From the start of his illustrious career as a historian of Late Antiquity, Peter Brown has connected theological ideas with social contexts and practices. His 2012 monograph, Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350–550 showed that arguments about the use of wealth among Christian churches across those centuries emerged from and responded to the specific circumstances of communities, making the case that religious history cannot adequately be considered apart from social and economic history. Although Brown insists the expanded set of lectures—delivered in Vienna in 2012—that form the basis of the present book is not a “spin-off,” he acknowledges that the same concern to connect ideas to social practices persists in his examination of imaginative pictures of the afterlife and the ways in which Christians disposed of their wealth.
[See the full list of Religion Booknotes]
Brown traces two distinct lines of development. The first is the elaboration of ideas about the postmortem destination of individuals—specifically those who were not certifiably either great saints or obvious sinners. In the third and fourth centuries, little attention was given to this question, and Augustine tends to suppress speculation about the state of the individual’s soul after death. But by the time of Gregory of Tours in the late sixth century, the journey of the soul after death is imaginatively construed as a process of purgation; the next step, toward a full-blown conception of Purgatory, is a short one, and is realized in the work of the late seventh-century bishop, Julian of Toledo.
The second line of development concerns the proper Christian disposition of possessions. Already in the time of Augustine, there was a tendency to construct impressive burial places near those of the martyrs. But Augustine argues that money should be given to the poor among them, not in one great act, but bit by bit, corresponding to the daily sins inevitably committed by believers, thus “paying their debts” (debita) as they ask the Lord to forgive their debts. By the time of Gregory, in contrast, and even more in the period of Columba and the Irish monks, sins of individuals are thought to be propitiated through the prayers of religious professionals—monks and nuns—and the great benefactions of the wealthy to such religious institutions are precisely for the remission of the sins of the benefactors and their loved ones. The monasteries were to be the place where the poor found help, to be sure, but they were even more, for the benefactors, great powerhouses of prayer for the departed. At this point, Brown says, “We can say, around the year 650 a.d., that the ancient world truly died in Western Europe.”
The evidence is sparse and the interconnections between these developments less than obvious. Brown explicitly eschews easy links between ideology and social processes, between social cataclysms and new ideas; indeed, his interest is as much in elements of continuity as in discontinuity. He works hard to make all the lines of his inquiry clear, adding both an introduction and epilogue to his original lectures to frame his presentation. But his extraordinary ability to flesh out the social contexts of ancient literary works enables the reader to follow his suggestions concerning the intricate ways in which the ancient notion of making “treasure in heaven” found both imaginative and practical expression in response to the most pressing of all questions: What happens to us (and our loved ones) before the ever-longer delay of the triumphant return of the Lord?
Across his long scholarly life, Peter Brown has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of early Christianity, and in his eightieth year he offers still another original, unexpected, and deeply insightful vision of how Christians constructed and reconstructed their world.