Teresa Morgan on Peter Brown’s new “First, build yourself a monastery…”

The Tablet
BOOKS AND ARTS
Review by Teresa Morgan
First, build yourself a monastery Through the Eye of a Needle: wealth, the fall of Rome, and the making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD
Peter Brown
Princeton University Press, £27.95 8 November 2012
 
When Peter Brown began to work on the social history of the Church in the later Roman Empire, it was an unusual choice of subject. Sixty years later, he has done more than anyone to make late antiquity and early church history the vast, ramifying, intellectually exuberant fields they have become. In the process, he has defined topics – the cult of saints and the history of the body, to name but two – which have become fields of scholarship in their own right, far beyond the ancient world.
One of the captivating qualities of Brown’s new book is the sheer energy and intellectual excitement that sparkle through it. He might, in recent years, have rested on his laurels – perhaps, like his beloved Augustine, written his memoirs. Instead, he celebrates the continuing expansion of the field and demonstrates his continued mastery of it in a groundbreaking study of wealth in the late antique Church.
Although lengthy, this is a characteristically readable book, and while it is full of what specialists will recognise as new ideas, it is very accessible. Chapters sketching the state of Roman society and the economy are interwoven with chapters on the social and economic condition of the Church, on wealth  and on the complex relationship between wealth and social status in the Roman West.
Against this background are set, like jewels in a crown, studies of individuals: some very familiar (Ambrose, Augustine and Jerome), some less so (Symmachus, Paulinus and Salvian). The varying approaches of these figures to earthly and heavenly treasure are explored with the elegant subtlety that is Brown’s hallmark. In addition, almost every chapter sheds light on some key topic from a new and unexpected direction, from the economic crises of the later principate to the Pelagian controversy; from the practice of almsgiving to lay views of the afterlife.
Brown is the acknowledged master of the telling detail, and his narrative is studded with rare examples. Town inventories from sixth-century Ravenna illustrate the social gulf between the elite, draped in scarlet and green silks, and the middle classes, muffled in drab. We meet the fabulously rich Paulinus of Nola, who renounced his social status to become a priest, but never lost his aristocratic assumption that he could travel where he liked and do what he liked with his remaining money. (He used some of it to build a monastery where he lived with his wife, calmly ignoring his infuriated bishop.) We encounter Augustine, preaching at Carthage from what the congregation regarded as the wrong part of the church, getting vigorously heckled and having to apologise the next day. We are introduced to King Chilperic of Neustria, who built amphitheatres to entertain himself and his subjects in defiance of the Pope, and among whose favourite activities was breaking the wills of people who left money to the Church.
At their best, such details illuminate their social context so brilliantly that it seems churlish to complain that they detract from the argument. They do, though, sometimes charm attention away from the intellectual framework that holds them together. This is a pity, because the argument is an important one. This, Brown suggests, is the period in which Western Churches discovered treasure on earth: acquired it, learned how to use it and learned to like it. Little by little, he suggests, wealth ceased to be something of which Christians disapproved and were encouraged to give up, and became something which they valued, collected and found ways of justifying.
One of Brown’s greatest contributions to the field has been to take early church history outside the intensely studied corpus of texts in which intellectual and theological elites wrestle with tradition, doctrine and one another, and show us a much wider range of individuals and groups, active and interactive in a complex social context. This book is no exception, but here one perhaps feels the absence of much of the literary and theological side of Christian evolution more than usual. Brown allows himself to assume that Christians basically thought wealth was a bad thing, and shows us how they gradually came to terms with it. But, of course, ideas about wealth are already complex and contradictory within the New Testament. Later, debates about wealth, through commentaries, sermons and apologetic, hortatory and theological works, grow ever more complex. Brown shows us fascinating glimpses into the thinking of a handful of authors, but so much of the trad ition of Christian reflection on wealth is missing here, that it is hard not to feel the narrative is slightly one-sided.
No one book can do everything, however, and Brown does both general readers and specialists a great service in revealing some of the less familiar aspects of the story of Christian wealth in late antiquity. Few scholars, moreover, would have dared to draw on such a range of sources, and no other scholar could have produced Brown’s characteristically intricate, spectacular and joyous synthesis. Towards the end of the book, Brown describes how a basilica might have looked around the year 600: glowing with candles, glittering with mosaics, gleaming with gold and silver vessels. “The church itself”, he says, “had become a little heaven, filled with treasures.” It is a description irresistibly applicable to Peter Brown’s own book: as rich a monument to the life of the mind as was any late Roman basilica to the life everlasting.

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