Historians Peter Brown and Romila Thapar Named 2008 Kluge Prize Recipients

On December 3, 2008, historians Peter Robert Lamont Brown and Romila Thapar were named recipients of the $1 Million 2008 Kluge Prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Study of Humanity. They are the sixth and seventh recipients since the Prize’s 2003 inception. Each awardee will receive half of the $1 million prize. The Kluge Prize is international; the recipient may be of any nationality, writing in any language. The main criterion for a recipient is deep and sustained intellectual accomplishment in the study of humanity that has an impact beyond narrow academic disciplines.

Endowed by Library of Congress benefactor John W. Kluge, the Kluge Prize is unique among all international prizes 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.

According to the press release from the Library of Congress announcing the award, “both Brown, 73, and Thapar, 77, brought 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.”

Here are the biographies of the two recipients provided by the Library of Congress

PETER ROBERT LAMONT BROWN

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.

ROMILA THAPAR

The pre-eminent historian of early India, Romila Thapar opened the study of that rich, ancient civilization to habits of inquiry and conceptual frameworks arising out of the modern social sciences. She formulated new questions about the social development of nearly 2,000 years of Indian history and challenged existing paradigms of historians from both the colonial era and from the more recent nationalists. Making innovative use of familiar archeological and literary sources and mining new data, she stretched our understanding of this continental nation of more than 1 billion people.

Her iconoclastic approach is not without controversy, but the cutting-edge research that she and like-minded colleagues advanced has profoundly changed the way India’s past is understood both at home and across the world. However future generations ultimately evaluate her conclusions, her opening up of an era and her intellectual integrity in humanistic study has had great impact in and beyond India.

At the beginning of her career, Thapar challenged the conventional historiography. In her “History of India” (1966), she broke from the prominently held view of an unchanging India characterized by a past and static Golden Age. This work accelerated the adaptation of the social sciences in Indian universities and quickly became a teaching text in Indian schools.

She portrays complex interplay among political, economic, social, religious and other factors, and always takes a holistic approach. Faced with the absence of reliable dating, she finds new information in ancient texts–Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit and Jain–in Old Tamil traditions and folklore, and she integrates it all with findings from archaeology, numismatics, linguistics and inscriptions.

Thapar completely revised and greatly increased the size and scope of her “History of India” in 2002. Thapar acknowledges the uncertainties involved in writing history in the absence of a reliable written record. She also presents her view of the most likely interpretation of the evidence. Thapar has written or coauthored 15 substantial books, beginning in 1962 with her major biography of Asoka.

Thapar’s work has reached beyond the academy and into school textbooks, and her perspective on Indian history has placed her in the midst of contentious debates. Thapar has persistently championed a history grounded in evidence drawn from multiple sources in multiple languages from all levels of society across time. Willing to revisit her conclusions, she has also consistently sought to counter simplifications not borne out by the evidence and to support, implicitly, an appreciation for a pluralistic view India. An emeritus professor of Ancient Indian History at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi who has held visiting posts and received honorary degrees from universities on three continents, Thapar has made an enduring contribution to India and the world that lies with her role in innovating methodologies for historical research and her transforming our knowledge of Indian history.

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