Consortium for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. His publications include numerous articles, website resources, and book chapters, and he has published five books: Landscapes of the Passing Strange: Reflections from Shakespeare, with Rosamond Purcell (2010), Shakespearean Metaphysics (2009), Pretty Creatures: Children and Fiction in the English Renaissance (2007), Childhood and Children’s Books in Early Modern Europe, 1550-1800 (2006), and Culture of Accidents: Unexpected Knowledge in Early Modern England (2001). In addition, he has given scores of presentations and been invited to serve on numerous academic panels. He currently has several books in progress, including a study of early modern wisdom literature and a book on the nature of digital inquiry in the humanities. 

Professor Lorraine Daston (Max Planck Institute for the History of Science)

Professor Daston has published on a wide range of topics in the history of science, including the history of probability and statistics, wonders in early modern science, the emergence of the scientific fact, scientific models, objects of scientific inquiry, the moral authority of nature, and the history of scientific objectivity. Recent books include (with Paul Erikson et al.) How Reason Almost Lost Its Mind: The Strange Career of Cold war Rationality(2014)  and (co-edited with Elizabeth Lunbeck), Histories of Scientific Observation (2011), both products of MPIWG Working Groups. Her current projects include a history of rules, based on her 2014 Lawrence Stone Lectures at Princeton University, the emergence of Big Science and Big Humanities in the context of nineteenth-century archives, and the relationship between moral and natural orders. She is the recipient of the Pfizer Prize and Sarton Medal of the History of Science Society, the Schelling Prize of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences, the Lichtenberg Medal of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences, the Luhmann Prize of the University of Bielefeld, and an honorary dotorate of humane letters from Princeton University. In addition to directing Department II of the MPIWG, she is a regular Visiting Professor in the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago and Permanent Fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin.