Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman
by minoo dinshaw
allen lane, 784 pages, £30

No events in medieval European history are more discussed today than the wars fought under the banner of the Cross of Christ known to us, but not to those who fought them, as the Crusades. Originally conceived in the 1090s as military campaigns to recover Jerusalem for Christendom that would earn participants spiritual rewards, crusading soon spread across Europe and the Mediterranean, targeting supposed enemies of the Church including Balts and Spanish Moors, religious and social dissenters, and political opponents of the papacy. These wars have variously been understood as Western aggression against pacific Islam, a necessary defense against Islamic attack, a conduit for cultural and commercial exchange, a form of early colonialism, an expression of collective religious identity or social anxiety, and a symptom and vehicle of economic expansion.

The deep puzzle of wars fought for a religion that preaches peace remains. So does the sheer drama of military campaigns waged by hundreds of thousands of men and women with limited if ingenious technologies across three continents and five centuries. The story of the Crusades resonates still, an interest fueled by apparent, if largely specious, current parallels. In the Anglophone academic world, at least, over the last forty years the Crusades have become a minor growth industry. Yet the most popular modern guide in any language is Steven Runciman, a refined British private scholar of medieval Balkan and Byzantine history who insisted that he was “not a historian but a writer of literature” and argued that “Homer as well as Herodotus was a Father of History.” His long trilogy published sixty years ago still provides a base reference for public attitudes evident in journalism, film, and television. To this day, in educated, well-read, non-academic circles in Britain, whenever the Crusades crop up in conversation, someone is bound to say “Runciman.”

Sir Steven Runciman (1903–2000) descended, on both sides of his family, from a wealthy commercial background of shipping and public service. His father, Walter Runciman, became a prominent Liberal politician and cabinet minister, later notorious for an appeasing report in 1938 that recommended Czechoslovakia should hand the Sudetenland to Nazi Germany. Steven’s mother, Hilda, was hardly less formidable, also sitting as a Liberal MP in the 1920s, the first instance of a married couple sitting in the House of Commons at the same time. Although later assuming a front of Scottish identity, Steven was brought up on the English side of the border in Northumberland. A precocious and self-contained child, from an early age possessed of an outstanding facility for languages, he was dazzling as a scholar at Eton and, at seventeen, a scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he went on to gain first-class honors and a prize fellowship.

His family background in commerce and politics and his own network of contacts made at school and university placed Runciman effortlessly within the highest circles of his time. His life supplies a running commentary on how close, if not closed, British influential elites were in the twentieth century. While building up a fearsome reputation for name-dropping and snobbery, with a special penchant for royalty and a passion for genealogy witnessed in the elaborate family trees at the end of his Crusades trilogy, Runciman nonetheless retained a wry detachment that wrong-footed many observers and critics. Although he actually did know or had met almost everyone of prominence in twentieth-century Britain, Runciman retained a degree of guarded, teasing, slightly costive independence, a determined individuality characterizing his career and historical work as much as it did his personal life.

The Runciman family shipping interests provided him with comfortable opportunities to travel, which he seized with enthusiasm. His first visit to Greece and Turkey, in 1924, was aboard his grandfather’s yacht. These experiences left him with an uncommonly cosmopolitan perspective. His early academic affections lay chiefly in the Balkans, especially Bulgaria, but later these expanded to embrace the whole of the oikoumene of the Greek Orthodox Church as well as the eastern Mediterranean. At Cambridge, where he remained a fellow of Trinity until a substantial inheritance from a grandparent prompted his resignation in 1937, he wrote a pioneering study of the tenth-century Byzantine emperor Romanus Lecapanus, followed by a history of the first Bulgarian empire and a general work on Byzantine civilization. His early research on medieval Bulgaria was innovative and original, while his Byzantine studies, often claimed as pioneering, followed paths mapped by French scholars such as Charles Diehl (1859–1944) and Louis Bréhier (1868–1951) a generation earlier. From the start, Runciman’s scholarship was marked by a command of Slavic languages and a close engagement with printed primary sources and their authors, combined with a novelist’s eye for character and narrative color and a confidently elegant literary style, lighter than Macaulay, more flexible than Gibbon.

Runciman’s postings during and just after the Second World War shadowed his historical and social interests, with jobs in Sofia, Cairo, Jerusalem, and Athens as well as a chair in Byzantine art and history in Istanbul. In each, he cultivated minds and local grandees with perhaps a delicate touch of insouciant espionage thrown in, as in his probable role when press attaché in Sofia of trying to persuade King Boris of Bulgaria, an acquaintance from a decade earlier, to side with the Allies early in the Second World War. From 1947, Runciman retained his privacy, devoting himself to writing and maintaining an international web of friends, acquaintances, former pupils, and crowned heads.

Neither the traditional gentleman dilettante nor the traditional scholar, Runciman was impressively productive. After the Second World War, apart from the History of the Crusades (published between 1951 and 1954 but conceived more than a decade earlier), a string of books appeared, notably The Eastern Schism (1955), The Sicilian Vespers (1958), The Fall of Constantinople (1965), The Great Church in Captivity (1968), and Mistra: Byzantine Capital of the Peleponnese (1980—a work written in recompense for having a street there named after him in 1976). In 1960 he branched out with The White Rajahs, the unusual story of how the family of James Brooke ruled Sarawak between 1841 and 1946. In 1991, Runciman produced a witty, mischievous, selective, and occasionally misdirecting snippet of autobiography, A Traveller’s Alphabet. He enjoyed many honors: fellow of the British Academy (1957), knighthood (1958), Companion of Honour (1984), honorary Whirling Dervish (1944), and grand orator of the Patriarchate of Constantinople (1969). While never a household name on a par with his contemporary, the art historian Kenneth Clark of Civilisation fame, Runciman became one of the best-known historians of his time. Despite adulation and a life in high society, however, Runciman remained personally frugal, a Calvinist rectitude balancing, at times awkwardly, the indulgence of the aesthete. In his social life, his natural reserve defied easy categories: not Bloomsbury nor Bright Young Thing in the 1920s any more than wartime sybarite, effete postwar aristocrat, or disgruntled late twentieth-century reactionary—a relic, certainly, but not a representative.

Now, seventeen years after his death, Runciman has found a suitably inquisitive and industrious biographer. Minoo Dinshaw’s immense book leaves no source untapped, no incident unexplored, no book undefended, and no character, however fleeting the appearance or walk-on part, unidentified. In his fascination with personal detail, Dinshaw mimics his subject. He captures both Runciman’s kaleidoscopic social world and his elusive nature—ludic but paradoxically serious—with acuteness. A good example of this is the delicate clarity with which he handles Runciman’s homosexuality while subjecting Runciman’s own elliptical references to his sexuality to critical scrutiny. The portrait of Runciman’s personality is honest: the aesthetic poise and cultivation of grand associations across different worlds, but also the rejection of intimacy, streaks of bitchiness, and avoidance of responsibilities that speak of troubled depths beneath the serene surface. Above it all is the picture of Runciman the tease, the inventor of his own image, the deliberate player of parts, the disengaged audience to his own choreography, but also the man of letters, a consummate stylist who used historical events to explore ideas about people and the world, a writer of epics and romances. Some may wonder whether Runciman merits such detailed forensic attention. Others will balk at the often indigestible surfeit of detail, some of it riveting but much of it in need of curt editing. Yet, for those interested in elite British life in the twentieth century, there is much to instruct, intrigue, and entertain. For those with stamina, Dinshaw is a good read.

The analysis of Runciman the writer challenges his critics head on. Like Runciman, Dinshaw takes a dim view of professional academics, his empathy with his hero evident throughout, as in his praise for Runciman’s concern “for essential truth over literal fact.” Critics are dismissed as either not understanding what Runciman was saying or of failing to grasp his use of irony. While some of this is fair comment, such de haut en bas defense would convince more if Dinshaw showed a firmer grasp on the historiographical context of Runciman’s work, not least his reliance on French scholarship of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Ferdinand Chalandon (1875–1921) sits not so very far behind volume one of the Crusades, as do Édouard Jordan (1866–1946) and Emile Léonard (1891–1961) behind Sicilian Vespers. Runciman relied on many of the professionals he affected to disdain. The History of the First Bulgarian Empire (1930), as Dinshaw is forced to admit, is “largely derivative” of the work of the Bulgarian scholar Vasil Zlatarski. Much of Runciman’s later work on Byzantium benefited from the work of Dimitri Obolensky (who also influenced the earlier Medieval Manichee) and Donald Nicol (a rare pupil).

It is disappointing, however, that with so much space and access to personal information, Dinshaw fails to describe how Runciman actually worked. The mechanics of research and an analysis of what he did with his primary and secondary sources are missing. Only the polishing of the cadences of the prose is mentioned; otherwise the books emerge from the great man’s study as if through magic or as a mystery (both subjects intrigued Runciman). Dinshaw’s concentration on literary and intellectual value prevents serious assessment of historical worth, which is relegated to a series of predictable jousts with secondhand opinions of other historians. In an otherwise wonderfully rounded portrait, this is a serious omission.

Whatever view is taken of Runciman as a man, what are we now to make of his outstanding work? Dinshaw makes the telling comparison with two other postwar trilogies: Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour and Olivia Manning’s The Balkan Trilogy. Runciman himself insisted that his book aimed at “an epical quality.” The History of the Crusades is presented as history that should “attempt to record in one sweeping sequence the greater events and movements that have swayed the destinies of man.” The Crusades may appear tangential to Runciman’s Byzantine and Balkan interests, yet he saw in them the story of a brutal and ignorant ideology destroying the strength of civilized Christian Byzantium. The Crusades appealed to Runciman precisely because their events invited moralizing and judgment.

Like Gibbon, Runciman looked to make his mark with a topic of grandeur. The Crusades have been described as everything from the greatest event since the “mystery of the Cross” (by a well-informed French monk in the early twelfth century) to “the most signal and most durable monument of human folly that has yet appeared in any age or nation” (David Hume in 1761). Few judgments, however, have matched Runciman’s own withering peroration: “the 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.”

In a post–Cold War, post-9/11 world strewn with conflicts involving competing religious postures and contradictory global views, where supposed divisions on lines of race, culture, and faith are loudly promoted and violently exploited, the example of past wars fought in pursuit of religious idealism has proved seductive for some seeking false assurance from continuity with history. Such people are heirs to a venerable tradition. As Hume remarked, the Crusades “engrossed the attention of Europe and have ever since engaged the curiosity of mankind.” From Western Europeans in the 1090s grappling with their compatriots’ startling conquest of parts of remote Syria and Palestine in the name of Christ to modern academics, pundits, and politicians contemplating the origins and responses to current Islamist violence, every generation from the late eleventh to the early twenty-first century has projected onto the Crusades its own image. From belief in idealism or confidence in material progress to the questioning of pervasive ideologies of conflict, from militarism to pacifism, from empire to anticolonialism, or from multiculturalism to the supposed clash of civilizations, the Crusades have appeared as witnesses for all parties in some cosmic lawsuit with human nature in the dock.

Runciman’s Crusades fit this ebb and flow of approval, horror, bewilderment, astonishment, and disdain. At the time he wrote, Crusade studies presented two very different faces. The dominant interpretation, derived from Franco-German scholarship of the nineteenth century, emphasized material aspects: political contest and domination in the Near East; the social structures of the Levantine crusader principalities viewed, especially by Francophone scholars, through the lens of modern colonialism; cultural confrontation and exchange through settlement and trade, a topos made familiar by eighteenth-century Enlightenment writers seeking to integrate the Crusades into a narrative of European progress; military adventurism that exposed the mentality of crusaders—heroic, passionate, devout, or misguided according to taste. The dominant influences on general understanding in this vein derived from the contrasting romantic visions of the great French popularizer and Crusade enthusiast Joseph-François Michaud (1767–1839) and of Walter Scott, whose novels Ivanhoe and The Talisman contrasted the crude violence of the crusaders (especially the Templars) with the sophistication of the Arabic world they invaded. This essentially materialist approach—heroic valor, violent conquest, the clash of civilizations—gained increased academic standing from the neocolonial interpretation in René Grousset’s three-volume Histoire des croisades et du royaume franc de Jérusalem (1934–1936) and the planned U.S. multivolume collaborative History of the Crusades devised in the 1940s by the group of Crusade historians that had gathered around Dana C. Munro (1866–1933) and later John La Monte (1902–1949). Although this latter project slowly appeared between 1955 and 1989, the scholarship behind it reached back a generation and focused, as La Monte explained, on seeing the Crusades as an example of political and cultural confrontation between Christianity and Islam and as an early experiment in colonialism. This was the historiographical tradition Runciman engaged with and, in his emphasis on the central role of Byzantium, challenged. He leveled a ridiculing swipe at the U.S. project: “It may seem unwise for one British pen to compete with the massed typewriters of the United States.” This characteristic judgment allowed Runciman to assert his individualist empathetic and dramatic historical credo. (In fact, he contributed three chapters—largely retreads from his own History—to the first U.S. volume.)

Runciman, however, almost wholly ignored the other face of Crusade historiography: current research that contested the materialist interpretation. Study of the intellectual origins and ideology of crusading had been placed on a wholly new footing by Carl Erdmann’s Die Entstehung des Kreuzzugsgedankens (1935), followed by studies into the spiritual and religious context of the First Crusade by Étienne Delaruelle (1941) and Paul Rousset (1945), both revealing the limitations of the materialist focus. They recognized and analyzed the social, intellectual, and emotional role of faith and the Church in shaping crusaders’ mentalities, creating a more rounded understanding of motive, incentive, and cultural context. Meanwhile, the right-wing legal historian and philosopher Michel Villey (1942) began examining the crusade in juridical theory, which showed how crusading privileges of remission of penalties for sin came about and how they could be extended by popes to conflicts outside the Holy Land. The French Marxist Claude Cahen’s La Syrie du Nord à l’époque des croisades (1940) placed the social and economic setting of the crusader settlements in a fuller and more revealing light, while Joshua Prawer in Israel was examining and undermining the whole basis of the Francophone neocolonial interpretation. All these works appear in Runciman’s bibiliographies, but even if he actually read them all (which must be doubted), they left little impression. His History was thus academically out of date even before it appeared. This would not have bothered Runciman, who was not intent on constructing another of the academic “small fortresses that are easy to defend from attack” where “criticism has overcome creation.” He sought the grand sweep in pursuit of a very different purpose from those of professional scholars.

Runciman’s History resembles the medieval chronicles on which it is based, using narratives of events and depictions of individuals to draw moral as well as historical lessons: “by the inexorable laws of history, the whole world pays for the crimes and follies of each of its citizens.” This didacticism is redeemed from arid or smug judgmentalism by empathy, even for the destructive crusaders: “the historian as he gazes back across the centuries at their gallant story must find his admiration overcast by sorrow at the witness that it bears to the limitations of human nature.” Pessimism recurs, as the History develops into a parallel threnody: for the lost world of Byzantium and for the civilized values of Runciman’s own. The general message is clear enough. Using as examples what he saw as the crusaders’ thuggish disruption of the equilibrium between civilized Islamic and Eastern Christian lands of the eastern Mediterranean, and their destruction of Byzantium, which they had originally set out to assist, thereby allowing the Ottoman Turks to subjugate half of Christendom, Runciman sought to show how civilization—any civilization—is imperiled once high culture, reason, learning, and moderation are challenged by violent greed and ignorance. Noble motives are not enough: “faith without wisdom is a dangerous thing.” The twentieth-century parallels hardly need emphasis. In Runciman’s scheme, the crusaders represented the barbarians within: self-righteous, semi-educated, and inspired by appetites not reason, a view he shared with his beleaguered Byzantines. This warning from history fueled his most notorious judgment on the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204: “there never was a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade,” a phrase, published in 1954, with precise and deliberate contemporary resonance. (In his memoirs of 1991, the desire to shock having long passed, “crime” had become “tragedy.”)

Runciman’s major historical contribution was to locate the history of the eastern Crusades within Byzantine history and vice versa, thereby complicating the common binary view of East and West, Islam and Christianity, Turk and crusader. In one respect, his presentation of Byzantium seems aimed at Gibbon, who sneered at Eastern Christian claims to be the protectors of reason and civilization. Yet Runciman avoids close historical analysis, instead relying on detailed narrative studded with value-laden adjectives such as “tragic,” “fateful,” and “evil.” Readers are thus made to feel like witnesses to what actually happened, with access to the thoughts and motives both of the characters in the drama and of those who wrote about them, the authors of the sources used to build an uncluttered reality. This exercise in imaginative transportation was supported by deft stereotyping—boorish, deceitful crusaders; sophisticated, if often rather bland, Greeks. Many of Runciman’s Muslims could have stepped straight out of Edward Said’s orientalist sketchbook, while Saladin appears with the attributes of a nineteenth-century English gentleman. There lies one key: However much he imagined characterizations and situations (and, like Michaud before him, he did both), they appeared familiar and easily recognizable to his audience. His characters are not medieval at all, but modern, pre-Freudian figures in medieval costume. It is precisely this human immediacy that transports Runciman’s work beyond that of most historians and explains its obstinate popularity.

The learning behind this creation was extensive. It is no criticism to note that the Arabic, Syriac, and Hebrew sources were consulted in French, German, Russian, English, and Latin translations and selections. Runciman’s famed linguistic skill embraced Western and Eastern Europe (ancient and modern) and Armenia. Despite his stated desire to “understand” the Eastern world, however, his handling of Islam does suggest a lack of close textual acquaintance, seeing the religion chiefly as a cultural adornment. Islamic society is regarded as the inheritor of the centuries-old interaction of East and West, and a transmitter of classical and Persian culture. Runciman even suggested that Islam was simply “an amended and simplified form” of Christianity best suited to Arabs (ethnic stereotyping being another Runciman characteristic). Muhammad is depicted primarily as a political organizer and legislator of genius rather than an apocalyptic prophet. The contest with crusaders is viewed as cultural and political.

Less obvious was Runciman’s often uncritical, selective dependence on certain chronicles and on other historians; Chalandon very closely for the content and structure of volume one; Reinhold Röhricht, W. B. Stevenson, and Grousset for volume two; Grousset for volume three, as well as Aziz Atiya for the later Middle Ages. Even his famous description of Anna Comnena’s word portrait of Bohemund of Taranto was, as Dinshaw notes, lifted from Georgina Buckler’s Anna Comnena (1929). In a large-scale work, a degree of such borrowing may be inevitable. Less mundane are the passages of pure invention, as when Runciman talks of Raymond of Aguilers, a Provençal chaplain and chronicler, on the day after the capture of Jerusalem on July 15, 1099: “when . . . later that morning he went to visit the Temple area he had to pick his way through corpses and blood that reached up to his knees.” In fact Raymond’s description of the massacre is taken from the Book of Revelation 14:20.

Such criticisms miss the point of Runciman’s ambition. This was to provide a clear view of what he identifies as a subject of global importance: the process whereby Western European civilization became dominant across the world through the transfer of power (a very Enlightenment idea, challenging earlier providential explanations) from Byzantium and the Baghdad caliphate. The crusaders’ destruction of the former and the weakening of the latter helped create hard military regimes in both West and East, there in the shape of Mongols, Mamluks, and Ottomans. He retains a material emphasis—greed versus culture; vigorous ignorance versus learned reason. He ignores religion on its own terms as well as the pre-Crusade violence that characterized the Near East in the eleventh century. He fails to look at crusading in its wider guises, in Spain, the Baltic, or within Christendom. He is, however, refreshingly free of nationalism, Western triumphalism, or Islamophile sentimentality. Throughout, his picture of the romance, passion, excitement, and glamor of the past is shaded by skeptical irony and Calvinist gloom. Finally, Runciman’s History stands as a great work of literature, an astonishing masterpiece of style despite the flaws in historical exposition. Those rest on his uncritical use of sources, his false assumptions about both European and Near Eastern societies, and his enthusiasms for staged drama rather than accurate analysis. Yet his vision of the Crusades exerts a profound and lasting influence not least because its inspiration is timeless, not essentially historical at all, more a glittering account of the intricacies, accidents, and contradictions of the human condition itself.

Christopher Tyerman is professor of the history of the Crusades at the University of Oxford.

Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before July 1.

First Things is a proudly reader-supported enterprise. The gifts of readers like you— often of $50, $100, or $250—make articles like the one you just read possible.

This Spring Campaign—one of our two annual reader giving drives—comes at a pivotal season for America and the church. With your support, many more people will turn to First Things for thoughtful religious perspectives on pressing issues of politics, culture, and public life.

All thanks to you. Will you answer the call?

Make My Gift