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'Everybody Deserves a History'


By Sean Smith | Chronicle Editor

Published: Oct. 17, 2013

Earlier this month, Professor and Chair of History Robin Fleming — the recently announced winner of a MacArthur Fellowship, or “Genius Grant” — sat down with the Chronicle’s Sean Smith to talk about her work and how she became an avid researcher of early medieval history.

Q: It’s been a few weeks now since you got the official word about your MacArthur. Have you had some opportunity to reflect a little more about what the “Genius Grant” means for you, and your career?

It’s given me a chance to think programmatically about what I want to do. I’m still in discussion with people on campus as to what exactly is going to happen, particularly since I’m the department chair — and I’m certainly not running away and never teaching again. But I have started thinking how I want to use the time and resources that come with the MacArthur Fellowship.

Q: As a discipline, history has moved away from the old perception of being all about dates and other milestones — who won that war, which king ruled when, etc. — to more of a focus on everyday life. What kinds of challenges and opportunities does this trend present for your research?

History made that transition quite a while ago. American historians and even late-medieval historians have been doing that for a long time, because they have a lot of texts to work with. People like me who work long ago and far away don’t have many texts, however, so it’s been difficult to make that move.

That’s where archeology has been valuable. I’ve had a sustained interest in archeology, although I never really studied it. But when I first sat down to write Britain After Rome, I came face-to-face with the fact that there was no written evidence at all for the late-Roman period in Britain, so I had to work hard to figure out what was happening in that world by looking at material evidence.

Q: How do you use this evidence?

One of the things I’ve done is to write very brief biographies of people who lived in the fifth, sixth or seventh century based only on their bones, their grave goods and where they were buried. We don’t know their names, but we can know an awful lot about the lives they led based on what’s left of them.

For instance, I wrote about two women of different social and economic statuses who were buried in the same grave. The one buried at the bottom of the grave looks like the star of the burial; the one at the top looks like she was buried alive, as a punishment for the dead woman below her. You can see that she was thrown into the grave and was trying to get out. Then somebody throws a grindstone at her, breaking her pelvis, and she falls back into the grave.

So we don’t know that much about her, but this terrible episode opens up a window, and we can get a sense of the way people lived their lives.

Q: What is it about the early medieval period that draws you?

We don’t know anything about it because we don’t have anything written, but we do know the broad outlines, what Britain looked like in the 50 or 60 years before Rome fell in Britain. It was a pretty prosperous place. What happens is, the economy collapses there, pretty badly, and then the state withdraws.

By looking at what evidence there is in the 100 years or so after this, we can see how people responded. That’s what interests me, not the darkness of the period or the benightedness of the people. They were living in really tough times, but they didn’t take to their beds. They got on with it and they built a new world.

Q: And you see some lessons in there for the contemporary world?

We live in a complex society where we consume a lot of stuff that we don’t make. So did people living in the late-Roman period of Britain, and the system collapsed, and there they were. It’s interesting to see what happens to people in a complex society when the economy collapses.

But as an historian, of course, my interest in history isn’t just about the present, it’s about the past. I think everybody deserves a history. I hope that 500 years from now, when people write about America, they write about people like us. I want to write about people like us, too – real people. I think one of the important things historians do is to give voice to people’s past experience; they liked their lives just as much as we like ours.

Q: Do you think you were born to be a medieval historian? When did your love of history start?

I’ve always loved history — when I was a kid, I read a lot of trashy historical novels that were written in the 1930, ’40s and ’50s. But I hated history in school. At my school in California, it was taught by water polo coaches – they’d been hired to run the boys’ water polo team, but they had to teach a few classes, too. So it was a catastrophe, but I was able to separate what happened in school from what I thought real history was.

When I was a junior in high school, I spent a year as an exchange student in South Africa, going to an Afrikaans school under apartheid, where I took European history. And it was this topsy-turvy world where everything was upside down: I learned things like “Bismarck was the savior of Western civilization.” So every day I’d think, “That can’t be right!” And it really got me interested in history, because I could see that the context in which it was taught really shaped what people said about the past. That’s when I got really hooked, and I went to college knowing I wanted to study history.

Q: So was that when you started thinking, “You know, I could do this for the rest of my life”?

Absolutely. When I was a sophomore, I knew I wanted to be a medievalist, and I wanted to work on early medieval Britain. I had a super-good undergraduate teacher — that’s often how you get pointed in a certain direction — but I also liked the challenges of the evidence, which was really piecemeal. You had to think really hard about everything — where the manuscript was made, its handwriting, how it got preserved — before you could actually write history from it.

Q: How did you come to focus on Britain?

I did a year abroad at the University of London and did nothing but medieval history. That was certainly a big reason. But I can’t figure out why, exactly, I got so interested in Britain.

It’s funny: We went on vacation in Italy this year, and I certainly like going there, but I don’t understand anything. I can’t figure out why the landscape looks like it does, I can’t quite date the buildings. In England, I can say, “Oh, that’s a thousand-year-old hedge” or “That’s a Bronze Age burial,” and I kind of understand the place now from having worked at it for so long.

Q: When you first talked with Chronicle about the MacArthur Fellowship, you spoke a lot about how important it was to encourage collaboration between different disciplines and departments. Talk about that some more.

I think many people in my department are interested in working across disciplines. It’s something a lot of research-active people are interested in, and they can see how unsatisfactory the lines between disciplines are — and how, if we move the lines, it helps us to see things differently. There are a lot of us out there who believe this.

I know from the classes I teach that my students get most interested in things that require them to think from different disciplinary perspectives. Most students have never had to think about material culture before taking my class; they’ve never had to look at a brooch, and then write a paper describing what that says about a viking settlement in the north of Britain. They find it challenging and fun. It’s new, and it’s engaging.

There are a number of students who have been doing very interesting cross-disciplinary work. I have a student who’s a biology major and history minor, and she’s writing her thesis with me on stable isotopes trapped in the bones of 13th-century nuns — she can use the isotopes to determine what they ate, where they came from, and so on.

I see how excited these students are to do this work, and they’ll go far because they’re thinking outside the box and going beyond the conventional way of doing research. And I believe we owe it to all the students on this campus to get them excited, and combine things they’re interested in but maybe don’t think can be combined.

I think of how many archeologists I know who are also wonderful artists, and it’s because they have a fantastic spatial sense. They’ve been able to combine this very science-oriented discipline with a very artistic set of skills and abilities. It’s great when people can do that. So, I believe interdisciplinary research is important for my work, and for a lot of my colleagues across the University, but it’s also important for our students.

Q: What are some recent interdisciplinary projects you’ve been involved with?

I’ve been invited by [Assistant Professor] Gail Hoffman of Classical Studies and [McMullen Museum of Art Director] Nancy Netzer to contribute to an upcoming exhibit on Roman provincial culture on the peripheries of empire. There were 20 of us from all over the world — field archeologists, art historians, classicists — who met the other week at Yale, which is collaborating on it, and we spent two days discussing what the show will look like. It’s going to be a tremendous project; the show will be at Yale this fall and here in the spring.

I am writing about what people in Britain who had been “Romanized” do when there’s no longer any Roman material culture. What happens when suddenly you don’t have pots – how do you be Roman? Think about it: Without our smartphones and cars, how would we be 21st-century Americans? You have to reinvent yourself, because our “stuff” helps us be the people we think we are — what happens when that stuff disappears?

And the thing is, this concern for the everyday stuff is what makes us human, and has down through the centuries. For example, at Hadrian’s Wall in Britain — which is, of course, one of the most famous vestiges of Roman Britain — archeologists have found letters to home Roman soldiers were writing. Here they are, thousands of miles from home, in a strange and remote place, and what do they say in these letters? They’re asking for socks.