Sir Steven Runciman: The Spider, the Owl and the Historian
Anthony Bryer considers the life and work of this great historian, who died in November 2000.
'The Spider has wove her web in the imperial palace,
The Owl has sung her watch song upon the towers of Efrasiyab.’
This Persian distich about the Spider and the Owl was by tradition recited by the young Sultan Mehmet II as he surveyed the Sacred Palace of the emperors of Byzantium after his conquest of Constantinople on May 29th, 1453. One way or another, no historian of the event can avoid repeating the verse, from Edward Gibbon in 1788 to Steven Runciman in 1964 - I quote an English version of 1734, where Efrasiyab is today’s Samarkand. The story is too good to be true. These lines are impossibly romantic. Can they also be authentic? Yes, in so far as it is possible to capture an extemporary utterance which hung on the air for five centuries. Then in 1914 the account of Tursun beg, who was there to hear the sultan in 1453, was published and tradition was confirmed.
Historians less independent and less gracious than Steven Runciman, who cannot afford to be both romantic and authentic, might have been further irked by this private scholar’s effortless style and sales. They just made things worse. Sir Steven did not actually need the sales to maintain a fastidiously modest style of life, the Runciman inheritance being decently distanced from its origins. As he said: ‘Riches should come as the reward for hard work, preferably one’s forebears’.’ As for literary style, the only model whom he acknowledged was Beatrix Potter, who may indeed have rivalled his sales – though one obituarist claimed that Runciman earned more money for Cambridge University Press ‘than any author except God’. In fact CUP reveals that Runciman probably only beat God in the years 1950-80 – not taking into account translations in many tongues. Another difference is that Sir Steven maintained a lucid textual consistency which is not found in sacred canon. Of Runciman’s sequence, twenty of twenty-seven of his books remain in print, from Romanus Lecapenus (a tenth-century emperor, 1929) to A Traveller’s Alphabet (Runciman’s ‘partial memoirs’, 1991). What twentieth-century historian can match that? Arnold Toynbee? The wonder is that both Runciman and Toynbee were historians of Byzantium, a medieval and Greek world as alien to the common Western reader as the Towers of Efrasiyab.
Take Runciman’s style. In 1930 he began A History of the First Bulgarian Empire innocently enough: ‘Once upon a time, when Constans was Emperor in Byzantium, there lived a king called Kubrat ...’. The book closes, 300 pages later, with a retrospective list of Bulgarian credits ending with ‘King Kubrat, and past the princes of the Huns, back through dim ages to that wild marriage from which [his] race was born, the marriage of the Scythian witches to the demons of the sands of Turkestan.’ Is this Beatrix, or Harry, Potter? The dedication ‘by gracious permission to Boris III, Tsar of the Bulgarians’ does not appear in later editions, after that sovereign died abruptly following an interview with Adolf Hitler in 1943. What are we to make of all this? With Steven Runciman died an often hilarious oral tradition of half the courts of Europe – and Asia. As the Spider, Runciman charmed an extraordinary network of friends. He had played piano duets with the last emperor of China. He knew some quite surprising things about Scandinavian monarchs. Yet he was critical: ‘My interest in Byzantium was first aroused by reading Count Robert of Paris, a dreadful book which I felt by instinct to be quite wrong.’ This from Runciman’s lecture of 1962 on ‘Medieval History and the Romantic Imagination’. Runciman loved names and titles. He was denied the pleasure of being widower of a Spanish duchess (which would have entitled him a dowager duke in Castile), but treasured his honorary office of Grand Orator of the Great Church of Constantinople. Of all titles ‘none is more magical than that of Emperor of Trebizond. Cervantes knew it. Did not Don Quixote imagine himself as being “already crowned Emperor of Trebizond”? ... Did not Cagliostro, that great magician, maintain that when he was a child in Medina his tutor Althotas gave him one ominous warning: “Beware of the city of Trebizond”?’
My reply to such bunkum is simply to beware of Steven Runciman when he is laying a false trail. Great care went into his style and sales. The romantic was authentically informed by first-hand knowledge of drab places like Trabzon, which is Trebizond. He probably even knew the Scythian witches - he knew most people. He thought in terms of people and places; of history as the highest form of gossip and entertainment. At bedtime, when Steven was of great age, friends would withdraw murmuring apologies, thinking him asleep. ‘Stay,’ he would say suddenly: ‘Just one more story!’
Steven Runciman’s kind of history is as perennial as the watch Song of the Owl, but there are times when it is more out of tune with the times than others. He was primarily a narrative historian, sticking critically to original chronicles. I do not think that he ever edited an unpublished text. Nor did Gibbon for, in the kitchen, chefs of vision expect others to prepare the raw material, which they then cook to their own mode. Other medieval historians were silenced by Runciman’s range of languages, but turned their concerns from chronicles to charters, to social and economic history. For Runciman ‘economy’ was more specifically a technical term in Orthodox theology, embracing the accommodation of theory and practice – in effect, tolerance. That made his common readers think.
Runciman flew against convention by putting Byzantium firmly in the hands of the common reader. Schools do not teach Byzantium because it is not on the syllabus and sounds ‘difficult’; universities are wary of Runciman because he makes it sound ‘easy’, which is his extraordinary achievement. Apart from an excursion on The White Rajahs of Sarawak (1960), his most unconventional best-seller was on The Great Church in Captivity (1964, for which the Patriarch appointed him Grand Orator), a study of the Orthodox Church as an integral part of the Ottoman Empire.
How was it done? Gore Vidal explained in 1965: ‘Alongside the publicists and grand designers, Sir Steven looks to be curiously demure. He tells his story plain. Since God has not revealed any master plan to him, he does not feel impelled to preach "truth" to us. He does make judgements but only after he has made his case. He likes a fact and distrusts a theory. He is always pleasurable to read ... .’
To some historians in 2001 this may sound less a recommendation than an indictment. Runciman did not shirk verdicts either. He came to judgement in his greatest and best loved work, a three-volume A History of the Crusades (1951-54), surely the last to be attempted by a single hand. At a memorial meeting for Sir Steven, held in Athens in December 2000, a Greek government minister applauded his judgement that ‘there never was a greater crime against humanity than the Fourth Crusade’ of 1204 - when the Latins took Constantinople. (Some may argue that the Greeks asked for 1204 and got most out of it, but don’t quote me.) Similarly Runciman’s judgement on the Crusades themselves, that they were ‘nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is the Sin against the Holy Ghost’, proved welcome in Islamic lands. In fact Runciman preached tolerance. A servant of the Mandate in Palestine, he did not care to return to his beloved Jerusalem after 1948. He shunned his beloved Greece when it was in the hands of a military junta - he had notably re-established the British Council in Athens after the war and was a life-long friend of the poet Seferis. By contrast, Byzantium stood for Autocracy and Orthodoxy. Yet, in July 2000, soon after his 97th birthday, Sir Steven flew from the Scottish border tower which housed his own library to a curiously similar one on the Holy Mountain of Athos, a living community of Byzantium, to inaugurate its monastic archive, to which he had given his Onassis prize of 1997. Carried enthroned amid abbots and archimandrites, Steven Runciman was in his element. It was an astonishingly appropriate final act. The romance, the style and the scholarship, had been consistently authentic.
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