Peter Brown
Peter Brown; drawing by David Levine

When Jesus died, only 120 people, we are told, continued to meet in his memory. There is no good evidence that in his lifetime Jesus had expected his message to be preached to Gentiles. When they began to be accepted as Christians, their presence caused fierce arguments and divided his apostles. Plainly, Jesus had never spoken clearly about the mission to the Gentiles to which modern Christians are now heirs.

Within two lifetimes of his death the wide geographic spread of Christianity seemed a miracle to Christians themselves. It was proof that their faith was from God. As it spread, however, the religion changed its center of gravity. The belief that, in Jesus, the Messiah had come had been the one distinction between his disciples and their fellow Jews. Lacking roots in Jewish tradition, Gentile Christians had no clear understanding of what a Messiah was even supposed to be. Christ was styled “the Anointed,” but some of them connected this title with the anointing practiced by athletes who exercised in their city gymnasiums.

The missionary impulse of the first Christians differed in degree, perhaps also in kind, from that of their Jewish contemporaries. By the second century, Christian missionary activity had spanned the Mediterranean and was reaching out to the frontiers of the Roman Empire. In 312 the Emperor Constantine converted to the worship of Christ; in his great history Mission and Expansion of Christianity, Adolf Harnack was inclined to bring the story of the early Church to a close in 325, the year in which Constantine convened the first worldwide Christian Council of bishops, at Nicaea.1 Yet Christian missionaries showed no sign of stopping. By the 450s the faith had reached Ireland, where Patrick preached it, he tells us, “to the point beyond which there is no one.”

As Christianity spread, quarrels between Christians added to its momentum. Their schisms and heresies caused aggrieved participants to found yet more churches of their own. The sixth century saw a surge of missionary energy among the Monophysites, who had broken away from many of their fellow Christians because they firmly believed that Jesus Christ had had a single, divine “nature” and was an indissoluble whole. In 635, members of a different wing of Christian opinion, the Nestorians, were making an open statement of their faith before the Emperor of China. In sharp contrast to the Monophysites, they denied Christ’s single, divine nature and held that he “must be thought of as a man,” as Peter Brown puts it, “who became progressively linked to God.” Heirs of the Nestorians survived for centuries along the Silk Road to China, still attracting members (primarily women) among the Mongol ruling families in the age of Genghis Khan.

Northward and westward Christianity’s diffusion was no less remarkable. In 565, it reached the remote island of Iona off the northwest coast of Scotland. On June 5, 754, a missionary bishop, Boniface, was martyred by a gang of pirates at Boorne, near the Dutch coast of the North Sea: “Disappointed in their hope of gold and silver, they littered the fields with books,” the baggage in the bishop’s “great, iron-bound treasure chests.” As Brown reminds us, “We can still see some in the Landesbibliothek at Fulda,” where one book “has violent cuts across the margins. It may well be the book which Boniface raised, instinctively, above his head, as the pirate’s sword descended.” Nonetheless, Christianity was carried further and by 1000 had reached as far north as Norway and Iceland.

Christianity’s wide diffusion did not always coincide with a strong Christian presence or a deep penetration into local cultures. It has, however, caused problems for modern historians because its progress crosses some of their profession’s most sacred academic boundaries: Roman history for the first three centuries; theology and late antiquity for two more; and medieval history for the final five. People whose livelihood is Tacitus and the laws in the Roman Digest have seldom felt drawn to the peculiar goings-on described in the writings of Gregory, bishop of Tours in Gaul from 573-594 and a major source for the Christianization of the region. Those who write on the early Middle Ages generally have to struggle to master Cassius Dio’s histories of the Roman Empire, written in Greek, which are the main narrative source for the second and early third centuries but do not even mention the Christians by name.

Peter Brown’s fine book is wonderfully untroubled by these frontiers. It draws on thirty years of teaching, multi-lingual reading, and lecturing, whose style has left a clear imprint on Brown’s prose. His book gives us much more than its broad title implies. It takes us from the Syriac-speaking sage Bardaisan, an early Christian of the second century who surveyed the world from Edessa, near the Euphrates, and was as familiar with the Roman as with the Persian empire, to the grave inscription, in runes, of the chieftain Ulvljot, west of the Norwegian port of Trondheim, which dates his death in 1008 by the recent arrival of “Kristintumr” (Christendom) in Norway “twelve winters” before. Those who feel lost in the undergrowth of Irish legal codes or the battles of North Sea tribes can take comfort in Brown’s superlative chapters on the Near East in the seventh and eighth centuries, which witnessed the change from Persian rule to the coming of Islam. Brown briefly alludes to the Christian presence in Central Asia and he adds a postscript on problems that arose for the Bulgars in the 860s when their Khan, Boris, hesitated between taking Christianity from Rome or Byzantium. Could Bulgars wear trousers in church, and did their Asian turbans count as acceptable hats? (The Byzantines told the Bulgars they had to give up both.)


Readers of Peter Brown’s previous work may be unprepared for the extended canvas of his new book. Since his great biography of Augustine in 1967, the drift of Brown’s scholarship has been backward in time more often than forward. In fact, his forays into the second century, into the fantastic world of Artemidorus of Daldis, the great Antonine interpreter of dream imagery, or his inquiries into the passions of the second-century contemporaries of the Roman physician Galen, were really extensions of his own primary expertise.

Unusually, these studies were an invasion of the high Roman Empire by a historian working backward, a “modern” historian in Oxford’s generous sense of the word, whose education lay in the Middle Ages and beyond. We can see his impulse to move backward in time in his acute review of his fellow Irishman E.R. Dodds’s Pagans and Christians in an Age of Anxiety, published two years after Dodds’s book, when Brown’s Augustine of Hippo was just completed.2 No doubt there was an attraction in the challenge with which Dodds began his book—the effort to understand the religious changes in the Roman Empire that took place between the second and fifth centuries AD. What Dodds’s book explored through psychological portraits, Brown set out to understand by relating religious changes to changes in the social structures in which individuals were formed. It was a time-consuming undertaking. In the 1970s Brown wrote incidental articles on the early medieval use of the ordeal and the Iconoclasm of the Byzantines, the great debate during the eighth and ninth century over the sacred or profane nature of religious images. But his essays did more to provoke than to convince medievalists. The Rise of Western Christendom returns to roots long hidden from view: Brown’s own concern with the early Middle Ages, with the horizons of Gregory the Great, the new style of Charlemagne’s reign, and the intricacies of social relations in Ireland, his own homeland.

Scholars who regard Germany as the heartland of the early Middle Ages will hardly believe what they are being offered by a book entitled The Rise of Western Christendom. Expecting yet another discussion of religion in Saxony or the emergence of the Ottonian Empire, they will find a world with different horizons and priorities, symbolized by the Anglo-Saxon Dream of the Rood. This anonymous poetic vision describes the Holy Cross in the seventh century as “a gold-sheathed treasure, hung with jewelled banners,” and is understood by Peter Brown not only to use language that reflects the cult of the Holy Cross in Byzantium (Bishop Arculf, from the island of Iona, had seen a Holy Cross installed in Hagia Sophia in 680) but also to resemble the victory crosses put up by warlords in Armenia in 640. These wide horizons are typical of Brown at his best. Passages on Christians in Arabia or under early Muslim rule in the Holy Land are not exactly what we would expect in a book whose title seems to promise chapters on Rome’s breach with the East. That theme is not Brown’s. There is nothing here on the usual episodes of such histories: the Photian schism of 867, the first step in the break between the Eastern and Western churches, and the skirmishes over the Westerners’ “filioque” (the assertion, added to the Nicene Creed in the ninth century and bitterly contested by the Eastern church, that the Holy Ghost proceeds from the Father and Son).

However, Brown’s synoptic and panoramic vision brings gains which far outweigh the occasional distortions in the unexpected focus of his book. The seventh century has never before seemed so important to the history of Europe as it does in Brown’s commanding vision from Toledo to the Arabian desert. In Gaul, he draws attention to a new communal style of personal penance that “made of small cities ‘a single fellowship of sighing supplicants.”‘ At the courts of Western kings from Spain to Britain, he detects a new concern for the monarch’s spiritual responsibility for his subjects. “The ‘health of souls,”‘ Brown quotes from the Laws of Ine (688-693), King of Wessex, “was considered to be an integral part of the ‘stability of the kingdom.”‘ In Mecca, meanwhile, God was speaking to Mohammed in a series of messages that were to be assembled in the Qu’ran (the Koran). Islam, Brown writes, was “the most unexpected outcome of those breathtaking years,” but its adherents were impelled by the same sense of the “rapid end of the world and of the imminent approach of the Last Days” that gave such urgency to the works of contemporary theologians throughout Europe. While the seventh century’s End never began, there were others, as always, who survived without upheaval. In Mesopotamia, capable Christians emerged from the Muslim conquests without too much damage to the important priorities of life: “The Christians now have costly mounts and thoroughbred horses,” remarked one of the Muslim observers whom Brown quotes. “They have packs of hounds and play polo, wrap themselves in costly fabrics and affect [pure Arab] patronymics.”


A fellow connoisseur of late Roman history, John Matthews, has justly recognized Brown’s “vivid expression and penetrating intuition that fire the imagination, put the familiar in a totally new light, and give relevance to the unfamiliar.”3 On what are these gifts based? Finding their patch of history invaded, some critics will raise questions about Brown’s tendency toward generalization, or his undue emphasis on arresting phrases abstracted from their context. They may mistrust Brown’s use of metaphor or his richer flights of prose-poetry. But although this style surfaces whenever Brown feels that the late Roman mundus is shimmering, it is not mere rhetoric being used to distract us. It is through such language, through the juxtaposition of impression and detail, that Brown is able to draw his exact portraits of scores of individuals and to diagnose, with deceptive brevity, the tone and structures of whole societies. Fifth-century Armenia makes sense again through Brown’s eyes:

A faction of the nobility of eastern Armenia, led by Vardan Mamikonian, died fighting the Persian king of kings, Yazdkart II (439-457). Yazdkart had attempted to impose Zoroastrianism on their country. But they fought Yazdkart, not so as to become independent of the King of Kings, but so as to remain his faithful vassals. They simply demanded that their Christianity should not be counted against them. They wished to retain their honor and their standard of living as the marcher-lords of the Persian empire, whose secular mores (religion apart) were so like their own.

Brown’s particular strengths are a compound of social insight, carefully digested historiographic and social theory, a sharp eye for human beings, and a willingness to use it in travels through the lands which concern him. In the 1960s, English studies of the later Roman empire were adjusting to A.H.M. Jones’s masterly social and economic survey (what Brown’s own guiding light, Arnaldo Momigliano, described as the “Jones Report”). Surrounding Jones were historians close to, or firmly within, the Marxist tradition who were responding predictably to the period of “decline and fall,” while Ronald Syme was beginning his studies of the short biographies of the third century’s Roman emperors, collected in the anonymous Historia Augusta, where his ear for “fraud and imposture” found ample, if narrow, material.

Since 1967, Brown’s books, articles, and lectures have spoken inspiringly to those who wished to find more in late antiquity than the exploitation of the “humble” and the in-jokes of unidentified senators. This audience has wanted more than Jones’s superb anatomy of how things were run and more than Syme’s arch comments and field of vision, which Momigliano had already queried in 1940, when reviewing Syme’s masterpiece, The Roman Revolution, and remarking that more was at stake than the rise of “people with strange terminations to their surnames.”

Into this vacuum, Brown brought a masterly sense of the workings and social relations of small societies and related them to the religious imagination and practice that had eluded the older materialist historians. No doubt his own Irish upbringing helped him, but so did a decade of engagement with the tightly knit groups of Donatist Christians in North Africa and W.H.C. Frend’s stirring misreadings of the relationship between their schismatic church and their material context, as if they were an indigenous movement of social protest. Brown’s wide but unobtrusive study of social anthropology sharpened his sense of which questions to ask. In 1969 he isolated precisely this use of anthropology for the purposes of the historian and exemplified it in a remarkable paper on sorcery in the late Roman world, which attempted to relate accusations of it to the conflict between two social models—between traditional power vested in a traditional class and the new power attained by upwardly mobile courtiers.4

Since then, Brown’s preferred models of explanation have varied, and he has moved away from the implicitly functional approach which revived interest in, but did not quite entirely account for, the place of sorcery, the ordeal, or Iconoclasm in their respective societies. The social theorist Ernest Gellner and his work on contemporary Muslim saints in North Africa’s Atlas Mountains found an echo in the most famous of Brown’s major articles, his “Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” published in 1971,5 which stressed the holy man’s connection with a system of patronage, newly under strain, and the growing need for mediation and arbitration. Brown also found much of relevance in the anthropologist Mary Douglas’s cognitive schemes and their emphasis on how societies create moral boundaries and classify transgressions. From here, by the early 1980s, his interest shifted to power, sexuality, and the self. This new approach was enhanced by discussions with Michel Foucault, which guided, and at times complicated, the themes Brown developed in his book The Body and Society.6

There are no modern gurus explicitly directing the course of Brown’s Rise of Western Christendom. It benefits from their previous assimilation, not from a one-sided application of a theory. His practiced sociological eye draws brilliant contrasts between different emphases in the Christianity of different social groups. In fifth-century Gaul, the Christian townscapes were surrounded by walls which marked off a far from Christianized countryside, whereas in Syria, the ceremonies and entertainments of the cities were often far from Christian themselves, and it was from a Christianized Syrian countryside that an “intransigent” holy man might appear suddenly in the main basilica, “a strange and outlandish sight …clad in a patchwork of rags made of sackcloth and carrying the Cross on his shoulder.”

As for Christianization, it too did not enter a vacuum. The conspicuous and cheering ability of northern European nobles to take on Christianity while retaining their un-Christian style of life was not one more instance of “compromise.” Peter Brown aptly relates it to their society’s old, familiar model of gift exchange. The warriors supported the Church and received

the impressive counter-gift of blessing in this world and salvation in the next. But, as befitted the givers of gifts, they left the exchange as equals.

And so most of their worldly customs and social relations were left unaltered. “Reciprocity” is today’s vogue word, applied to anything from early Greece to the pre-conquest Incas, but it can be usefully applied to Christians’ dealings with their shrines and holy men, another chapter in the long ancient history of “the gift.”

With his talent for social observation, Brown has an incomparable feel for place, language, and people. It has often been hard to resist the suspicion that great medievalists, describing the “age of spirituality,” were preparing at any moment to go off and pray in retreat. Peter Brown has preferred to travel to the sites which his sub-jects once occupied. Travel adds to his understanding of their context, at Lérins, opposite Antibes, for example, the training ground of ascetic Gallic bishops in the fifth and sixth centuries, which he understands as an “outpost of the wilderness of Egypt placed within sight of the sun-beaten slopes of the Alpes-Maritimes…a Circe’s Isle from which young men of noble family emerged transformed.” At Nisibis, in Persian Mesopotamia, by contrast, “unmarried young men, distinguished by a semi-monastic style of life and dress, settled in the cell-like rooms of a former caravansary.” From the sand dunes between Lindisfarne and the Northumbrian mainland to the “vast distances of the Anatolian plateau,” the former Oxonian blend of Gibbon and human geography in young historians’ first year of study is alive and well in one of its beneficiaries.

So is mastery of the historical uses of language. It is not just that Brown moves through texts from Persian to Irish that eluded even the “Jones Report” and its commitment to drawing only upon original sources. Brown has a powerful sense of how vocabulary and styles of expression can reveal change within the emerging “micro-Christendoms.” In seventh-century Ireland, “though technically ‘outsiders’ to Irish society, the new caste of monks and clergy were, in fact, deeply implicated in it…. In the retinue of a great abbot, laymen and clerics mingled: his extended household was an extension of his monastery to such an extent that the Old Irish word for ‘family,’ muinter, is taken from it. Tenants of monasteries were called manaig, ‘monks.”‘ In Armenia, meanwhile, a “seventh-century exercise for Armenian schoolboys” is evidence for the frontier kingdom’s concern with military prowess:

In the times when Armenians were fighting the Persians, Zarwen Kamsarakan performed memorable feats of prowess. Attacking the Persian army, he killed half on the first attack…a quarter on the second…and an eleventh on the third. Only 280 Persians survived. How large was the Persian force before he laid them low?

And after Paris’s recent celebrations of Clovis (481-511), the king of the Salian Franks, as a founding hero, many of us (including the present pope) may need to be reminded that his name means “pillaging warrior.”

Brown’s eye for telling human behavior is no less sharp. It feeds, and exploits, his exemplary facility with anecdote: how better to catch the meaning of Christian conversion for a barbarian noble than to cite Radbod of Frisia (685-719), king of a pagan state on the border of Francia, who asked his baptizing bishop

whether he would meet his ancestors in Heaven. The Frank’s answer was an unambiguous “no.” Wherewith the old king stepped back out of the font. He would rather be in Hell with the great men of his lineage than share Heaven with lower-class persons such as the bishop.

Readers of Brown’s Augustine of Hippo may sometimes regret his move away from biography. Biographers of any period can still gain from considering that book’s sense of the crucial relation between a subject and his circle of friends, his changing places of residence (who can resist the Carthage of Augustine described in chapters 3 through 7?), and, above all, the changing perceptions that come with each stage on our passage from youth to old age (although the book was written by a man in his early thirties). Augustine’s writings stirred Brown’s interest in the relation of the changes in an individual’s mind to changing events in the world outside him. The sources for Western Christendom do not give scope for such a biography, but the legacy of Augustine is still strong in his new book. Scores of individual people and the texts they wrote are placed concisely and clearly in a historical context. The thirty years since Augustine have brought Brown more experience of life and its changing phases. He himself has remarked on the relevance of a period of Kleinian psychoanalysis in the late 1960s and early 1970s to his studies of the lives and function of Christian holy men.7 Since the 1980s, literary theory has also sharpened historians’ awareness that texts, their main sources, may not be as straightforward as they once seemed. The challenge which Augustine posed in Brown’s mind is still present in The Rise of Western Christendom, but it is expressed in a wider range of brief individual portraits, composed with a new maturity.

Of course there are gaps in Brown’s book, including footnotes, pictures, and (wickedly) the sources of all quotations, however obscure. A major difficulty, and one not of Brown’s making, lies in the sources. Again and again, the most explicit accounts of how conversions took place are written by persons far removed in time and place from the reality they are describing. We know what Christianized legend-writers in Iceland later liked to say about how various communities decided to adopt Christianity; but in Noricum, York, Norway, or Iceland we have no idea of what really happened. Brown is aware of this problem and usually stops short of telling us why whole courts or tribes gave Christianity a try. Yet one wishes that Brown had addressed at greater length the question of why particular writers later chose to tell these stories the way they did.

With few exceptions, the bringing of the Gospel to faraway places seems to have occurred through “missions” which were anything but coordinated campaigns from centers of orthodoxy. Readers of this book have to piece together for themselves what an odd lot the “missionaries” usually were: we meet them as part of the narrative, not as one of its main themes, misfits like the well-born Irishman, Columba, who settled on Iona as “a penitential exile, around the age of forty,” or Severinus, the “mysterious stranger” who came up the Danube and was thought to be a fugitive slave. More, too, could have been made of some significant “others.” There ought to have been more on the Jews; for example, Brown talks about the Visigoths’ “micro-Christendom” almost without mentioning the large and significant persecutions of Jews in Spain that took place in the late sixth century, persecutions which also sustained the Catholic identity of the Visigothic Kingdom. Women appear rather infrequently; nor is it ever made entirely clear how or why the West was to become characterized by celibacy of its clergy (an outcome which is implied, but not explicitly discussed, in The Body and Society). Enough is said about Byzantium as the “new Rome,” but its branding as the “new Jerusalem” by Eastern Christians is also highly significant.

The book is not unduly long, but the limits of space do sometimes over-simplify its main themes. Byzantine historians will welcome Brown’s revised view of the Iconoclast controversy, which he had discussed rather differently in the early 1970s. “What was never at stake,” he reminds us, during the years from 726 to 843,

…was whether art should continue in Byzantium. What was at stake was a more urgent issue: which of the many physical objects currently venerated by Christians were truly acceptable to God, so that worship directed to them might ensure His continued protection rather than provoke His anger.

Still, there seems something missing in Brown’s account of Iconoclasm’s emergence in the 720s: perhaps we need more information on the changing theological interpretation of Christ to provide a setting for the emergence of the Iconoclasts, and perhaps more should be said about the lack of early sources. One or two threads could have been picked out earlier in the story, if only to make the reasons behind the debate more clear.

In barbarian Europe, Brown writes, Christian leaders appeared to be less bothered by the warlike habits of barbarian kings than by their practice of marrying their own kin, even two at a time. Yet Constantine, as Brown tells us, had already appointed Christian chaplains to his army, while a greater concern for sex and marriage than for peace studies was hardly unique to Christians of the sixth century. Peter Brown is clear on the role of the Old Testament as a source of imagery for newly Christian tribal societies in Europe, but he might have added that it also promoted the imagery of the king as God’s viceregent or anointed, still visible in the art of Charlemagne’s court at Aachen between 796 and 814. This most unclassical imagery was already present in the “Christian times” of the fourth century. In northwestern Europe, around 520, Gildas, the British cleric who wrote On the Ruin of Britain, “evidently felt that the Old Testament did better justice to his stormy times than did fading memories of a Roman empire.” In the Greek East, too, it is relevant that the Old Testament provided an entire prehistory for newly Christian peoples whose writers simply abandoned any oral tradition of their own pre-Christian past.

In our own times, in ways that “post-Christian” parts of the world forget, the rise of “micro-Christendoms” still goes on apace. The continuing vitality of Christianity in South America, its expansion in postcolonial Africa, and its remarkable extension in the nominally “People’s” Republic of China (where it is spreading through small household-congregations, just as it first spread in the Roman Empire), have hastened the day when believers from old Christian homelands will be overwhelmed if a truly global synod is ever convened. Rome, once again, is no longer the center of its own particular Church. The Rise of Western Christendom is not only an essential guide for those interested in late antiquity, whose numbers Peter Brown has done so much to multiply. Pondered carefully, it is also a book for the Christendom of our own times.

This Issue

April 24, 1997