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Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD Hardcover – September 2, 2012
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"[A]n unprecedented resource. . . . Brown creates broad, deep landscapes in which the reader can watch the ancients moving. You can, in places, just crawl in and have a true dream about the ancient world. Moreover, the topic holds fascinating implications about the formation of modern Western culture. . . . It's a significant and suggestive story."---Sarah Ruden, American Scholar
"One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2013"
"Winner of the 2013 Philip Schaff Prize, American Society of Church History"
"[T]his is an impressive and monumental piece of scholarship that casts western late antiquity into clearer relief than it has received. It will long be required reading for anyone wanting to understand the social realities of Christianity in the late antique West."---Geoffrey D. Dunn, Journal of Early Christian Studies
"Elegantly written and amply sign-posted, this long book is a pleasure to read."---Alexander Skinner, Journal for Late Antique Religion and Culture
"Magisterial. . . . Brown's newest monograph belongs on the bookcase of every late ancient and medieval historian. . . . A stunning accomplishment."---Elizabeth DePalma Digesner, H-Net Reviews
"Brown's goal in this book is patiently to reconstruct the debates on wealth among late Roman Christians: in other words, to set out the context for the tendentious claims of ascetic minorities, which have misled so many later interpreters."---Conrad Leyser, Times Literary Supplement
"Peter Brown, professor emeritus at Princeton University and the leading historian of late antiquity, has written a masterful study. . . . His book is characterized by lively prose, mastery of the primary sources and original languages, comprehensive use of changes in the study of antiquities (especially the 'material culture' of archaeology), gorgeous plates, nearly 300 pages of bibliographic end material, and a number of important revisions to the standard historiography."---Dan Clendenin, JourneywithJesus.net
"In addition to vast erudition formed by a range of reading in well over a dozen languages, Brown has something of the cinematographer's ability to compose a narrative by moving between panoramas and individual close-ups. The results are often dazzling."---Patrick Cook, Cambrdige Humanities Review
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The material is presented in a fashion accessible to any reader, but could easily be used in settings ranging from a parish study class to a seminary.
His writing always carries a balance of erudition and accessibility, serving both other scholars and lay people new to a field. I've been reading his work for years and have never come away disappointed. He has the ability to humanize figures and contexts from the ancient world like no one else.
This book is in many ways a companion to his earlier brilliant survey, The Body and Society. The earlier work examined how Christianity's perspective on sexuality and bodily ascetism was shaped by Greco-Roman attitudes and practices in the 2nd-4th centuries. This volume, covering a later period of history, uses a similar method to examine the questions of wealth and poverty. As others have written here, each page holds its own "ah ha" moments. I have been researching this field for several years as part of my own scholarly work, yet Brown's book opened up new vistas on countless situations that I had previously thought I had already understood clearly. My reading list is also at least twenty volumes longer because of his excellent, engaging footnotes highlighting recent scholarship in five languages.
One of the overarching insights of the book is that "Christianity" never existed as a "thing," but was manifest, then as now, in unique ways in local contexts that varied over time. This has become a commonly held scholarly perspective in recent decades, and is thus not unique to Brown. But Brown takes that insight and allows it to shed light on a fascinating array of such contexts from throughout the Western Empire. The specific theme of wealth and poverty is one with which Christians have always and continue to grapple. This book's examination of the ancient world sheds much light on our own economic questions today, although Brown does not weigh down the historical analysis with comparisons with our world. Astute readers can easily find such parallels for themselves.
Whether you are a scholar or simply have a casual interest in this time period, "Needle" is worth its weight in Roman solidii!
Having said that, I confess to having been temporarily confused by the author's practice of jumping back and forth in time, until I realized that was his way of making comprehensible events that occurred in different parts of the then Christian world, so he could trace a temporarily path of different cultures over a total period of 500 or 600 years.
A nice piece of work, interesting and well written, and illuminating if you wish to know more about the first 6 centuries after the birth of Christ.
Top international reviews
I am not an academic, and any person hoping to penetrate the complexity of this marvellous book must have a modest knowledge of the major players as well as the geography of the late Roman Empire.
The substance of this book is an examination of how the Late Roman rich dispersed their income. Did it go to bolstering their position within their class and by climbing the ladder of the offices of nobility or do they try to ensure their place in heaven by making large donations to the Church?
As has been written, "Do not go gently into that dark night" because the uninformed reader stands confronted by a barrage of brilliant pages where Peter Brown writes of the 4th century as if it the information is as comfortable to the reader as today's front page.
Read this book to expand your knowledge of Early Christianity, the Late Roman Empire and to familiarise yourself with the brilliance of a scholar working at his best.
Peter Brown lui, n'a pas attendu la prestigieuse école pour se faire un nom, c'est un, voir le, plus grand spécialiste de ce que l'on nomme désormais l'Antiquité tardive, historien qui a contribué à une vision plus nuancé de cette période, que beaucoup jugeait sombre, puisque conséquente à la "décadence" romaine.
Aujourd'hui c'est un vieux monsieur (83 ans !), mais son énergie elle, est restée intacte, la passion pour la recherche déborde à chaque ligne, Brown a garder un côté enfantin, enthousiaste, curieux, tout heureux de nous faire partager ses découvertes, ce qui donne un réel plaisir à la lecture d'un livre pourtant réserver aux spécialistes, un ouvrage de recherche, universitaire.
Mais la verve anglo-saxonne allège considérablement ce pavé (500 bonnes grosses pages plus les notes).
C'est un voyage épique à travers l'empire romain d'Occident, Brown explique l'installation du christianisme, mais surtout son rapport à l'argent, pour se faire il s'intéressera aux penseurs les plus influents, en étudiant leur histoire personnelle, et leurs écrits/pensées, Saint-Agustin, Ambroise de Milan pour les plus connus. On a donc le droit aussi à une histoire de la philosophie chrétienne, avec beaucoup d’extraits de textes d’époque.
On apprend beaucoup sur l'empire romain tardif, et sur les changements que provoque le christianisme.
Quelques cartes viennent compléter le récit, ainsi que des illustrations couleurs insérées au milieu du livre, excellente habitude qu'on tout les éditeurs anglo-saxons, et que les français ont encore du mal à imiter.
Je ne met pas 5 étoiles car Brown se répète souvent, ou rentre beaucoup trop dans les détails, détails pas forcément utile pour la compréhension des phénomènes.
Le livre a reçu pas mal de prix, d'"awards", comme souvent avec les livres de Peter Brown, et on comprend pourquoi.
P.S. : Les éditions Belles Lettres qui sont toujours à l'affut des meilleurs livres sur l'Antiquité ont judicieusement publié ce livre, mais étant un peu sans le sous j'ai opté pour la version anglaise, beaucoup moins chère, comme ça les continuateurs du professeur Brown pourront étudier les rapports à l'argent des clients d'amazon.
Pour avoir vu l'ouvrage français en librairie, il est de meilleure facture (légèrement), ce qui explique un prix plus haut. Le Princeton n'en reste pas moins solide, papier comme couverture (cf. les photos).
The special theme of this book, the part played by private wealth -- its growth and distribution -- in the extension of the Church in the fourth century, is valuable for at least two different reasons. On the one hand it provides an explanation of the way in which the Christian clergy was able to move socially to the highest levels of society in the fifth century, and on the other it provides a necessary background to the extant Patristic writing on wealth and poverty that up to now has been completely lacking in the secondary literature.
It is a bonus that this necessarily long book should be such a joy to read. Once one takes it up to read a chapter, it is hard to put it down.
The joy of reading Peter Brown is that he is a gifted storyteller, narrating history via the lives of a wide range of individuals and their writings or inscriptions (albeit mostly well-known to historians). He has a fine sense of the many layers and imperceptibility of change. His (lightly worn) scholarship is second to none.
However, he is not your man for quantitative analysis of how many people were affected in what way - and indeed there is virtually no 'data' available on which to base this sort of approach. Nevertheless, it would be interesting to read, for instance, his guess as to what rough proportion of the population in the west by (say) AD 400 and AD 600 were nominally Christian; and if a minority or majority of these truly believed. The fact that Brown does not give any sense of how broadly different segments of the population were influenced by the trends he describes must, to some extent, qualify the authoritativeness of what he has to say.
Brown is not dealing here with the religious appeal of Christianity, but I still think he unduly neglects the egalitarian, personal and millenarian aspects of Christianity, which had their part to play in changing attitudes to wealth and the poor. Equally, we might learn much by comparing what happened in the far more secure Eastern half of the empire (but that is to ask too much).
The book is convincing on the broad thrust of social (and ultimately political) change which this highly challenging and aspirational creed brought to a culture which, by the fourth century, was dull and fissiparous. He paints a vivid picture of the massive effects of rich Christian patronage and almsgiving on those at the top of society - shifting the focus of social value from the city and civic honour to the church and gifts to the poor. In truly valuing 'treasure in heaven', the commitment to the Imperial centre and to an essentially secular network of patronage was radically modified - ushering in the semi-egalitarian, great age of the Catholic Church.
This was nothing less than an imaginative revolution at least as profound as the scientific revolution of the modern era - and was the basis of the ensuing Middle Ages.
Sa majestueuse analyse de l'antiquité tardive est un régal d'érudition,de style et d'anecdotes à chaque page.
CE LIVRE EST TELLEMENT PASSIONANT que j'ai du mal à m'en détacher !!
One fault I found with this book. Classicists are people who revere detail, and as a British classicist I am constantly (though inadvertently) proof-reading the books I read. I was disappointed here to find myself constantly brought up short by catachreses such as “center”, “labor”, “honor”, “program”, “artifact” or “behavior”. Brown himself is Irish, but has perhaps been in America long enough to become assimilated to Noah Webster’s pointedly revolutionary spelling. Be that as it may, for the benefit of those of us who have not, it would have been more professional for Princeton University Press to have corrected its usage to English norms for distribution in Britain (after all, it does boast that it publishes in Oxford as well as its home city). May we hope that Professor Brown will prevail on them to do a more thorough job if it runs to another printing?