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Giles Constable
Professor, School of Historical Studies Institute for Advanced Study

Sir Steven Runciman

This is a revised and (in one important respect) corrected version or the memoir published in The Times Literary Supplement, 2 February 2001 (no. 5105).

STEVEN RUNCIMAN (whose full name, not used by himself and unknown to many, was James Cochran Stevenson Runciman) belonged to the disappearing class of writers known as private scholars. As a young man he received a salary as a Fellow of Trinity College and a University Lecturer at Cambridge, but after the death of his grandfather in 1937 he had, as he put it, "enough money to exist without an earned income." As a good Scotsman, he was far from indifferent to the value of money and took some pride in the profits from his books and lectures, but he did not depend on them and could spend his time as he saw fit, principally in writing, lecturing, travelling, and seeing friends, of whom he had many all over the world. "Riches should come as the reward for hard work," Runciman wrote in his last book, A Traveller's Alphabet: Partial Memoirs, "preferably one's forebears'." In his case the forebear was his grandfather, who was a wealthy ship-owner. His father brought political prominence and a title to the family (and an "Honorable" to his second son). He himself added scholarly and literary distinction, which earned him a knighthood. His appointment from 1942-45 at the University of Istanbul added the title of professor. He was known to the world, therefore, as Professor the Honorable Sir Steven Runciman. He admitted that he would have liked also to be "the Reverend" and to have married an elderly Spanish duchess, in order to be a dowager duke after her death. But the number of letters after his name, derived from his many honorary degrees and memberships in learned societies, more than made up for any absences before it.

In his scholarly work Runciman followed in the footsteps of a long series of British scholars, going back to Edward Gibbon in the eighteenth century and the philhellenist George Finlay in the nineteenth, whose History of Greece, in seven volumes, covered the period from 146 B.C. to 1863 and gave extensive coverage to Byzantium and the crusades. Among scholars in the generation preceding Runciman the most important was his teacher J. B. Bury. In the preface to his first book, “The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and his Reign: A Study in Tenth-Century Byzantium” (1929), Runciman acknowledged his "debt to the personal help of the late Professor Bury, who started me on this road and guided my first steps." He also thanked Norman Baynes, whose publishing career extended from at least 1910 to 1955. There were also two distinguished women: Alice Gardner and Georgina Buckler, whose monograph on Anna Comnena appeared in 1929, the same year as Runciman's first book. Arnold Toynbee, too, was trained as a Byzantinist (though his book on Constantine Porphyrogenitus was not published until many years later) and was the first incumbent of the Koraes Chair of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature at the University of London. Byzantine studies in England at the turn of the twentieth century were therefore far from being an intellectual desert, as is sometimes suggested, and except in some areas Runciman was hardly a pioneer.

His interest in the Balkans and the Middle East was aroused already when he was a young man. He was in contact in the nineteen-twenties and thirties with several East European and Russian scholars, from whom he received a number of offprints. His second book, on the history of the first Bulgarian Empire (1930), was characteristically dedicated to Tsar Boris III. His third book, “Byzantine Civilization” (1933, and often reprinted), was "intended to give a general picture of the civilisation of the Roman Empire during the period when its capital was Constantinople—that Orientalised Graeco-Roman civilisation that is best called Byzantine." He succeeded admirably, and the book has been widely read since its first appearance. It was followed, after an interval during which Runciman was occupied with work in the Balkans and Middle East, by his first venture into religious history, “The Medieval Manichee”, in which he traced the history of Christian dualism from the early church down through the Albigensian Crusade. "Of all the roads that a historian may tread," Runciman wrote in his later book on “The Great Church in Captivity”, "none passes through more difficult country than that of religious history." In “The Medieval Manichee” he stressed the difficulty of religious believers in accepting what they regarded as error or unbelief. "Tolerance is a social rather than a religious virtue," he wrote, and (again from “The Great Church”) "The historian must attempt to add to his subjective study the qualities of intuitive sympathy and imaginative perception without which he cannot hope to comprehend the fears and aspirations and convictions that have moved past generations."

These qualities inform Runciman's greatest achievement, “A History of the Crusades”, which appeared in three volumes between 1951 and 1954. He had planned such a work since at least 1938, when he discussed it with General Wavell in Damascus, and was superbly prepared to write it. He was familiar with the sources not only in Latin and Greek but also in Arabic, Armenian, Russian, and the Balkan languages. He had visited many of the key sites personally. "It is often impossible to understand the course of a battle," he wrote in “A Traveller's Alphabet”, "if one has not examined the actual terrain." And he had a vivid, clear narrative style. His work was the first large-scale scholarly history of the crusades in English, and it came at a time when there was a rising interest in East-West relations generally, and in the crusades specifically, and when many westerners were questioning the legitimacy of the imperialist policies with which the crusades were associated.

Runciman made no secret of his sympathy for the East, from which, he said, "all the fundamental elements of our civilization came." His dislike of the crusades sprang from this profound admiration and affection for Greece and Byzantium. He could also be critical and remarked at one point that "I have often thought that the inherent melancholy and pessimism of the Byzantines was due to the climate of their imperial city." But this is the criticism of a lover who had experienced the effect on himself of the wind and damp of Constantinople. On the whole he saw the city as the bastion of civilization, and its destruction by the crusaders in 1204 as an unforgivable crime. He repeatedly emphasized in his writings, even those published after the Holocaust, that "[t]here never was a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade." This view was part of his general attitude towards the crusades. "The whole tale is one of faith and folly, courage and greed, hope and disillusion," he wrote in the preface to the third volume of the “History”, which concluded with his often-cited judgment that "[t]he Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the sin against the Holy Ghost."

Runciman was not the first to express such views. To the conquest of Constantinople, according to Finlay, "we must trace all the subsequent evils and degradations of the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox Church and the Greek nation," and Runciman's teacher Bury said that the Eastern Empire was "mortally wounded and reduced to the dimensions of a petty state by the greed and brutality of the Western brigands who called themselves Crusaders." Few scholars today would accept such unequivocal judgments, but Runciman's strongly stated sympathies gave his works a wide appeal. He attributed the success of his lectures in Iraq, for instance, to the fact that he "preached tolerance and understanding, and was known to consider the Crusades to have been a Bad Thing." He saw himself, and was seen by many others, as a lone voice of principle in a sea of historical relativity. The comparison he drew in volume 1 of the History between his one British pen and "the massed typewriters of the United States" caught the attention of reviewers and enlisted the sympathy of readers.

“A History of the Crusades” was the right book at the right time, and it established Runciman as one of the best-known historians of his time. A large part of his reputation and influence derived from his lecturing and teaching, going back to his early days at Cambridge, where his first student was Guy Burgess, who later secured Runciman's appointment as press attache in Sofia. Thousands of students all over the world—among other things he spent a term at the University of Peshawar—heard his learned, eloquent, and often moving presentations on a wide variety of topics. He gave countless individual lectures and held several distinguished lectureships, including the Waynflete Lectures at Oxford (which were published as The Eastern Schism), Gifford at St Andrews, Birkbeck at Cambridge (published together as “The Great Church in Captivity”), Wiles at Belfast, Robb at Auckland (The Orthodox Churches and the Secular State), Regents' at the University of California in Los Angeles, and Weir at Cincinnati.

His letters from these years show that he was a man of great energy and stamina, in spite of his seemingly relaxed and even somewhat lackadaisical manner. He "plucked up courage," as he put it, to visit the United States for the first time in 1952. In a letter dated 26 November of that year he wrote, "I had ten days in New York which almost killed me, as I found myself weak-mindedly rushing round like everyone else; twelve days in Washington at D[umbarton] Oaks—rather more restful, and I gave a lecture there; then one in Philadelphia, where I talked to the Students' History Club—I had been told to expect 12 but 70 came. They didn't pay me, but paid my hotel bill,) Then two nights at Princeton— and one lecture (for which they paid $200—I approve of Princeton, especially as I was housed and entertained to every meal) and so on to Boston."

From there he went to Ithaca, Cleveland, Chicago, and Toronto. In March 1962 he was back in Princeton, on his way to Boston via New York. "I have already been in Australia, Fiji and California (lectures at UCLA) and a weekend in Dallas, …. . . and two days in New York. Princeton seems a quiet haven, but I have to face up to my first lecture here tonight." After lecturing at Harvard, he wrote in a later letter on the same trip, he went to Philadelphia, where he had "to face a little dinner party of 18—and only three of the women not millionairesses, I'm told." In September of that year he wrote from Scotland that after finishing his book on 1453 he had to write "[a] lecture to be given in Turkey next month, and 3 at the University of Athens, a lecture to the Royal Society of Literature and one to the Slavonic Dept. at Cambridge, and then a number for America early next year. ... So you see I am feeling at the moment a bit oppressed. But somehow it all usually gets done."

These lectures often formed the bases of his books, not all of which can be mentioned here. Most were concerned with relatively narrow subjects but reached a wide audience owing to his reputation and readable style. Following the precedent of “The Medieval Manichee” he addressed himself particularly to the history of religious thought and the church, including Byzantine theocracy, the schism between the Greek and Latin churches, and the Orthodox Church under the Turks. Among his works on secular history were studies of the Sicilian Vespers and the fall of Constantinople in 1453 and, on cultural history, works on Byzantine style and civilization and the last Byzantine Renaissance. As always, he threw his net widely both geographically and chronologically. When he was almost ninety, he published “A Traveller's Alphabet”, which is a mixture of personal reminiscences and history in the form of an alphabetical list of many of the places he had visited in the course of a long lifetime. His only scholarly work on modern history appeared in 1960 under the title “The White Rajahs: A History of Sarawak from 1841 to 1946”, which was commissioned by the government of Sarawak. He accepted because he thought "[i]t would be a good discipline to venture into a period of history that was so far out of my experience." It taught him, however, "never again to try to deal with the history of modern times," in part because of the risk of hurting personal feelings when "dealing with the fringes of the present." It was also his first effort to use archival material, with which he had no previous experience. "I've never found, myself, any new manuscript material of any value," he said in a New Yorker profile in 1986. "In fact, I'm not very good at reading manuscripts." The questions he asked about the past were answered primarily from printed narrative sources, and he was not particularly concerned with many of the questions that interest scholars today.

Runciman's reputation among professional academics is therefore mixed. At a recent conference in his honor held at Teruel, in Spain, several speakers remarked on the relatively narrow range of Runciman's sources and stressed the literary rather than scholarly qualities of his work. As a Byzantinist, he concentrated on the expeditions to the East and did not take into account the crusades in Spain and northeastern Europe, nor those against Christians and heretics within Europe. Nor did he discuss the motives or ideas of the crusaders, the financing of the expeditions, or the social and institutional structure of the crusader states in the East. His primary concern was with military and political events and with the great men who made the history of the crusades into a mighty epic.

Runciman's forte was narrative. "The supreme duty of the historian," he wrote in volume 1 of the “History of the Crusades”, is "to attempt to record in one sweeping sequence the greater events and movements that have swayed the destinies of man"—to record, not necessarily to explain or to analyze them. He described himself as "a rather old-fashioned historian" and referred somewhat nostalgically to "the days when historians were simple folk." “The First Bulgarian Empire” opened with the words "Once upon a time," like a fairy tale. He himself as a child was drawn to history by "romantic imaginings," and he always stressed the importance of "intuitive sympathy and imaginative perception." His praise of William Miller for his "extraordinary sympathy with the characters of which he was writing and with the land in which they lived" could have been applied to himself. He disliked any theory of history except that it was a series of contingencies, and he accepted its complexity happily. "Readers who are afraid of crowds should keep to the better-ordered lanes of fiction," he wrote, and he referred feelingly to the "uncharted reefs and contrary currents" encountered by historians. Like any good story-teller he concentrated on people and events. His own sympathies were with the past and the old regime, and with a style of history that is not now in favor with academic scholars, but he unfailingly appealed to the imaginations and emotions of his readers and listeners and brought them into touch with the realities of a past which had in so many ways, he believed, shaped the present.

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