Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Two Historians share $1 million Kluge Prize

From the Library of Congress:

Peter Robert Lamont Brown and Romila Thapar will receive the 2008 Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity in a ceremony December 10 at the Library of Congress. They are the sixth and seventh recipients since the Prize’s 2003 inception.

Endowed by Library of Congress benefactor John W. Kluge, the Kluge Prize is unique among all international prizes at the $1 million level in rewarding a very wide range of disciplines including history, philosophy, politics, anthropology, sociology, religion, criticism in the arts and humanities, and linguistics, as well as a great variety of cultural perspectives in the world. Each awardee will receive half of the $1 million prize.

Both Brown, 73, and Thapar, 77, brought dramatically new perspectives to understanding vast sweeps of geographical territory and a millennium or more of time in, respectively, Europe and the Middle East, and in the Indian subcontinent. Brown brought conceptual coherence to the field of late antiquity, looking anew at the end of the Roman Empire, the emergence of Christianity, and the rise of Islam within and beyond the Mediterranean world. Thapar created a new and more pluralistic view of Indian civilization, which had seemed more unitary and unchanging, by scrutinizing its evolution over two millennia and searching out its historical consciousness.
The scholarship of both broadened and deepened over time as they marshaled a vast range of evidence from an expanding range of sources and a bewildering array of languages to bring a new comprehensive understanding of large questions of human development. They addressed their scholarship not only to specialists, but also intentionally shared their insights with broader lay audiences. In re-imagining familiar worlds with eyes unprejudiced by existing paradigms, they each opened large areas of human experience to new historical inquiry.

Commenting on Peter Brown, Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said: "He is one of the most readable and literary historians of our time, having brought to life both a host of fascinating, little-known people from ordinary life during the first millennium of Christianity, as well as a monumental biography of the most prolific and famous St. Augustine."

One scholar reviewing nominations for the Kluge Prize wrote: "Peter Brown ranks with the greatest historians of the last three centuries." Another said: "There are few scholars in the world today who have changed their fields as much as Peter Brown has changed the study of what we used to call ancient and medieval history."

Remarking on Romila Thapar, Dr. Billington said: "She has used a wide variety of ancient sources and of languages, and introduced modern social science perspectives to help us better understand the richness and diversity of traditional Indian culture. And she, like Brown, has written a great biography of one of its giants, the Buddhist emperor Asoka."

Her prolific writings have set a new course for scholarship about the Indian subcontinent and for the writing of history textbooks in India. One scholarly reviewer said that "Thapar’s rigorous professional standards are cast against a background of her implicit appreciation of an India that accommodates civilizational diversity." Another said: "Thapar’s relentless striving for historical truth–independent of the superimposition of vacillating, fashionable theories of current sociopolitical conditions–is a landmark in the global writing of history."

As both scholar and teacher, Peter Brown has worked at the highest level of scholarly intensity and creativity for more than 40 years. His books have captivated thousands of readers, and his celebrated lectures and seminars have inspired students and younger scholars around the world. A scholarly Prospero whose magic consists in equal parts of learning and eloquence, Brown has opened up our understanding of the world of late antiquity and has reformulated the history of the Mediterranean world from the 2nd or 3rd century to the 11th century C.E., as a coherent historical period marked not by the tragic death of an old civilization but by the difficult birth of a new one.

Brown launched his career with an extraordinary biography, "Augustine of Hippo" (1967). Drawing on the massive traditions of historical and ecclesiastical scholarship, he sought to understand the experiences and sensibilities that characterized the various phases of Augustine’s life. Brown offered profound interpretations of the most demanding of Augustine’s writings, presenting his analyses in vivid prose that does justice to technical scholarly debates while still remaining accessible to non-specialists.
In 1971 Brown brought out what remains perhaps his most effective synthesis, "The World of Late Antiquity." Using a vast range of sources, visual as well as verbal, he described the evolution of pagan philosophy and the rise of Christianity as part of a single social world. Fascinated by the figures of saints who spent their lives on pillars and hermits and monks who inhabited desert sites, Brown tried to enter their worlds and empathetically to imagine the reasons for their actions. He also traced the story of late antiquity forward into the rise of new empires and civilizations in Persia, the Islamic world, and in Byzantium as well as Western Europe. Brown saw 200–1000 C.E. as a whole period that had not previously been seen as such; and he set the agenda for a new field of study and influenced many in other areas.

In a series of articles and chapters written over 25 years, Brown contemplated the figure of "the holy man," and wrote about that in the context of community networks and embodiments of the central value system of Christianity. As Brown’s knowledge of the Near East and its languages widened, he came to understand that in many ways these figures were unremarkable when seen in their context.

Brown in his "Cult of the Saints" (1981) put to rest the tendency to think of a theological elite as separate from a superstitious, pagan populace. His "The Body and Society" (1988), an extension of his work on Augustine, inquires deeply into the meanings of a life devoted to holiness, as seen in the works of great Christian thinkers. It helped create the new field of "body history," so important for psychohistory and gender scholarship. He saw asceticism not as rejection of the world but as, in complicated ways, a powerful force within it.

As Brown developed a capacity in Arabic, Persian, Syriac and Turkish, as well as in the major classical and European languages, he reconceived Western history from the sixth to the 11th century as a pan-Mediterranean era in which Islam played a fundamental role, and he saw the rise of Christianity as the emergence of a new social and intellectual world long before the Renaissance.

Brown and Thapar, who will officially receive the Kluge Prize on Dec. 10, 2008, at the Library of Congress, will both return to the Library next year to present a scholarly discussion of their respective bodies of work.