By DONNA URSCHEL
Historians Peter Brown and Romila Thapar, the 2008 Kluge Prize recipients (see Information Bulletin, January/February 2009), returned to the Library this spring to present formal lectures growing out of their lifetimes of research and reflection. Thapar examined the nature of early historical texts of India, and Brown discussed the early days of Christian monks and their financial support.
In his April 30 lecture, “A Parting of the Ways: Wealth, Working and Poverty in Early Christian Monasticism,” Brown argued that the genesis of today’s widely held belief that the rich have a moral and religious duty to support the poor can be found in the third and fourth centuries. Monks living in Egypt initiated the concept by supporting themselves through their own labor, thereby better connecting to the people in their communities and allowing alms to be given to the truly poor.
In this early period, Brown said, there were differing opinions as to who the poor were and who should support whom. To understand the issue of monks and alms, he said, scholars need to look to the Fertile Crescent, which is largely located in present-day Iraq.
“The Fertile Crescent is where the alms action was, not in the Roman territories of Greece and Western Europe,” Brown said. The alms question was part of a debate as to the correct form of monasticism, a debate that raged for generations through Mesopotamia and the Valley of the Nile.
Brown examined the monastic traditions of three main groups: the wandering Christian monks of Syria; the Manichaeans of Mesopotamia; and the “sedentary but vocal” monks of Egypt.
The Syrians and the Manichaeans wanted support and felt they were entitled to alms from those to whom they ministered. They wanted to forgo labor and, as Brown said, “float above the human condition.” They wanted to avoid the drudgery of life, to better conduct the weightless and angelic labor of prayer on behalf of all people.
Egyptian monks approached the economic-support issue differently. They embraced physical labor. They wanted to put themselves forward as normal human beings, linked by labor to the suffering of society in order to better understand the woes of mankind. Thus, the concept of human suffering took on an urgency that was lacking in the Manichaean and Syrian monastic traditions.
Brown said the Egyptian monks, through their insistence on the duty of manual labor and through their support of the truly poor, brought a distinctive flavor to the social imagination of their age. “They placed at the very heart of our consciousness a model of society divided between rich and poor, in which the rich have a religious and moral duty to support the real poor,” he said.
On May 12, Thapar presented “Perceptions of the Past in Early India,” an attempt to recognize historical traditions in early India, specifically to understand how the country’s past was perceived and recorded.
“A couple hundred years ago, it was stated that the Indian civilization was unique in that it lacked historical writing and, implicitly, a sense of history. With rare exceptions there has been little effort since to examine this generalization, and it is taken as axiomatic,” said Thapar.
The problem with the British and others who were looking for recorded Indian history is that their expectations were shaped by European models, she said.
British historian James Mill went so far as to say that India society was static, registered no change and therefore had no need to record the past. As another British historian once said, “Early India wrote no history because it never made any.”
Furthermore, she said, the British were served well if they could find no history. “If the past is eliminated, then despotic power cannot be accused of violating tradition. Nor can any appeal be made to thwart despotism in the name of the past,” said Thapar.
She then proceeded to disavow the notion that early India had no historical consciousness or awareness of history.
“I would like to suggest that in early Indian history there may not be historical writing of a conventional form, familiar to us from Europe, but there are, nevertheless, many texts that reflect historical consciousness. These came to be reformulated as historical traditions, and later, in the first and second millennia, this awareness was reflected in distinctive forms that approximate historical writing.”
Thapar said, “My primary intention is to argue that—irrespective of the question of the presence or absence of historical writings as such—an understanding of the way the past was perceived, recorded and used affords insights into early Indian society, as indeed it does in any other society.
“By looking at the ways in which early societies looked at their past, we begin to get insights into how these early societies functioned.”
Thapar said the earliest history was embedded in the Puranic texts of poems, hymns and stories of religion, culture, clan conflict and heroic acts, and also in genealogies and eulogies of military campaigns.
In the fourth century A.D., construction of the past now moved out of the “chrysalis of the embedded form” and came to be expressed in “embodied forms,” in genres that were newly created: biographies of kings, regional chronicles and royal inscriptions or dynastic annals. Thapar said, “There is an awareness of sources and of the significance of the past. What was earlier subterranean now surfaces and takes a visible form.”
Thapar concluded, “I am arguing that an awareness of the perceptions that earlier authors had of their past could be a way of illuminating our understanding of that earlier society. Such an interrogation might help us recognize the nature of the historical consciousness that went into the making of historical traditions and, in some instances, of historical writing.
“It is for us as historians to explore the manner in which early writings record and explain the processes of historical change as perceived by their authors,” she said.
To view webcasts of the above lectures delivered by Brown and Thapar, go to the Library’s website at www.loc.gov/webcasts/.
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.