Professor Burnham’s Sabbatical

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.”

A History Student’s VT Bucketlist

Historic Sites in Vermont That Every History Student at Middlebury Must See!

As a student of history living in Vermont, one must take this opportunity to explore the unique past of the state. As one of the earliest settled territories in the US, Europeans explored the region as early as 1609. Furthermore, Vermont was the first state to abolish slavery and grant universal male suffrage in its first constitution, adopted in 1777.

Vermont’s special history continues to be preserved in several historical sites, with some of the most exceptional ones being near Middlebury. Here is a short list of some you must see before you graduate!

The Rokeby Museum

The Rokeby Museum, located in Ferrisburg, tells a vivid story of the Underground Railroad and a Vermont abolitionist family’s role in aiding escaped fugitive slaves. Once a thriving farm, the museum now houses nine historical buildings with hundreds of artifacts.

The Robinson family started their lives in Vermont in 1792 and continued lived on their farm until the site became a museum in 1961. The most current exhibit is called Free and Safe: The Underground Railroad in Vermont, which tells the stories of two fugitives from slavery, Simon and Jesse, who escaped and lived in Rokeby in the 1830s. The exhibit includes audio recordings, historic documents, and other artifacts that bring their stories to life.

The Davis Library Special Collection at Middlebury College also houses over 15,000 letters of the Robinson family dating from 1757 to 1962 and allows students endless opportunities for research.

The Rokeby Museum is just a 25-minute drive from the college, at 4334 Route 7, Ferrisburgh, VT, 05456.

The Frost Farm

Between 1939 and 1964, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Frost spent his summers and falls in a cabin at his farm in Ripton, Vermont. During this time, Frost was closely involved with the college and wrote many of his most memorable poems in the peaceful hills of Vermont. In fact, Frost owned five farms in the Green Mountain State, and many of his works were inspired by the beautiful landscape of Vermont.

Frost was a cofounder of and taught at the Bread Loaf School of English, and often shared his work at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conferences. Middlebury College now owns the Frost property, where visitors can follow the Robert Frost Interpretive Trail featuring scenic views of the Green Mountain National Forest and Middlebury River. Several of his poems can be enjoyed on plaques throughout the trail.

The Frost farm is located just a 20-minute drive from the college at 4229 Route 125, Ripton, Vermont, 05766.

The Henry Sheldon Museum of Vermont History

The Henry Sheldon Museum is the “oldest community-based museum in the country,” and has been welcoming visitors since 1884. The museum documents and preserves the historic memory of Addison County, and allows guests to enjoy the rich culture and history of our community. For example, the Judd-Harris House was built in 1829, and contains many objects that depict the life of ordinary people in nineteenth century Vermont.

The research Center also houses a large archival collection documenting the history of the region, and allows free admission for students with ID. This gem is located right in the heart of Middlebury, at 1 Park Street, Middlebury, VT, 05753.