You are here:   Civilisation >  Books > Crusades, Spies, And Cruising
Steven Runciman with a Byzantine Art class at the University of Istanbul, 1941 (©Estate of Steven Runciman)

To the wider public, Sir Steven Runciman (1903-2000) was known and admired as a narrative historian of unusual gifts. His writing was fluent without being flamboyant, and his ability to present complicated events in a comprehensible manner, emphasising the vices and virtues of the main participants, was particularly impressive. He paid close attention to his sentence structure and vocabulary, and he regarded the writing of history as, in essence, a branch of literature. This laid him open to attack from those who found his characterisations too superficial, or those who chided him for choosing as evidence the most colourful stories rather than those that stood up to scholarly examination.

My first encounter with him was as an undergraduate at Cambridge; we had invited him to give a lecture on “Byzantium and Venice”, which attracted so large a crowd that most people had to sit on the ground. He insisted that the reason Doge Enrico Dandolo was so keen to tear Constantinople to pieces in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, was that his eyes had been poked out in a pub brawl in that very city years before. A young American graduate student rose during question time and archly pointed out that the evidence for this was very shaky indeed; Sir Steven blithely waved this objection aside, pointing out that it was a good story told not too long after these events. Twenty or so years later he returned to Cambridge and once again gave a lecture on Byzantium and Venice. The pages of his script were rather yellowed by now; and the good old story was still there, without any adjustment.

This is not to diminish his achievement. He introduced the wider public to the much-ignored history of Byzantium, and his three-volume History of the Crusades for many years stood as the standard account in English of the crusading movement during the 200 years following the preaching of the First Crusade in 1095. His masterpiece, in my view, was his Sicilian Vespers, of 1958, which disentangled the complex interweavings of Byzantines, Catalans, Sicilians, French, Tunisians, Lombards and many other actors on the Mediterranean stage at the end of the 13th century. Characters were sometimes reduced to brightly-painted cardboard cut-outs, and his belief that a grand conspiracy linking the king of Aragon to the Byzantine emperor underlay the great Sicilian revolt against French rule in 1282 is now doubted; his portrayal of the Sicilians as a people mired in vendettas and plots, and motivated by deep Mediterranean passions, was surely an anachronistic caricature. But one should not assume that putting together a complex political narrative is somehow less demanding than writing the sort of thematic history many academic historians prefer to produce. Runciman had no interest in, and made no attempt to understand, the jargon that now litters the work of too many historians. He did read the sources and he did spend time checking his references, even if he sometimes wanted to believe the wrong ones.

View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.