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.