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Peter Brown: A Recollection

The following is a guest post by Dr. Jane McAuliffe, Director of The John W. Kluge Center.

More years ago than I like to admit, I began graduate work at the University of Toronto in the newly formed Centre for Religious Studies. The director of that fledgling operation was an American scholar of Zoroastrianism, Willard Oxtoby, a lively and personable fellow with a seemingly inexhaustible store of academic friends and colleagues. I recall an informal dinner at Professor Oxtoby’s home where I found myself sitting, quite literally, at the feet of Jaroslav Pelikan as he spoke about his current research. Pelikan was by then an internationally renowned historian of Eastern Christianity and would eventually become one of the first recipients of the Kluge Prize.

Oxtoby also had an eye for emerging superstars and was quick to snag them for visiting professorships. Thus was I able to take a graduate course with just such a superstar, another future Kluge Prize laureate by the name of Peter Brown. During the semester that he taught at the University of Toronto, Professor Brown’s seminar was always packed. Not only graduate students from other departments and centers but faculty members from across the university crowded into the room, eager to hear from a scholar whose insightful research was already shifting the boundaries of long established fields of studies.

Peter Brown

Peter Brown, co-recipient of the 2008 Kluge Prize.

The lectures that Peter Brown presented in that semester’s seminar formed the basis of his influential Haskell Lectures at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. They were eventually published by the University of Chicago Press as “The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity.” In this, as in so many of his subsequent works, Peter Brown took the received wisdom on a long-studied topic and subjected it to relentless interrogation, bringing to bear new sources, both literary and archeological, and teasing out fresh forms of analysis and interpretation. Most importantly, he expanded the geographical and historical horizons within which his research topics were pursued.

In particular, he turned his attention to the neighboring cultures and religious traditions of the Near East, especially Islam. As Brown noted in the revised edition of “The Cult of Saints” that was published just this year, he was deeply influenced by the study of parallel practices in the Islamic world: “Here was a major monotheistic civilization, as sophisticated as any known to the students of the western Middle Ages and the Reformation, in which the cult of dead persons as mediators between God and the mass of humanity was quite as prominent as it had been in late antique and medieval Christianity.” (p. xv)

This post is the third in a series on past recipients of the Library of Congress John W. Kluge Prize for Achievement in the Study of Humanity. The Kluge Prize will be bestowed again in September 2015 with an accompanying $1.5 million award. #KlugePrize.

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