Professor Robert Swanson MA, PhD, FSA, FRHistS

Department of History
Emeritus Professor of Medieval History

Contact details

Department of History
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

I studied for a degree in History at Cambridge University, graduating in 1972. I then stayed at Cambridge for doctoral research, on the activities of European universities in the crisis caused by the division in the papacy between 1378 and 1417. I joined the History Department at Birmingham in October 1979. I retired at the end of December 2016.


In 1975 Robert Swanson was appointed Assistant Archivist at the Borthwick Institute of Historical Research in York, moving to Birmingham as Lecturer in Medieval History in 1979. In 2001 he became Professor of Medieval Ecclesiastical History. From 2005 to 2011 he held the title Professor of Medieval History, and then reverted to Professor of Medieval Ecclesiastical History. In 2003 he was awarded the title of Guest Professor at Renmin University of China (Beijing), and at Tianjin Normal University. In 2010 was made Guest Professor at Wuhan University, and in 2013 Guest Professor at South China Normal University, in Guangzhou. He has also lectured elsewhere in China. He held a British Academy/Leverhulme Trust Senior Research Fellowship in 2005-6, part of which overlapped with a Membership at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. In Spring 2010 he was a Fellow at the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. He held a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship from 2013-16, which coincided with a Visiting Fellowship at All Souls, Oxford, in 2015 and a Summer Visitorship at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton in 2016.

He retired from Birmingham, but not from academic activity, at the end of 2016. Since September 2019 he had been a Research Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Study in Humanities and Social Science and Professor in the Research Center for Social History of Medicine in the School of History and Civilization at Shaanxi Normal University in Xi’an, China.

His initial research interests on papal and university history were broadened and transformed by contact with the ecclesiastical archives at York, which stimulated his investigations of the role of the church in late medieval English society (c.1350 to the Reformation). This developed further at Birmingham, to become a major area of teaching and research and the basis for many of his publications. It remains significant, and is currently reflected in a large-scale and multi-faceted investigation of parishes in pre-Reformation England between c.1280 and c.1535.

Robert Swanson was an active member of the Ecclesiastical History Society for several years, serving continuously as committee member and office holder from 1988 to 2015. He was President of the Society in 2007-8, and from 2007 to 2015 President of the British sub-commission of the Commission internationale d’histoire et d’études du christianisme (‘CIHEC’ - the international umbrella body for ecclesiastical history). From 1994 to 2001 he was editor of Studies in Church History, overseeing the publication of eight volumes of the series.


My doctoral research examined the contribution made by universities to the European debates provoked by the double election to the papacy in 1378, and the subsequent search for reunion through to 1417. That generated my first book, and a series of articles; it remains an interest, but not a prominent one. Work on the English church has provided the basis for many of my other books and articles, on aspects ranging from clerical careers to receipts at shrines, from the incomes of bishops to the value of benefices. This work has always been heavily archival, its range reflected in the volume of translated and edited sources published as Catholic England (1993). This archival focus continues as a major stimulus in my current work on late medieval English parishes. This has become a much larger project than anticipated or intended, but is now taking shape, generating a range of preliminary and preparatory publications en route to the final product.

Often research and publication have been a way of getting something out of my system, or in response to intriguing documents and provocative suggestions. Interests can simmer for years before producing results. My volume on The Twelfth Century Renaissance (1999) arose immediately from an Option course taught at Birmingham, but ultimately from an unresolved interest sparked as an undergraduate which had niggled away for many years before being eventually worked out. My interest in indulgences was initially sparked by a request to present a paper on them as visiting speaker for a postgraduate seminar. It generated a major project on indulgences in pre-Reformation England which produced several publications, including an edited volume of essays by an international group of scholars (Promissory Notes on the Treasury of Merits: Indulgences in Late Medieval Europe [2006]), and culminated in the major monograph, Indulgences in Late Medieval England: Passports to Paradise? (2007). The current project on parishes builds on foundations laid over the decades since I moved to York from Cambridge in 1975, but continues to present engaging challenges which repeatedly force me to rethink my ideas and interpretations of the evidence.


Main Books:

  • (editor) The Routledge History of Medieval Christianity, 1050-1500 (London and New York: Routledge, 2015)
  • Indulgences in Late Medieval England: Passports to Paradise? (2007)
  • (editor) Promissory Notes on the Treasury of Merits: Indulgences in Late Medieval Europe (2006)
  • The Twelfth Century Renaissance (1999)
  • Religion and Devotion in Europe, c.1215-c.1515 (1995)
  • (editor) Catholic England: Religion, Faith, and Observance before the Reformation (1993)
  • Church and Society in Late Medieval England (1989)
  • Universities, Academics, and the Great Schism (1979)
  • Editor for Studies in Church History, vols. 32-39 (1996-2004)  

Selected recent articles:

  • ‘“Gens secundum cognationem et collectionem ab alia distincta?” Thomas Polton, Two Englands, and the Challenge of Medieval Nationhood’, in G. Signori and B. Studt, eds, Das Konstanzer Konzil als europäisches Ereignis: Begegnungen, Medien und Rituale, Vorträge und Forschungen herausgegeben vom Konstanzer Arbeitskreis für mittelalterliche Geschichte, 79 (Ostfildern, 2014), pp. 57-87
  • ‘Apostolic Successors: Priests and Priesthood, Bishops, and Episcopacy in Medieval Western Europe’, in  G. Peters and C.C. Anderson, eds, A Companion to Priesthood and Holy Orders in the Middle Ages (Leiden, 2015), pp. 4-42
  • Dubius in fide fidelis est?’ Doubt and Assurance in Late Medieval Catholicism’, Studies in Church History, 52 (2016), pp. 186-202
  • ‘Parish Communities in Late Medieval England’, in M.C. Ferrari und B. Kümin, eds, Pfarreien in der Vormoderne Identität und Kultur im Niederkirchenwesen Europas, Wolfenbütteler Forschungen, 146 (Wiesbaden, 2017), pp. 95-134
  • Elephans in Camera: Latin and Latinity in 15th- and Early-16th-Century England’, in R. Ashdowne and C. White, eds, Latin in Medieval Britain, Proceedings of the British Academy, 206 (Oxford, 2017), pp. 106-30
  • ‘Town and Gown, Nave and Chancel: Parochial Experience in Late Medieval Oxford’,  in D. Harry and C. Steer, eds, The Urban Church in Late Medieval England: Essays from the 2017 Harlaxton Symposium held in Honour of Clive Burgess, Harlaxton Medieval Studies, 29 (Donington, 2019), pp. 301-331.
  • ‘Pastoral Care, Pastoral Cares, Pastoral Carers: Configuring the Cura pastoralis in pre-Reformation England’, in p. Clarke and S. James, eds, Pastoral Care in Medieval England: Interdisciplinary Approaches (London and New York, 2019), pp. 123-41
  • ‘Arbitration, delegation, conservation: marginalised mechanisms for dispute resolution in the pre-Reformation English church’,Studies in Church History, 56 (2020), pp. 165-81