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Robin Fleming’s approach to history reaps a MacArthur Fellowship
“I used to work on the 11th century,” history professor Robin Fleming said in an interview in her corner office on the third floor of Stokes Hall. For her first book, Kings and Lords in Conquest England (1991), she mined a text called the Domesday Book, a survey commissioned by William the Conquerer to reveal who owned what before and after the Norman Conquest. Then Fleming began to work backward in British history and she found herself, “unlike most historians,” immersed in times having “no texts at all.” How she dealt with this challenge earned her a MacArthur Foundation so-called genius grant in September—as the first member of the Boston College faculty to be chosen a MacArthur Fellow.
Fleming, who is the chair of the history department, adapted by turning to archaeology for her primary source material. She became especially interested in the study of bones and other material objects dated to the early medieval period. She is at the forefront of a new kind of forensic history that requires understanding of scientific methods not traditionally taught in history departments—an approach reflected in her 2010 book, Britain After Rome: The Fall and Rise, 400 to 1070. In announcing the award, the MacArthur Foundation said she is “changing the way historians view early medieval Britain and providing a framework for incorporating material culture into the writing of history.”
“The scientific archaeology that has arisen in the last 15 years is a game-changer,” according to Fleming. “It’s been profoundly disruptive of everything I thought I knew.” As an example, she said, “It turns out that there are tons of rich Africans living in Britain during the Roman period. That completely changes the way we think about the period. It changes the picture in our heads.”
Such findings emerge most notably from the analysis of stable isotopes trapped in bones and teeth. “We can tell, sometimes, what people ate,” said Fleming. “We can tell if they moved between adulthood and childhood. We can tell when they were weaned.” Fleming described a 4th-century skeleton that had been unearthed in 1901 in Britain near York when a railroad line was being constructed. It is now possible to know that she was a wealthy woman, probably of mixed race, half African and half European, Fleming said. “This kind of thing makes you realize the Roman Empire wasn’t white. That’s something that historians should know—it’s not just something that bio-archaeologists should know.”
Fleming is focused now on what life was like in Britain in the century after the collapse of the Roman Empire around 400. As the authority of the state disappeared, so did the orderly, hierarchical, economic structure. There was a great leveling, with little evidence of literacy or manufacturing know-how. “The question for me,” said the historian, “is, how do people get on with their lives? What do they do under these circumstances? What happens when people have to build their world over again? And we can see them doing that in the early Middle Ages.”
The MacArthur recognition comes with a stipend of $625,000, given over five years. Asked if she has a vision for what to do next, Fleming said, “Boy, do I have a vision!” Fleming said she wants to expand on the kind of workshop she put together last summer with a colleague from the University of Michigan, promoting interdisciplinary cooperation among historians and archaeologists. “Disciplinary boundaries are breaking down,” she said. “I’m really interested in making sure that medievalists understand that and take that on board and change their work.”
The workshop led to a decision to organize a conference that will include economic historians, art and literature scholars, and archaeologists, with the goal being to produce a volume that reinterprets English medieval history. The rule, she said, “is that everybody who participates has to write with somebody in a different discipline.”
“We actually think that the process is going to be interesting—and we think we’re going to fight a lot,” she said, merrily.
Fleming came to Boston College in 1989 as an assistant professor, by way of the University of California, Santa Barbara (BA and Ph.D.), and Harvard University (junior fellow, 1986–89). She said she received the call from the MacArthur Foundation in her office three weeks before the official announcement was made—during which time award winners are asked not to tell anyone beyond immediate family members. “I sort of sleepwalked for three weeks,” she said. “There have been a lot of parties since then. I’ve had enough parties now.”
Her favorite moment, she said, had come just the day before in her graduate seminar. “My graduate students made me a cake and they brought in wine, and they were all wearing these really sweet T-shirts that said ‘My Advisor is a Genius’. . . . And on the back it said, ‘No pressure, dot, dot, dot.’”
Dave Denison is a writer in the Boston area.
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