Crusade Historians and Steven Runciman

On the inside of the dustcover of his mammoth 768-page biography of the famed British historian Sir Steven Runciman, author Minoo Dinshaw notes:

“In his enormously long life, Steven Runciman managed not just to be a great historian of the Crusades and Byzantium, but Grand Orator of the Orthodox Church, a member of the Order of the Whirling Dervishes, [and] Greek Astronomer Royal and Laird of Eigg. His friendships, curiosities and intrigues entangled him in a huge array of different artistic movements, civil wars, Cold War betrayals and, above all, the rediscovery of the history of the Eastern Mediterranean. He was as happy living in a remote part of the Inner Hebrides as in the heart of Istanbul. He was obsessed with historical truth, but also with tarot, second sight, ghosts, and the uncanny.”

Indeed, Runciman did many things and held many diverse interests, much more so than even the above selection suggests, but among crusade historians we have come to know him best through his massively influential three volume A History of the Crusades (Cambridge, 1954). His work particularly resonated with popular audiences to such a degree that one could argue Runciman, more than any other historian, most influenced views of crusading in English-speaking countries (at least) during the twentieth century. As California University of Pennsylvania historian Paul F. Crawford has noted, Runciman’s work has “shaped the understandings [of the crusades] of tens of millions of people, if not more,” and Dartmouth College crusade historian Cecilia Gaposchkin has noted that Runciman’s work on the crusades “was definitive for several decades.”

Yet Runciman’s influenced not just popular audiences, but the scholarly world as well. Many of the current generation of crusade scholars, for example, once found themselves inspired by the prose of Runciman, in some cases even influencing their decisions to become crusade historians. As University of Leeds historian Alan V. Murray has recently noted, “my interest in the crusades was sparked when reading Steven Runciman… while I was still in secondary school.” UNC-Chapel Hill scholar Jaroslav Folda has noted that Runciman’s work was “the first serious history of the Crusades” that he ever read and Cambridge scholar Peter Frankopan has highlighted his reading of Runciman as an undergraduate, noting that he “opened the door to the Byzantine Empire for me, as for many others.” Moreover, Berry College historian Laurence Marvin has referred to Runciman’s history of the crusades as “a sort of catnip or Siren for anyone interested in the crusades,” further noting that he was “heavily influenced by it.” Indeed, as Cambridge historian David Abulafia has noted, Runciman’s work has often been “the starting-point for many of those who have become interested in the crusades.”

Yet while the historians cited above may agree on the significance of Runciman’s work in inspiring popular modern understandings of the medieval crusading movement, or emphasize how his work inspired their own studies of crusading, they also generally agree that one should approach Runciman’s scholarship with significant caution. While modern crusade historians may think fondly on their first experiences with Runciman, the beauty of his prose, and his keen ability as a story teller, his scholarship has largely been rejected by current scholars.

Alan V. Murray, for example, credited Runciman for sparking his interest in the crusades, yet he also notes, “at university I began to doubt some of Runciman’s interpretations, and subsequently have disagreed with a great many things he wrote….it is a work which has had a huge capacity to inspire despite its flaws.” Similarly, Jaroslav Folda, who referenced Runciman’s work as the first “serious” history on the crusades that he ever read, also notes, “I have found other historians of the Crusades whose interpretations were more reliable….” A bit harsher in his assessment is Paul F. Crawford, who while he acknowledges the influence of the work and its “beautiful prose,” also notes that it is, “shoddily researched and conveyed a profoundly flawed view of the crusades.” Most soberly, or perhaps tongue in cheek, Laurence Marvin has noted that while he was “heavily influenced” by Runciman’s work, he has also spent the years afterwards “in recovery fighting off its influence.” Marvin further notes, “It ought to have a warning informing its readers that if they plan to read only one thing on the crusades, they cannot read these volumes.”

Indeed, this Manichean view of Runciman’s work by historians, praising its popularizing of the field, its role in inspiring others to become historians, and its beautiful prose on the one hand, is countered by the alternative (widely held) view of his scholarship as poor on the other hand. It’s as if historians want to love Runciman, but can’t quite commit, as his scholarship is ultimately a deal breaker.

Consider the recent comments of the great Oxford University crusade historian Christopher Tyerman, who is perhaps the most influential living historian of the crusades. As another great British historian, Tyerman’s prose, it seems to me, is on the level of Runciman’s, or at least Runciman-esque in its cleverness and eloquence. Someone just scanning his comments might initially think he was offering only high praise for Runciman, until they read more carefully.

“A greater contrast could hardly be imagined than Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades (1951-4), a moral epic of heroic ambition, weary outrage, literary finesse and second-hand scholarship. Except in locating the crusades as a major feature of Byzantine history, academically nugatory, heavily reliant on a parade of earlier scholars- Hagenmeyer, Chalandon, Bréhier, Stevenson, Grousset, Atiya etc-   Runciman’s book remains one of the most influential works ever written on the crusades, a characterful, individualist stylistic masterpiece that has provided the initial excited inspiration for generations of Anglophone scholars. More a discussion of the malign persuasiveness of untempered enthusiasm over rational civility and lit with a soaringly elevated judgementalism unsurpassed even by the savants of the Enlightenment, Runciman’s history on the one hand reduces the crusades to the novelist’s level of accessible individual behaviour- greedy, arrogant, subtle, generous, brave, loyal, devious etc- and on the other to a witness in a timeless narrative of the human condition itself. Runciman set out to expose what he saw as the massively negative consequences of the crusades in a devastating, anti-triumphalist , if often anachronistic, critique that reads like a novel not least because some of it is made up. However, for excitement, engagement and a narrative that draws you in while forcing you to think, Runciman’s intellectual, as opposed to narrowly academic, achievement should not be underestimated. Even so, for maximum impact, his History is probably best first read in adolescence.”

*The source for all quotations by historians provided above is the Historians Rank the Most Important Books on the Crusades post, which includes the contributions of 33 historians, many of them citing Runciman.