A Past in All Its Fullness

Peter Brown, interviewed by Nawal Arjini

Peter Brown

Peter Brown

“We should remember that the people we study lived in a world crowded with invisible beings,” Peter Brown writes in our June 6, 2024 issue, as part of his review of Peter Heather’s book about the rise of Christianity. He’s referring to people living in “late antiquity,” a designation that Brown brought to the English-speaking world to refer to the neglected centuries from the decline of the Roman Empire through the spread of Islam. Over his long career, Brown has been steadfast in his belief that, though we know much more about them now, the people of this period remain very distant from ourselves. “Premature understanding is an enemy,” he wrote in 1974, in his very first essay for the Review.

Brown’s research has come to cover an ever wider stretch of land, from the Roman empire to its neighbors and now to Ethiopia. Though much of his scholarship is about Christianity, his interest in religion is broader; he has written extensively about Judaism and Islam and, in his memoir Journeys of the Mind (2023), explains how he rejoined the Church of his youth after conversations with Muslims and Zoroastrians in Iran. “I see myself as a historian of religious sentiment, laymen and women and clergy alike,” he says. This often includes minoritarian currents within the Church, including the early Christians who renounced sex and marriage under study in his book The Body and Society (1988), influenced by his friend Michel Foucault.

Like the subject of his influential biography Augustine of Hippo (1967), Brown spent part of his childhood in Africa, shuttling between Khartoum, where his father worked, and the family home in Ireland. Though he is now emeritus, Brown still lives in Princeton, where he taught for many decades, with his wife Betsy, a scholar of the Reformation. “She encourages me in the hunt for the ordinary believer,” he tells me. Together they are globetrotters; Brown has said that he speaks as many languages as he needs to travel, which, along with the languages he uses for research, number in the dozens. I spoke to him this week over e-mail, before he sets off to northern Spain.

Nawal Arjini: What are some of the difficulties and pleasures in researching the less documented aspects of the everyday people of the past?

Peter Brown: I am fascinated by the manner in which different ages and regions produce distinctive constellations of religious ideas and practices, each constellation very different from the other; how these constellations express themselves in different ways on many different levels and with many different means (in art and architecture, for instance, just as much as in formal works of theology). It is the religious sense of an age, on both the intellectual and the material level, that interests me.

If you hadn’t fallen into the study of late antiquity, is there another period that might have called to you instead?

I am always on the lookout for periods when these constellations change and why. I was tempted to do research on the late Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Reformation. Here too we have societies entering periods of dramatic change. What was it like to live through those changes? How much of the old “medieval” world remained unchanged, and why? The tension between change and continuity is what interests me. Any society or religion, European or non-European, which faces these tensions, attracts me.

Is there any temptation in studying the events you’ve experienced yourself, having lived across several continents at times of great upheaval? Or do you think of your historical research as bearing on the questions of our time?

Events around us undoubtedly sensitize us to what seem to be similar situations in the past—they add a sense of weight and human urgency to what we read. But that is all. The historian’s job is about the past, and especially about how and why the past is not the present. People in history are usually most interesting to us when they are not like us. Like good friends they complement us rather than act as clones of ourselves. The past has an integrity of its own, and historical knowledge can best serve the present by preserving this integrity, not least by widening the imagination and by insisting on the complexity of historical change.

To take an example: when people tell me that the negative changes of our own time are similar to those that led to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire—as if the one was a distant mirror of the other—I notice that the changes which they tend to isolate have little to do with the Roman Empire as it really was, and a lot to do with what they dislike in their own society.  

Much of your research investigates a past which is under contention in the present—in Palestine, Armenia, and Ethiopia; in occluded sexual histories of Christianity; and I’m sure in many other instances as well. How do you negotiate the political stakes of your work? 


What the historian can do is place the heartrending events of our own days against a wider background. We are not locked into the present. As historians we hope to see more clearly how certain situations came about, to cope with them with greater skill and understanding in the future. We can say: “It was not like this (maybe only a few years ago), so it may not be like this in a few more years. Change can happen: let us try to get out of this mess.”

You’re a great and committed traveler. How do you approach travel, especially traveling abroad—as a researcher, a pilgrim, a tourist? 

I travel because it always surprises me. Places and monuments, works of art and landscapes are never quite what one imagines them to be. Nor are people. Some of the languages useful for my research abroad are what we call “dead” languages: Latin, Greek, classical Hebrew, Coptic, Ge’ez (Ethiopic), etc. These are keys to entire past civilizations. But even in the modern world, languages are a reminder that all societies have their own surprises. To attempt to read and use languages other than one’s own, even if only a few phrases, is a mark of respect for the otherness of other people. For this reason, I have always encouraged my students of late antiquity to learn not only the classical languages but the languages in which modern scholarship has been conducted, so that they realize that historical research is a worldwide matter, and that it is many centuries old—like a great symphony that has been playing for centuries.

I ask in part because I feel increasingly that whatever I gain from being in an unfamiliar place is not quite worth the waste it took for me to get there, and that the dynamic between tourist and host is often an unpleasant power imbalance. How do you experience travel? What do you love about it?

I know that travel can be abused, but this is no reason for abandoning it as an experience that can generate respect for, and a sense of, the other. When we travel, and especially when we learn a language to help us to travel, we do not simply go to see the sights, or learn a language simply to get around. With each language we encounter a culture—often a culture very different from our own. We need to reach out from time to time in this way. It would be the height of narcissism to think that everything one needed in order to understand humanity was on one’s own doorstep. There was a wise saying in medieval Islamic circles: “Seek knowledge everywhere, even as far as China”—and, at that time, China seemed a long way away.

What, if anything, can or should historians do to prevent their scholarship from being conscripted into demagogic agendas?

Historians are there to discover and to uphold the truth. From ancient Greece onward historians have stood out against public opinion by offering more truthful versions of what really happened than what was passed on by rumor, prejudice, and popular excitement. This was never popular. Herodotus, known as “the Father of History,” was also called “the Father of Lies” by his opponents, because he went out of his way to study and understand non-Greek societies such as Egypt and Persia.

Each age produces its own historians with their own ways of asserting the truth. Perhaps the most urgent need we have today is to develop a sense of the strangeness of the past and a sense of urgent searching for the truth to ensure that the past is not forgotten, or flattened by being presented as so “like us”—no more than a mirror of ourselves—that it can be manipulated without challenge.

At the moment, are there any areas of historical inquiry which seem to you particularly open to reinterpretation and new scholarship?

Periods such as late antiquity and the so-called European “Dark Ages” have been studied with a wide variety of skills. Some skills are brand-new and taken from the sciences—such as new methods in archaeology, in dendrochronology, in the long-term history of diseases, and in ecological studies, to mention only a few. Others, such as paleography, are based on long-established skills given new vigor through digitalization. Digitalization enables us to analyze at remarkable speed the immense body of manuscript evidence that had simply lain unstudied in archives all over the Christian, Byzantine, and Islamic worlds. As a result, the Dark Ages are a lot less dark than they used to be.


Furthermore, the study of the place of Europe in the wider world of Africa, the Near East, and Central Asia (along the Silk Road that linked the Mediterranean to China, and the great caravans that joined the Muslim cities of sub-Saharan West Africa to the Nile) challenges us to read traditional evidence in new ways and against magnificently wide horizons. I am particularly excited by the way in which recent studies of premodern Africa have added a hitherto neglected continent to our picture of the medieval world. This is particularly the case with Ethiopia, where newly discovered manuscripts, archaeological surveys, and the study of art and material culture have revealed dynamic societies at the crossroads between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean, between Christianity and Islam.

You have read widely in and been influenced by several other fields, from anthropology to philosophy. Is there another discipline in particular whose influence is helping reinvigorate historical study?

History has to reinvigorate itself. There is no easy way to build up a humane culture—a sense of the possible in human affairs, in the past as in the present—which the historian needs. In my own experience, anthropology helped me greatly by introducing me to the careful study of distinctive societies in action. This added an entire new dimension to the study of religious beliefs hitherto known to us only through formal texts. It placed these beliefs in their social context and helped us understand their role in the daily life of average persons. But there is no single quick fix. Any discipline that helps historians do justice to the richness of the past—the richness of a past that was once our present, in all its fullness—has my vote.

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