The Power, the Body, the Holy: A Journey Through Late Antiquity with Peter Brown
By Steven A. Stofferahn
Comitatus Vol.29 (1998)
Introduction: In the middle of an exciting history course, it takes a high degree of moral courage to resist one’s own conscience; to take time off; to let the imagination run; to give serious attention to reading books that widen our sympathies, that train us to imagine with greater precision what it is like to be human in situations very different from our own.
It is essential to take that risk. For a history course to be content to turn out well-trained minds when it could also encourage widened hearts and deeper sympathies would be a mutilation of the intellectual inheritance of our own discipline. It would lead to the inhibition, in our own culture, of an element of imaginative curiosity about others whose removal may be more deleterious than we would like to think to the subtle and ever-precarious ecology on which a liberal western tradition of respect for others is based.
~ Peter Brown, “Learning and Imagination,” Inaugural Lecture of 1977, Royal Holloway College
Rarely has a historian of late antiquity attracted so much attention through his writings and lecture appearances as has Peter Brown. In the past three decades, few other scholars can claim to have challenged mainstream assumptions so consistently while replacing them with unique, plausible, and controversial alternatives. That he continues to do so today is a testament to both Peter Brown’s renown and scholarship. Brown’s remarks in his inaugural lecture at Royal Holloway College in 1977 express what could be considered his credo: a fervent belief in letting the imagination roam free to take its owner into new and unexpected realms of thought. In letting himself do so for the greater part of his professional career, Brown has managed not only to show himself how it must have been to live in situations very different from his own; he also has consistently managed to share those experiences with his students and audiences, with the care and determination of a dedicated teacher and informative tour guide. Whether those taking the tour have believed all they have seen and heard, however, is another matter.
In many respects an enigmatic historian, Peter Brown and his work defy traditional classification. Indeed, few have endeavored to place him in a particular “school” of thought or interpretation, and those who have tried, have met with limited success. One of them, however, has made the poignant observation that what Richard Southern did for the High Middle Ages, Peter Brown has done for late antiquity. By emphasizing the role of the individual and interpersonal relations as a basis for understanding late-antique society, particularly in the case of the relationship of between the “holy” and their peers, Brown has shed new light on the world of A.D. 200–700, and in doing so has influenced an entire generation of historians. Now, with the appearance of The Rise of Western Christendom, Peter Brown adds this textbook to an already-impressive list of publications and continues the tradition of expanding his horizons. But what brings a historian of late antiquity to end his book in Iceland in the year 1000? What follows here, then, is less a review of this most recent and very different endeavor, than it is a look at the historiographical journey that has led him to this point, in the hope that such a study may help account for the great influence Brown’s work has wielded upon our current understanding of late antiquity and the early Middle Ages.