No longer a golden elephant sitting on his head. Medieval scholar Peter Brown talks about his work and life as a MacArthur Fellow

PETER ROBERT LAMONT BROWN was eager to set the record straight. In 1982 he received an award from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. Paid over five years, the award came to nearly one-quarter of a million dollars. Early interviews left the impression that he used the money to escape the University of California at Berkeley, whence he had come - ``penniless,'' he noted - from Merton College, Oxford, in 1972, to teach history. Not so, Brown says. But a year after he got the award, his wife, Patricia Fortini Brown, was offered a teaching job at Princeton. He left to support her career and did not resign his post at Berkeley until 1986.

That out of the way, Professor Brown becomes ``Peter Brown.'' Witty, expansive, argumentative, and charming, Peter Brown is as popular with undergraduates at Princeton as he is famous among historians.

Asked what it felt like when the MacArthur people phoned him, Brown does what other recipients do. He talks in metaphors. He says it felt as if ``a golden elephant'' was sitting on his head.

That did not keep him from writing his just-published ``The Body and Society: Men, Women and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity'' (Columbia University Press, New York). On the contrary, it provided leisure to travel, study, and read the poets - ``Donne, Yeats, Larkin'' - who helped him find appealing ways to discuss the structure of thought of the early Christians.

THERE'S a great deal of poetry in his new book's seamless history of pagan and Christian ideas about - and behavior toward - the human body. Unique as a study of ``permanent sexual renunciation,'' in its eloquence, ``Body and Society'' recalls his earlier, best-selling biography ``Augustine of Hippo'' (1967). But Brown said writing ``Body and Society'' was like putting together a dinosaur: He constantly feared he would find a ``femur'' or something that would make the thing too big for him to handle.

The MacArthur grant meant he had time to make mistakes - time most young scholars, caught in the professional grind of the American university, never have. Hence, Brown says, they never find their voice and the skills to validate it.

Brown rejects the term ``genius grant,'' a widely used nickname for the MacArthur Fellowship. Puppeteers, jazz drummers, archaeologists - the range of fellows is impressive, as is the age spread, from 19 years old to the 86 of Brown's teacher Arnaldo Dante Momigliano, who received a grant last year, just before his death.

Ken Hope, director of the MacArthur program, points out that the process of choosing a fellow takes years: It involves three levels of scrutiny, much secrecy, much research, much argument, much silent pondering. Mr. Hope stresses that the committee is looking for creative individuals who benefit society and love their work. Ultimately, it's the individual, not the project, that's judged. Genius is not a factor; hard work, sincerity, and need are.

BUT can a scholar - indeed, a medieval historian - be deemed, if not a genius, creative in any meaningful sense of the word?

Certainly, says Daniel T. Rodgers, chairman of history at Princeton. Whereas lay folks think that history exists in archives, that historians just dig it out, Dr. Rodgers explains that what historians really do is see ``holes in the archives'' and have to ``find the inner logic of scattered bits of information,'' ``to imagine worlds.''

Brown has been able to do this for a whole new period in history, Rodgers says. ``Late Antiquity,'' as the period is now called, covers what Edward Gibbon (1737-94) thought of as the decline and fall of the Roman Empire and what others call the rise of Christianity.

Brown was born into a Protestant Dublin family in Roman Catholic Ireland in 1935. He fled its ``double limitations'' and pursued Byzantine studies at Oxford University. Brown learned modern languages - German, French, Italian, and Russian - before Greek. He knew the impact of the Middle Ages on modern man before he knew the classics, which gave him a unique view of his field.

Brown disagrees with his friend and fellow medievalist Thomas Bisson (chairman of history at Harvard University) over the idea that the best way to prepare for Late Antiquity is classics. As historian G.W. Bowersock of the Institute of Advanced Study (Princeton) says, Brown's field is betwixt and between medieval studies and classics. Until Brown, it was divided between historians of ``winepresses and frontiers'' and those of the church.

Among Brown's supporters, none speaks with more authority than the self-proclaimed ``president of the Peter Brown fan club.'' Jaroslav Pelikan, historian of Christian doctrine and author of ``Jesus through the Centuries,'' has just finished reviewing ``The Body and Society'' for the History Book Club. He observes that this superb book about the institution of virginity in the early church doesn't mention the Virgin Mary until the last page! Dr. Pelikan bears witness, as have others, to Brown's eye: He sees things like an art historian (which his wife is), making nice connections between ideas and artifacts.

But, Pelikan continues, Brown sometimes misses the importance of certain answers to certain questions of paramount importance to the people of the period. Of the true, good, and beautiful, he says, Brown favors the beautiful, then the good, then the true.

Now that the golden elephant no longer sits on his head, Brown looks back on his five years as a MacArthur Fellow with gratitude.

But the past couple of weeks have been tense for him and his wife. The original reason for coming to Princeton - his wife's career - has been hanging in the balance. Patricia Brown is up for tenure in the Princeton history of art department. They have both come to like Princeton. His book about the body and society now finished, Brown is working on a similar volume about early Christian ideas and practices with regard to poverty. He has accepted a full-time teaching appointment there. Department chairman Rodgers says he is a remarkably charismatic teacher, adding that the stutter that sometimes interrupts the golden flow doesn't seem to hurt at all. ``Peter and his class, together they work it out somehow,'' he said. Yet if his wife does not get tenure....

But a call near deadline reveals that all's well. Patricia Fortini Brown has just passed the first hurdle, the department review, clearing the way for her to become the first woman to be promoted to tenure from within the department. It's things like this that put money - even MacArthur money - in perspective.

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