CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – In certain academic circles, Dr. Simon Keynes, Elrington and Bosworth professor of Anglo-Saxon history at the University of Cambridge, is considered a “rock star.” In addition to being the great-great-grandson of Charles Darwin and the grandnephew of economist John Maynard Keynes, the renowned professor is a member of the British Academy and a fellow with the Royal Historical Society. As a scholar, he isn’t easily impressed, but earlier this year, Keynes was intrigued enough by recent Austin Peay State University graduate Brittany Orton’s research that he agreed to take her on as a graduate student next fall at Cambridge.
“He’s a rock star of Anglo-Saxon history,” Orton said recently. “The opportunity to study under him will be amazing.”
Her acceptance into the nearly 800-year-old university is the realization of a life-long goal—a goal she never expected to achieve. As a precocious eight-year-old, Orton became fascinated with the medieval history. She thought of becoming an archeologist, but her lack of motivation in high school almost stopped her from attending a university that existed during the medieval period.
“I almost didn’t graduate high school because I failed too many classes,” she said. “I went to college at 18 and failed out of that.”
A few years later, after marrying a U.S. Army soldier and having three children, she ended up earning her associate’s degree in Alaska. Then, when her husband was reassigned to Fort Campbell, she suddenly found herself living near a university with strong history and language programs. Orton enrolled at Austin Peay and decided to take a Medieval England class taught by Dr. Cameron Sutt, associate professor of history.
“In my last year here, I fell in love with Anglo-Saxon history,” she said. “This is from the 5th century to the 11th century. My family has ties with the Anglo-Norman people, but I’d never heard anything Anglo-Saxon until last year.”
Orton, a history major, began taking all the classes taught by Sutt, APSU’s resident medievalist.
“She’s a wonderful student,” Sutt said. “She got it. She knew what the main points were, understood the significance. When I was writing the recommendation for her (for Cambridge), I thought, ‘She just might have a chance at this.’”
Orton’s fascination with Anglo-Saxon history and culture also took her into APSU’s Department of Languages and Literature. To have a proper understanding of medieval history, and to be able to read many of the texts produced in that period, a scholar needs a strong background in Latin.
“She took all of our Roman Civilization classes,” Dr. Stephen Kershner, assistant professor of Classics, said. “She impressed me, and I nudged her toward other classes. I tried to steal her from Cameron (Sutt). She has a strong basis in Roman history, and I think that will do her well in English history.”
After earning her Bachelor of Science in history, with a Classics minor, Orton returned to campus to continue her studies. She began attending an Old English reading group, led by Dr. Lynn Simms, associate professor of English.
“It’s an informal group, and you don’t have to have any background in Old English,” Simms said. “We’re working on ‘Beowulf’ in Old English. We translate outside of class and then read. Brittany brings a lot to the group. She brings in the history.”
When thinking back to her years in high school, Orton referred to herself as lazy. That word caused her professors to laugh when she recently mentioned it to them.
“She’s doing all this with her husband on long deployments,” Mary Winters, senior Classics instructor at APSU, said. “She’s also taking care of her three kids. She recognized it’s hard work, and she’s willing to do it.”
Last year, Orton, who has never traveled overseas, applied to Cambridge’s one-year graduate program in Anglo-Saxon history. The key to getting into the exclusive school, Sutt said, is to get one of its renowned professors interested in your research project. Orton submitted her application, hoping that Keynes would like her topic, “Queenship in 9th century Wessex.” She then waited to hear back, periodically checking her application status online.
“I was at the gym, getting ready to do my thing, and I thought, ‘I’ll just check it,’” Orton said. On her cell phone, she saw an offer for admission into Cambridge. “I freaked out. I didn’t have anybody to tell, except the gym people, and they just stared at me.”
In the summer of 2017, Orton and her family will move to England for her to study under Keynes. By the next year, her name might join a distinguished list of Cambridge alumni that includes Stephen Hawking, John Milton, Lord Byron and Isaac Newton.