Professor Burnham, who teaches medieval and early modern history, returned this fall from sabbatical. She spent much of her time here in Vermont, but also travelled to Italy and spent a month as a fellow at Yale researching medieval alchemy. These are some of the highlights of her year.
Can you describe something strange that happened while you were abroad?
“I had one day in Rome and I went to the Vatican Secret Archive, which is literally what it’s called. It was made public in the 19th century, but they still call it the Vatican Secret Archive. I was trying to locate a bill of excommunication of a particular group of Franciscan friars. By the time it got to them, the monks had received notice that it was not valid, and there is supposedly a sentence on the back of the document that says something like ‘The friar read this stupid document aloud.’ The Vatican told me that their archive had been reorganized, and the document was missing. I thought I had figured out the problem—the document was written in February, but the town in which it was written marked the new year starting in March, so I thought someone could have misfiled it under the wrong year. I was convinced I would be able to find it. But I went through a lot of catalogues, and I have to say—they lost it. It’s gone. Is this a Dan Brown book in the making? I don’t know if I have Dan Brown story in me, but if I do write one it’s going to begin with this missing document.”
How will your research contribute to your teaching?
“Traditional Sardinian singing is unbelievably wonderful and strange and old. During part of my trip over the summer, I went to a museum in Sardinia all about this kind of singing. And they loved that I was from Vermont, because there just happens to be a traditional Sardinian singing group that lives in Vermont. It’s pretty much the only group that practices this kind of singing outside Sardinia. They’re actually media stars—they’re making a documentary—and I’m going to try to bring them to campus to perform.”
Did you meet any interesting people during your research?
“I’m writing a section in my current book about what it was like to practice alchemy in the 14th century. So while I was at Yale, I went through ten different manuscripts of alchemical recipes. One of them was so cool because it had so many notes from so many different readers in it. I found one commentator that didn’t believe anything in it. And he kept writing ‘No’ in the margins. So there was this one really skeptical guy who read this book. That, and there was one book which was clearly written by a charlatan. I mean, there were a few honest to God alchemical recipes in there, but there were many more pages about how to fake things and fool people. It was so much fun to look at.”
What were some challenges for you?
“I had to learn more
about chemistry than I imagined. I never studied chemistry in high
school—never. So I would be sitting there in the library, and I would have
Wikipedia open looking up substances I never heard of. I never imagined
medieval history would lead me there.”