Over the past seven decades, Peter Brown has transformed our collective understanding of the late Roman Empire and the European Middle Ages alike, establishing Late Antiquity (ca. 250-800 CE) as a distinctive era of creative religious, social, and intellectual ferment. This was the time of the prophet Muhammad, of Augustine of Hippo, of Byzantium’s heyday. Peter Brown published his revolutionary life-and-times study of Augustine while at Oxford, in the 1960s, and a further dozen studies have followed in the course of a professorial career at Berkeley and Princeton. Yet Brown’s transformative approach to Antiquity and the Middle Ages has roots in a worldview conditioned by the experience of growing up Protestant in the Republic of Ireland, with an extensive family tradition of professional service “abroad” across the British Empire (Brown’s own father worked as a railway engineer in Sudan).
In Journeys of the Mind: A Life in History (Princeton University Press, 2023), Peter Brown weaves together the diverse threads of his own life and times, serving up a beautifully written, richly sourced autobiography that is at once also a family history, a portrait of post-independence Ireland, a collective intellectual biography spanning several generations of intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic (some known to Brown only through their writing, others as mentors, friends, and students), a sociology of academic knowledge, and an authoritative historiographical essay. Journeys of the Mind is a genre-bending book, earnest in dissecting the pitfalls of knowledge production about the past but also optimistic about the historical profession—and, in particular, about the field of Late Antiquity as a wellspring of lessons for the future.
Piotr H. Kosicki is Associate Professor of History at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of Catholics on the Barricades (Yale, 2018) and editor, among others, of Political Exile in the Global Twentieth Century (with Wolfram Kaiser). His most recent writings appeared in The Atlantic and in Foreign Affairs.