Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Inventing Late Antiquity: a scholarly treat

Peter Brown has been over the last generation or so an extraordinarily influential historian of Antiquity and the early Middle Ages. He is one of the chief figures, perhaps THE chief, in the invention of the notion of Late Antiquity. What that means is, he drew attention to a period formerly split between scholars interested in Classical Antiquity and those interested in the Early Church or the Early Middle Ages (or both), and argued that this was a period with a character of its own. It was a controversial idea then and still is now, but it's been a productive perspective, inspiring much work that would otherwise never have been done.

I used to work in Late Antiquity (as academics say; I didn't commute) and I've had the pleasure of hearing him speak both in a seminar, on saints and their historical significance, and at a conference, on sexual renunciation. He is perhaps the most amazing speaker I have ever heard -- every time the excitement of the ideas he's talked about has made my heart beat faster.

Brown, who is Oxford trained, was at Oxford last month to speak at the opening of an Oxford Centre for Late Antiquity, a kind of validation of his efforts that few of us can ever hope for. The talk's about where the name and concept of Late Antiquity came from.
If you're not familiar with the culture and setting of Oxford, it may be a slow start for you (he's talking to a home-town crowd), but if you've ever wondered about how intellectual viewpoints change, and what kind of resistance new ones face, have a look.

You may also find a laugh or two, and conclude that yes, famous academics are as eccentric as you might have thought.

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Anonymous magistra said...

The American Council of Learned Societies also has an interesting earlier talk by Peter Brown about his later academic life and interests.

The conservatism of Oxford is extreme even for UK universities - I've just checked and some of the Special Subject options in the history department today are the same as in 1983 when I was there.

4:58 AM  

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