Tuesday, March 8, 2016

1 Particular Difficulty in Reading Runciman's Sicilian Vespers

The Sicilian Vespers is the name given to a rebellion in Sicily which broke out on Easter Monday, the 30th of March, 1282, in Palermo, in which the native Sicilians shook off the control of King Charles I and his occupying army. Both Charles (better known as Charles of Anjou) and his army were French, and unpopular with the local population.

In the Preface to his book The Sicilian Vespers (Cambridge, 1958, p xii), Steven Runciman warns the readers that this book is not easy reading and is not for everyone:

"I have [...] tried in this book to tell the whole story of the Mediterranean world in the second half of the thirteenth century with the Vespers as its central point. The canvas is wide; it has to stretch from England to Palestine, from Constantinople to Tunis. It is also crowded with characters; but a historical canvas is necessarily crowded, and readers who are afraid of crowds should keep to the better-orders lanes of fiction."

Well, he sort of warns the reader there, and he sort of doesn't. It may seem as if he's saying that it's just another book of history. But it's not. As Runciman says, it is crowded. It is extraordinarily crowded. Besides describing, in just 293 pages, an extraordinary amount of letters, meetings, treaties, breaches of treaties, battles, truces, conspiracies and other daily business of the Medieval ancien regime, the fact that so many Emperors, Empresses, kings, queens, dukes, duchesses, counts, countesses, Popes, bishops and other members of that big inbred family which ruled Europe, and who were all referred to by their first names, had the the same first names, makes the book extremely difficult reading. For example: there's only one Dante mentioned in the book, the one we've all heard about, and there's only 1 Pons, and only 1 Plaisance, but there are 2 Alberts, 2 Alexanders, 3 Alexius', 4 Alfonsos, 2 Andrews, 3 Andronicus', 3 Annas, 3 Baldwins, 7 Bartholomews, 5 Beatrices, 2 Benedicts, 3 Bernards, 4 Bonifaces, 6 Charles', 4 Conrads and 1 Conradin, 4 Constances, 3 Constantines (1 of them a town), 3 Eleanors and 2 Eleanoras, 2 Ferdinands, 10 Fredericks, 4 Geoffreys, 2 Georges, 2 Gerards, 4 Gregorys, 7 Guys, 2 Helenas, 19 Henrys, 2 Honorius', 5 Hughs, 3 Ibns, 3 Innocents, 3 Irenes, 7 Isabellas, 5 James', 4 Johannas, 25 Johns and 1 John-Gaetan and 1John-Peter and 1 John-Tristan, 3 Jordans, 3 Ladislas', 4 Lewis', 4 Manfreds, 8 Margarets, 8 Marias, 3 Martins, 2 Matthews, 2 Napoleons, 7 Nicholas', 7 Ottos and 1 Otho, 13 Peters, 9 Philips, 3 Raymonds and 1 Raymond-Berengar, 7 Richards, 7 Roberts, 5 Rogers, 6 Simons, 2 Stephens and 3 Stephen-Uros', 2 Thepdores, 7 Thomas', 2 Urbans, 2 Violantes, 5 Walters and 16 Williams.

So, can I honestly claim to have read this book? I've turned all the pages from front to back in order, but I can't say that I was always sure which of the 5 Hughs was being referred to at any given time, whether it was Hugh III of Cyprus, Hugh IV of Burgendy, Hugh of Les Baux, Hugh the Marshall of France or Hugh ("the Red") of Sully -- not to mention other Hughs I've heard of who aren't even in this book -- or why he was doing what he was doing on that particular page. And that's only the Hughs. As you might imagine, it was even harder to keep all of the Henrys and Williams straight.

Actually, it's misleading to say that it was difficult: it was impossible. I'm going to have to study these 293 pages much more if I want to really understand the book.

(Worth the trouble? Totally. Runciman's the bomb.)

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