A Historian’s Safari

By Lawrence N. Crumb

Peter Brown’s Journeys of the Mind is really two books in one: the autobiography of a distinguished historian, and a guided tour of the development of his intellectual interests and their application during his long career.

The autobiography takes Brown from his childhood in the Protestant minority of Catholic (and neutral) Ireland of the 1940s to the Oxford of the 1950s and 1960s and on, by way of UC-Berkeley and a MacArthur Fellowship, to Princeton University, where he is now professor emeritus.

Pre-war trips to Sudan, where his father worked for the railroads; schoolteachers from Hungary and the Channel Islands; and medieval architecture and stained-glass windows all contributed to broadening his outlook, both geographically and temporally. By the time he took his degree at Oxford, he had settled on late antiquity as his field of specialization.

Late antiquity is the period ca. A.D. 200-700 in the history of the Western world, including Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Northern Africa. It had long been considered unimportant, but Brown was among the first to recognize vitality in the West, as well as a flourishing Byzantine Empire and a nascent Islam in the East. It was the study of St. Augustine of Hippo and his age, as a special topic for the Oxford undergraduate exams, that sealed his interest, piqued by one source’s statement that “Roman civilization did not die a natural death; it was murdered.”

The names of his teachers and colleagues will be mostly unfamiliar to the non-specialist reader, but some may be recognized from undergraduate studies. Although long, the book is easy to read, with peculiarities of British usage explained and titles and quotes in other languages translated into English. Passages from his letters home give a contemporary feel to the early years.

This is not a book for everyone, but it will be of interest to many for different reasons. For those who have lived in Oxford, it will be the pleasure of revisiting familiar places. For those with an interest in St. Augustine and Patristics, it will be learning of his conclusion that there was continuity, not a complete break, between classical culture and the thought of the early Christian writers, plus his reassessment of Augustine the man, after writing a biography, based on later discoveries.

His trip to Iran on the eve of the revolution, and meetings there with Armenian Christians, a community of Zoroastrians, and Muslims, will be of interest for a variety of reasons. For those with an interest in the history of ideas, it will be a fascinating safari through territory that is often unfamiliar but always interesting. Brown provides several examples of the “Oxford friendship” phenomenon; and throughout the book, there is continuous evidence that the most important ingredient in scholarship is the personal relations among the scholars.

The Rev. Lawrence N. Crumb is vicar of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Cottage Grove, Oregon, and associate professor emeritus (library), University of Oregon. This is his 17th book review for TLC, beginning in 1980.


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