The many worlds of Peter Brown

Arguably the greatest living historian, Peter Brown’s breathtaking achievements are marked by an embrace of chronological depth and geographical breadth.

The Colosseum, Rome by J M W Turner, 1820.
The Colosseum, Rome by J M W Turner, 1820. Credit: Historical Images Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

Peter Brown’s intellectual memoir Journeys of the Mind – A Life in History (Princeton University Press, 2023) is an extraordinary book, recounting the intellectual development of an extraordinary scholar. Through a career stretching back to the 1950s, Brown has consistently sought to make tangible to modern readers the religious beliefs, hopes, and ideals that informed and shaped the lives of late ancient and early medieval people. Explaining his decision in the 1980s to begin writing on sexual renunciation and virginity in the early Christian period, for example, Brown relates how ever since the 1960s, he had ‘chosen to concentrate on persons and practices calculated to cause disquiet to modern persons – sorcery, holy men, the cult of relics, the ordeal’. By doing this, he tells us, he wanted to challenge his readers ‘to think and feel their way into societies and value systems very different from their own. How and why did these seemingly strange things happen, and with what consequences for society?’

From the very start of his writing career, Brown’s unique ability to encourage his readers to ‘think and feel’ their way into the past has been informed by two remarkable features of his prose style that are on ample display in this memoir: his eye for a telling anecdote, and his ability to weave the English language in unexpected and enticing ways. As he explains in the book, from an early age he suffered from a stammer, and one wonders whether his style may not have developed in the way it did partly by virtue of the young Brown’s need to find circumlocutions for words that caused him problems. Travelling through Wales enroute to boarding school in England, for example, he tells us how he found himself tongue-tied in the presence of some Welsh railway guards. ‘Sing it out, boy!’, one urged him. On the page, Brown has been singing ever since. It is also important to note that Brown has always understood his readership to consist primarily of the intellectually engaged general reader beyond the ranks of academe. He has always sought to write, he tells us, for people like his aunts. As a schoolboy, his own views on history (and society) had been profoundly shaped by works aimed at a general readership, such as Christopher Hill’s study of Lenin and the Russian Revolution, which was published in the ‘Teach Yourself’ series in 1947. Brown’s diaries reveal that the book struck him as ‘the ultimately stupid, cruel, futile, horrible story [of the attempt] to create another Utopia’. Cecilia Ady’s Lorenzo de’Medici and Renaissance Italy, published in the same series, made a much more positive impression: ‘what a wonderful period!’, the teenage Brown declared. ‘What Freedom!’

At heart, Brown’s memoir is a story of worlds lost and new worlds gained. In many ways the book is at its most fascinating, poignant, and evocative, when he guides us through the many lost worlds through which he (and his mind) have passed. It is a book, he advises his reader, that is best taken slowly. And he is right: it should be treated like a long, leisurely, and luxurious train journey, passing through a series of fascinating landscapes, rather than a series of high-speed intercity jaunts.

Drawing upon what is clearly a wonderfully rich family and personal archive, we begin with the history of Brown’s ancestors. This helps to set the scene for his childhood at the heart of the Protestant milieu of Dublin in the 1930s and 1940s, where the Protestant Irish were having to re-orientate themselves in the new world of De Valera’s independent and increasingly sectarian Irish state. The years of the Second World War were a confusing and potentially dangerous time for Irish Protestants, and Brown remembers cousins and relatives who left Ireland during the conflict to fight and die for the British Empire, which his family had served, in the army and navy, for generations. He tells us of how his mother, sending him to the barber’s shop, instructed him not to talk about the war, as there was no way of knowing whose side the barber was on. As he and his aunt Freda travelled by bus past the German embassy in Dublin in 1945, its flag at half-mast upon news of Hitler’s death, it was, he tells us, ‘safer not to show too much jubilation’. ‘Freda leaned towards me and whispered, “You know where he is, Peds.” I answered, “Indeed I do, Auntie.” It was my first lesson in spiritual geography: Hitler was in Hell.’

The war years were rendered still more difficult by the absence of Brown’s father, who worked on the railways in British-run Sudan (which the young Brown visited when circumstances permitted). The anxieties of the period were eased somewhat, however, by a loving circle of strong and intelligent women, and the company of a much-loved dog, Rory, ‘the result of an amorous encounter between a pedigree spaniel and a Labrador’. ‘He was’, Brown tells us, ‘More than a dog to me. He was a link to the rough earth of Ireland.’

We are then led through a series of other now largely lost worlds that will strike many younger readers as scenes from a different planet. Brown was first educated at a Protestant prep school in Ireland run by a physically disfigured and evidently mentally scarred veteran of the First World War (in which he had lost both his mother and brother). One of the most inspirational teachers at the school turned out to be a fugitive Nazi collaborator, whom the headmaster reported to the British embassy in Dublin. Brown was then sent to public school in England (Shrewsbury), where his precocious intellectual talents were spotted and nurtured. A schoolboy fascination with science and astronomy was carefully side-lined by his teachers, and he was directed firmly towards the subjects that most mattered in public schools at the time: the Classics. Building upon his Latin and acquiring Greek, Brown was nevertheless drawn towards the study of Modern History, and we are provided with fine pen-portraits of those who first introduced him to the historian’s craft.   Despite his father’s hankering that Brown should go on to study at Trinity College, Dublin (the intellectual bastion of the Protestant Irish), the masters at Shrewsbury persuaded him that his son should first sit for and then accept a place at New College, Oxford, where Brown arrived as an undergraduate to read Modern History in 1953. During his first visit to Oxford to sit the entrance examination, Brown tells us, he had become immediately captivated by its architecture. It would be his home for the next quarter century.

Prior to going up to Oxford, however, Brown had to fill a gap year which would have a formative intellectual influence on him. He did so by acquiring new skills, by widening his vision of History, and by travel. As well as shorthand and typing (the enormous advantages of which to undergraduates at the time cannot be exaggerated), he learned German from an emigré scholar attached to TCD. Thus began a life-long pattern whereby Brown would constantly seek to expand his mind and enrich his imagination through the acquisition of new languages. He also discovered serious works of ancient and medieval history. Through reading Huizinga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages, and Rostovtzeff’s The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire (which sought to explain the demise of the Roman world in socio-economic terms), Brown became captivated by the medieval and by questions of the transition from antiquity. His childhood in Ireland had given him an instinctive sympathy for those communities and classes implicated in the running of empire who were left behind when empire receded. This naturally drew him to the late Roman period and its aftermath. He also travelled to Switzerland, where he encountered medieval architecture and museum collections of exquisite beauty. Once again, the broadening of the imagination through travel would soon become a consistent theme. The combined effect of the reading he had undertaken and the places he had seen was that, even before he arrived in Oxford, Brown was a confirmed medievalist.

Brown provides a wonderfully atmospheric account of the intellectual ambience of life in the world of the single-sex colleges of Oxford in the 1950s. Reading it, one almost catches the aroma of pipe tobacco, wet tweed, and warm beer, that would be utterly alien to the nostrils of modern undergraduates. Students at the time, Brown reminds us, primarily learned on their own and from one another, staying up deep into the night, debating and discussing the liveliest historical and intellectual debates of the day. Lectures were entirely optional: as Brown’s medieval interests widened and deepened, for example, he tells us he was the only student to attend the entirety of Dimitri Obolensky’s lectures which would subsequently be published as his masterpiece, The Byzantine Commonwealth (1971). Even at the first of Obolensky’s lectures, there had only been two students present. Lectures were an opportunity to try out and disseminate new ideas – they were not (as they tend to be these days) an exercise in spoon-feeding. The much-vaunted Oxford ‘tutorial system’, whereby students would meet their tutor on their own once a week to read out an essay that had been set for them, was really an exercise in coaching to prepare students for the ultimate challenge on which everything depended: Finals. In these exams, Brown and his fellow History students would be made to sit a series of papers primarily concerned with the history of England ‘from the beginning’ (meaning the Romans), and a small selection of non-English options. Brown found the intellectual fayre offered by the syllabus both limited and limiting.

He was struck, for example, by the extent to which the course prioritised political and constitutional history, whilst largely ignoring intellectual history. In particular, both the syllabus and those Englishmen around him seemed strangely oblivious to the importance of religion, so central to Brown’s Protestant Irish identity. While in Oxford, Brown’s own religious position shifted and evolved, but his personal instinct for the religious and his associated historical appreciation of the importance of the numinous never wavered. Crucially, in his final year as an undergraduate, his historical and religious sensibilities had finally combined through his study of a ‘Special Subject’ devoted to St Augustine and his Age. It would be a decisive intellectual encounter.

From prep school in Ireland to university in England, Brown’s academic life had consisted of one exam after another. He triumphed in ‘Finals’ in Oxford, obtaining the highest ‘First’ in his year (at a time when barely one student in twenty was awarded a First). Brown returned to Oxford in the autumn of 1956 to begin doctoral work on a late medieval topic. But there was one more examination he could take: the fellowship examination for All Souls College, which the best students in the humanities each year were invited to sit. The top one or two of these would then be awarded a ‘Prize Fellowship’, which carried with it enormous intellectual prestige. The Fellowship was initially tenable for seven years and (in those days) could be renewed, effectively in perpetuity. The newly appointed Fellow was not obliged to do anything. Many Prize Fellows went off and forged careers at the Bar, in diplomacy, politics, or journalism. These Fellows (‘London Fellows’) would return on weekends. But those who wished to could devote themselves to the life of the mind and scholarship, undertaking only such teaching as they chose to. Brown decided to sit the Fellowship examination, in which he yet again triumphed, propelling him into the company of some brilliant young minds (such as the philosopher Charles Taylor, who was elected alongside him), as well as many of the eminences grises of British intellectual and public life.

Brown’s account of life at All Souls reveals his finely honed instincts as a social historian and his feel for institutions. He evokes with particular vividness the strong bond of affection and identity that united the very elderly and the very young Fellows, all dressed identically in black tie at dinner on weekends and conversing as equals (a feature of the College that would long bemuse and sometimes even enrage ‘Visiting Fellows’ hosted by the College who came to it from more hierarchical academic cultures). But above all, All Souls gave Brown that ‘freedom’ which, as a schoolboy, he had most admired in the Italian Renaissance. All Souls permitted him the opportunity to think in new ways and pursue his own path. It allowed him to set aside research on late medieval history (in which there were many potential jobs in the 1950s) and instead concentrate on the early medieval period which had increasingly captivated his imagination. Accordingly, he began doctoral work on the elite of sixth-century Italy (a period when the peninsula had passed from ‘barbarian’ to ‘Byzantine’ rule) under the distant supervision of the brilliant Italian ancient historian, Arnaldo Momigliano, then based in London.

A doctorate was not obligatory at All Souls nor indeed, in those days, in the academic world beyond it. Brown had proven his academic credentials through his election to the most prestigious academic Fellowship in Oxford (which, in Oxford, meant ‘the world’).  Predictably, he would never finish the dissertation. Instead, Brown was able to take advantage of his new position to begin to reconsider the transition from antiquity to the Middle Ages. His reconceptualisation of the process had begun when he was a student taking the St Augustine Special Subject, and his doubts as to traditional thinking concerning the theme in English-speaking scholarship intensified as he began to teach it himself, and as he engaged more closely with key French, German, and (increasingly) Italian scholars, whose work seemed to offer a new path.

Into the 1950s, the most commonly held position (which Anglophone readers essentially took from Edward Gibbon), was that in the third century AD the Roman Empire had entered a period of pronounced political and military crisis from which it would never truly recover, and which would ultimately result in the ‘Fall’ of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century. At the same time, the empire’s intellectual culture had also deteriorated markedly by virtue of the spread of Christianity and its adoption by Roman Emperors from Constantine onwards. The fourth and fifth centuries had thus witnessed, in Gibbon’s memorable phrase, ‘the triumph of barbarism and religion’. But how fair was this assessment? Even as an undergraduate, Brown had his doubts: much of what he had found most fascinating about medieval civilisation, after all, had originated in that very era of supposed decline. In particular, he had encountered in the more recent writings of the brilliant French scholar Henri Irénée Marrou the concept of the period from roughly the third to fifth centuries AD as constituting not so much an era of degeneracy and decline, but rather as a period of much greater creativity, which would make a series of fundamental (and positive) contributions to the world of the Middle Ages. Drawing on a terminology first developed by German art historians, Marrou had renamed the period and its culture ‘Late Antique’.

Marrou’s much more upbeat and appreciative approach to Late Antiquity chimed and inspired Brown’s own thinking. Brown had learned from attending lectures by Dimitri Obolensky and Sir Steven Runciman, as well as from his own reading, that whatever had happened to the political and military structures of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, the eastern provinces of the Roman world, ruled from Constantinople, had witnessed continuing cultural and economic efflorescence long after the supposed ‘Fall’ of Rome, and would expand once more in the reign of Justinian. Moreover, through his reading of the seminal work of the Italian ancient historian Santo Mazzarino, Brown would realise that the economy of the Roman empire in the fourth century had been much more monetised, vigorous, and prosperous than the likes of Rostovtzeff had ever appreciated. Its society too had been much more fluid and dynamic than traditional approaches to the ‘Later Roman Empire’ had allowed. This sense would be intensified as he began to study its archaeology. Through a series of intellectual encounters with new bodies of material and types of evidence, Brown’s understanding of Late Antiquity would begin to be transformed, and he would pass on his increasingly positive analysis of the period, first of all to his colleagues and students in Oxford, and ultimately to his readers as he began to put pen to paper. Encounters in the Common Room at All Souls would also play their part: there Brown met the former Fellow of the college A.H.M. (‘Hugo’) Jones, whose monumental masterpiece The Later Roman Empire would appear in three volumes in 1964. In this work, Jones argued that rather than sounding the death knell of empire, Rome’s ‘Third-Century Crisis’ had actually facilitated the emergence of a far more politically and administratively cohesive Roman state. Brown was increasingly convinced that the cultural achievements of the era were no less remarkable.

If much of Peter Brown’s memoir is concerned with describing lost social worlds (1940s Dublin; 1950s Oxford; later, through his travels, pre-Mujahadin Afghanistan and pre-revolutionary Iran), it is given drive and focus, above all, by his discovery and exposition of new intellectual worlds, which began with his first encounter with the concept of Late Antiquity. From the early 1960s onwards he would refine and expand the concept in a series of brilliant publications, of which the three most influential would be Augustine of Hippo: A Biography (1967), The World of Late Antiquity (1971), and, published in the same year, a ground breaking article in the Journal of Roman Studies on the ‘Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity’.

In the biography, Brown drew on his deep reading of Augustine to take us inside the mind and personality of the saint. In The World of Late Antiquity he helped to transform understanding of the period from c.200 to 800 by placing the development of the early medieval West in a much broader Mediterranean and Near Eastern context. The history of the period, readers came away from the book understanding, culminated not with the figure of Charlemagne, in his geographically peripheral mock Byzantine palace in Aachen, but rather with the Abbasid caliphs ruling from Baghdad. In the ‘holy man’ article, Brown turned to the testimony of ‘Saints’ Lives’ (or ‘hagiographies’) written in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, and which to Gibbon and others had primarily been of interest as providing evidence for the depths of credulity and superstition to which the late Roman mind had sunk, to attempt to gain insights into the workings of society at social levels and in geographical milieux (such as the Syrian countryside) which more ‘highbrow’ forms of late-antique literature tended to ignore. The emergence of the Christian holy man to the fore of society in the Near East in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries, which these texts revealed, ultimately helped to explain the emergence of the figure of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century and his combination of both religious and political authority.

The way in which Brown began to help re-cast broader understanding of Late Antiquity from the 1960s onwards was informed by a number of features of his work and his working methods, which Journeys of the Mind vividly illustrates. From the very start, central to his approach was the prioritisation of cultural over military or political history. Second, from his earliest encounters with Byzantium onwards, Brown would attempt to expand the geographical horizons of the Late Antique world. If his study of St Augustine was necessarily a very western-focused book (the holy man of Hippo would never be of much importance to the Greek East), by the time he was writing The World of Late Antiquity, Brown had come to realise that the true centre of gravity of the Late Antique world lay not in the Mediterranean, but rather in the Near and Middle East. Historians needed to know at least as much about the court of the Persian shah Khusro ‘Of the Immortal Soul’ as they did about that of the emperor Justinian. Broadening his own understanding of the geographical horizons of Late Antiquity, however, obliged Brown to be constantly expanding the pool of languages through which he could gain access to that world: thus rather than just contenting himself with sources written in Latin and Greek, Brown would go on to learn Hebrew, Syriac, Coptic, Arabic, and other ancient as well as a plethora of modern languages (from Czech to Persian). Each morning, he tells us, he currently starts the day by reading sources written in Ge’ez (Old Ethiopic), which help to cast light on an often neglected but fascinating region of the late antique world.

No less crucial to Brown’s intellectual development would be his acquisition of new methodologies. His biography of Augustine, for example, would be profoundly shaped by his encounter with psychoanalysis, while his approach to late antique religion would be transformed by his discovery of Social Anthropology (above all the work of Mary Douglas, whose research would have a transformative impact on Brown’s ‘Holy Man’ thesis). As, in the 1980s, Brown’s interests turned towards sexuality and the body, the work of Michel Foucault would provide further inspiration. Constant travel would also be fundamental to Brown’s intellectual development. At key moments, he explains, his historical imagination was expanded and refreshed by visits to Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iran. Crucially, from the mid 1970s onwards, intellectual renewal was also facilitated by much greater institutional mobility, as he finally left Oxford behind to teach in London, before crossing the Atlantic to take up positions at Berkeley and finally Princeton. No loss resultant from the ‘Brain Drain’ under Margaret Thatcher was felt as keenly by historians in the UK as that of Peter Brown. He takes us through these journeys and institutions and the intellectual connections he was able to forge by virtue of them.

Throughout this memoir, Brown’s account of his own intellectual and professional development is remarkably generous. Although full of characters, this is not a gossipy book, and one does not get the sense of many (if any) scores being settled. Intellectual debts are carefully noted and explained, and the achievements of his students are justly celebrated. His contribution to changing our understanding of Late Antiquity is to be found not only in his own publications, but also those of many of his pupils.

Through a lifetime of scholarship, Peter Brown has transformed not only how professional historians, but also how much of the reading public has come to understand a key period of human history. Of course, not everybody has been entirely convinced by the more positive and upbeat assessment of the ‘World of Late Antiquity’ with which Brown has come to be associated. We have become increasingly aware, for example, that this period of great cultural efflorescence and religious transformation also witnessed sudden periods of climate change, and devastating bouts of plague (as well as intensive warfare). But Brown has never denied any of these realities. He has simply chosen to focus on other approaches to the end of antiquity which, when he began his career, were largely neglected. And it remains the case that if you want to get a reader or student hooked on the early medieval period, Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity remains the best book to give them. This is important. For, at the end of the day, Journeys of the Mind is the intellectual memoir of a life well lived by a scholar whose studies have served to transform not only his own intellectual horizons, but those of every reader who has encountered him on the page.


Peter Sarris