Friday, October 06, 2006

Historical hobnobbing

Last week, I went to the opening lecture of a conference on St. Augustine. My history professor, who suggested that my fellow students and I attend, leans over to me at one point, indicates a guy walking towards his seat, and says, "There's Peter Brown."

If you don't know who Peter Brown is, here's a very, very brief explanation: Up until our generation, give or take, the dominant view of the fall of Rome was that barbarian hordes descended upon the place in the 5th century and wiped out the Western empire, burying our civilization in the "Dark Ages" for the next several hundred years.

In 1971, Peter Brown put out a book that focused on the Eastern empire, which fared much better during that period. He said, in essence, "yes, there were barbarians, but a lot of really cool and really important stuff (especially stuff involving the infusion of Christianity into society) happened during that time and it deserves to be studied." He referred to the period as "Late Antiquity."

His vision of that period resonated very powerfully with people, and the result was the birth of an entire historical sub-field (which has fascinated me since before I knew it was known as "Late Antiquity").

My medieval studies professor in 2004 introduced me to Brown's work, and since then I've read a bunch of stuff by him. And practically every book since about 1990 that deals heavily with either late Rome or the early medieval period references him in some way. He's a giant.

I went up to him, introduced myself as a student, shook his hand, and expressed my admiration for his work. I would have been very pleased with that.

But he engaged me in conversation. He wanted to know what I was studying, who I was studying with, what we were being asked to read, and what I enjoyed the most. I was totally caught off guard. Why should he care?

He walked with me all the way from the auditorium to the reception room, while I recited the titles on my Late Antiquity reading list as best I could while dealing with acute tunnel vision. I probably sounded like a complete idiot.

See, this was like being asked for my opinions on astrophysics by Albert Einstein or Stephen Hawking. That's where this guy rates. He has forgotten more about history than I am likely to ever know.

When we got to the reception room, a friend approached him and he excused himself, but not before taking the time to suggest some supplementary reading.

Not that my enthusiasm was flagging, but the encounter infused me with new energy for my history studies. Dr. Brown could easily have treated me like the gibbering sycophant I was. Instead, he chose to speak to me with respect. More than respect, even. His tone and the manner in which he enabled the conversation encouraged me to believe that I could think and speak about this material intelligently (even if I wasn't doing it at that instant). It was pretty powerful stuff.

I imagine that he has already forgotten the conversation, but I doubt I ever will. When I eventually squeeze out the zygotic book that's nestled on the inside of my skull, Peter Brown will get an acknowledgement.

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