Thursday, October 15, 2009

Steven Runciman

James Cochran Stevenson Runciman, that is. 1903-2000, A Cambridge-educated historian who wrote mostly of medieval things, especially topics relating more or less closely to Byzantium, and best-known for his three-volume History of the Crusades,published in the 1950's and still pretty universally accepted as the standard work on the subject. I first came upon the name Runciman in William Gaddis' novel Carpenter's Gothic.If the protagonist McCandles had not so emphatically recommended Runciman to another character, I don't know when or if I ever would've read him. Now Runciman is one of my favorite authors and it's hard to imagine not having read him, not to mention not having read many of the authors Runciman mentions in his bibliographies. I first started reading medieval Latin because of Runciman's praise of Orderic Vitalisand William of Tyre

The most common criticism of Runciman is that he has a pro-Byzantine bias. The more I look into the matter, the more I think that what seems like a pro-Byzantine bias to a Western reader has above all to do with the distance between Runciman's version of events and the huge anti-Byzantine bias which has generally prevailed in the West for about as long as there has been a West -- somewhere between a thousand and fifteen hundred years, I'd say. For about that long it has been repeated like a mantra that Byzantine society was dreary and rigid -- but somehow, at the same time, decadent and luxurious. Which of course is a ridiculous contradiction in terms, it's like Americans calling Mexicans lazy and at the same time accusing them of stealing all their jobs. The simple fact is that the West is very ignorant of what went on the Greek world in the period which Westerners have called Byzantine. Few people in the West have read Greek, and most of those few have read only ancient Greek, and of the very few who read Byzantine Greek, by far the most prominent and influential has been Edward Gibbon, author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,whom Runciman calls "our greatest historian," but who shared the prevailing anti-Greek bias, most of the time.

As I was saying, I don't generally agree with the accusation that Runciman was biased in favor of the Greeks, and against the West. Generally. Occasionally he gets carried away, as when he calls the Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople in 1204 the greatest crime in the history of humanity. It was bad, but it was not as bad as what the Europeans have done to the indigenous populations of the western hemisphere, what the Turks did to the Armenians during World War I or what the Germans did to the Jews before and during World War II. In fact, to judge from Runciman's own writings I'm hard-pressed to see how it was substantially worse than what happened when the knights of the First Crusade conquered Jerusalem. It seems clear that Runciman has a special fondness for the culture which was centered in Constantinople between the time when Constantine established the Roman capital there in the fourth century, and when it fell to the Ottoman Turks in the fifteenth, and so lets his emotion overrule his judgment when describing how the city was sacked and defiled in 1204. And there's no denying that the Fourth Crusade was a thoroughly despicable and savage affair.

Aside from that, I believe that Runciman -- following directly in the footsteps of his mentor, Professor John Bagnell Bury,1861-1927, who by the way strenuously objected to the term "Byzantine" and always referred to "the later Roman Empire" -- does a great job of correcting some deep errors in the conventional view of history which prevailed in the West before him, and which still prevail, although to a lesser degree, today. Such as the whole notion of the Rennaissance. The "rebirth." The name implies that Classical culture had died, and then waited about a thousand years for Western civilisation to re-discover and give it life again. Well, bullshit. They never stopped reading Plato and Aristotle and Homer et al in the Greek world -- or in the Arab world, either. And the barbarians who had conquered the former Western Roman Empire, and then claimed to have reconstituted it again starting with Charlemagne, had with very few exceptions never learned any Greek, and there was very little conception of the overall dimensions and profundity of the Classical world until the Westerners learned about it through contact with Byzantines and with Moslims, and then claimed that it had been "reborn" through their own efforts. Nothing against Charlemagne personally, he was truly extraordinary, but he was an extraordinary barbarian chieftan, which is not the same as a Roman Emperor. Charlemagne was semi-literate. Most Western rulers for centuries before and after Charlemagne were completely illiterate, as were most of their subjects, in stark contrast to the Roman Emperors, some of whom were also great authors, and the widespread literacy in all social classes which had existed in the part of the Empire which the barbarians conquered and the equally widespread literacy which persisted in the Eastern Empire.

The fall of the Roman Empire didn't occur in 410 when Rome was sacked by Goths, it didn't happen in 476 when the Western Emperor Romulus Augustulus surrendered, the last Western Emperor until the Pope crowned Charlemagne in Rome on Christmas Day in 800. The Empire fell in 1453 in Constantinople, long after the Western "Rennaissance" was under way. The Empire had lived continually up until then and had continually preserved and developed upon Classical culture.

Rennaissance my ass. Just because YOU personally didn't know about something doesn't mean that it had died.

Runciman called the Crusades "the last of the barbarian invasions." Now that's a bold statement, and one which has offended many people who cling to the Romantic image of the Crusaders as dashing good-guy knights on white horses. But Runciman backs up his sweeping statements with copius reference to sources, not only in Latin and Greek, but also in Arabic and Hebrew and Syriac and Armenian and many other languages. Dozens of other languages. I wonder if he himself kept track of the number of languages he could read. (PS, 8. June 2013: I've long wondered whether Runciman was the inspiration for the character Sir Stephen Dodson-Truck in Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow,who "speaks 33 languages including English with a strong Oxonian blither to it," although Runciman was a Cambridge man.) I know of no other scholar who has been in a position to examine the various factions of the Crusades in such detail by reading their accounts in their own untranslated words. I don't personally know of another scholar, in any field, who was such a polyglot. My impression is that he really does always try to be scrupulously fair to all sides, to all cultures and peoples and sects and individuals. He seems to me to have a slight pro-Greek bias. I'm not the only one who has said so. But how would I know, I can barely read any Greek. And I can't read any Arabic or Syriac or Armenian or Hebrew or soandandsoforth, so I can't check up on Runciman's accounts of Byzantium's dealings with the other peoples of the Middle East, or of how the Crusaders seemed to others in the Middle East. But as far as I know, no specialist has come forward and claimed that Runciman's expertise in this or that language was not in fact so great, no one has come forward and said: Clearly, thisandthat shows that Runciman misread the text of soandso and strongly suggests that he was not at all fluent in the language.

In spite of what seems to me and to others to have been a pro-Greek bias, the one historical figure for whom Runciman seems to have the most admiration and respect, at least within the confines of his three-volume History of the Crusades, is Saladin, the Moslim leader who in 1187 took Jerusalem from the Crusaders.

I should probably say something about the word "barbarian." When I use that word I mean no more or less than the tribal peoples, mostly Germanic, who conquered and ruled Western Europe after the Romans. I do not mean the word to imply anything, one way or another, about the degree of civilization of these people, or their manners, their cruelty or lack of it or anything else. If the term is not PC, well, good!

The word "barbarian" comes from the ancient Greek, and it originally referred to anyone who spoke a language other than Greek, because, to some ancient Greek person, the foreign language sounded like "ba-ba-ba," which strongly suggests to me that the Greek was not listening to it very closely. The ancient Greeks were sometimes a bit on the xenophobic side, in strong contrast to the Romans and the later, Byzantine Greeks.

So by all means, if you haven't already, I would urge you to read something by Runciman. I'd recommend starting either with the first volume of the history of the Crusades (first published in 1951), or with The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (1965).Either of those serves as a good introduction to Runciman's other works, which tend to be more specialized.

In his first book, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and his Reign: A Study of Tenth-Century Byzantium,although it's an excellent book and well worth reading, Runciman, in his mid-20's, hasn't yet reached his fully mature writing style. (I haven't yet been able to find some other of Runciamn's earlier books, but by 1947 at the latest, when Runciman published The Medieval Manichee: A Study of the Christian Dualist Heresy,that outstanding writing style is there in all its glory.)

Runciman's history of the Crusades comes in three volumes, entitled A History of the Crusades, Vol. I: The First Crusade and the Foundation of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, Vol. II: The Kingdom of Jerusalem and the Frankish East, 1100-1187, and Vol III: The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades. The first volume has also appeared in an abridgement by the author, entitled simply The First Crusade.This abridgement, aimed "at a wider audience," as they say, has no footnotes or bibliography, and ends with the Crusaders taking Jerusalem in 1099, leaving out the two final chapters of the unabridged version. The material in the remaining chapters has also been condensed slightly.

The unabridged 3-volume history of the Crusades has appeared in many different editions. If you live in a large city and don't object to buying used books -- I know at least one person who refuses to buy used books or touch library books -- then if you shop around you might find a variety of editions available, available either as 3-volume sets or as separate volumes.

In addition to the paperback edition of the abridged account of the first Crusade, there is also at least one hardcover edition of the same text, but with many many brilliant illustrations, many in color.I have a copy of this one, just because of the pictures.

I personally can't really understand how anyone could prefer a book, any book, which has been abridged, and the thought of removing a book's footnotes and bibliography almost hurts me physically, but Runciman was really smart, and he abridged his account of the first Crusade personally, so what do I know? I have a feeling that perhaps my rants on especially arcane subjects should be abridged, and I hope, assuming you've read all the way to the end of this post, that I've given you some helpful information and not just made you sleepy.


  1. I was going to comment on your post in RANDOM INTERNATIONAL's Philosophy and Ethics thread and link to your piece, but then I caught the last two posts of the last weeks there and thought I'll do you no favor by mentioning your blog and your posts again in RI.

    I only wanted to tell you how much I enjoy many of your posts. And perhaps your last post will even make me start reading Runciman on the crusades and Byzantium! (I have my hopes up that my laziness and that my mind is all over the place won't prevent me from doing so another time.

  2. Runciman was a liar. He had access to primary sources yet insisted on misrepresenting the crusaders as grubby, land grabbers. The fact is, and you can find this out for yourself if you bother checking medieval sources, that most crusaders were not in it for the money and had no intention of staying in the holy land. They were doing armed pilgrimage. They saw themselves as defending Christendom. The vast majority of them might have been capable of brutality equal to the brutality of the Muslims (and the Muslims were capable of brutality), they might have been ignorant and xenophobic but the vast majority of them were not greedy colonizers.

    Runciman deliberately misrepresented too much to be considered a worthy historian of the crusades.

  3. An anonymous comment citing no sources, primary or otherwise. Really convincing.

  4. I mean, I don't even see any evidence that you've read any Runciman.

  5. What would you say is Runcimans opinion about the failure of the third crusade? Does he think it was muslim strength or fundamental weaknesses in the christian Armies?

  6. I think his answer would be: "It's complicated." He devoted over 100 pages to the Third Crusade in A History of the Crusades. Vol III: The Kingdom of Acre and the Later Crusades. Runciman has a very high opinion of Saladin, and his opinion of Richard Lionheart, as a stateman, is not as high as others'. Runciman doesn't dispute that Richard was a valiant soldier and a great military leader.

    And in any case, the Third Crusade was not a complete failure. It failed to capture Jerusalem, which was of course its main objective, but it did capture Acre and Jaffa.

  7. By not praising Richard as some other historians have; he claims he has no political astuteness or administrative competence, would you say this is evidence of him Byzantine Bias? He is more naturally inclined to see the crusaders in a bad light?