Sir Steven Runciman



The obituary from the The Times.


Sir Steven Runciman Scholar, linguist and gossip, whose revisionist History of the Crusades and studies of Byzantium were massively researched and widely read Steven Runciman was famous for throwing light on some very dark ages, and attempting, as he said the historian must, "to record in one great sweeping sequence the greater events and movements that have swayed the destiny of man". But as well as being the leading historian of the Crusades, he was a world traveller, the companion of royalty - at least four queens were said to have turned out for his 80th birthday - and an aficionado of the foibles of the powerful, whether past or present. Details of forgotten personalities glint in all his writings, and he could discourse about ancient genealogies, scandals and feuds until the crusaders came home. His most important work, the three- volume History of the Crusades, took a more sceptical line than any previous Western historian, and was freshly informed by a reading of Islamic sources. Two hundred years earlier Gibbon had portrayed the crusades as doomed romantic escapades, and wrote of "the triumph of barbarism and superstition". But in Runciman's eyes the crusaders were not a chivalrous host who captured but failed to keep the Holy Land: they were the final wave of the barbarian invaders who had destroyed the Roman Empire. They completed this work by destroying the real centre of medieval civilisation and the last bastion of antiquity, Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. In charting the medieval phase of the endless struggle between East and West in the Middle East, Runciman's sympathies were unambiguously with Byzantium against the bigots and wreckers of the West. His final judgment of the whole enterprise set a standard of self-laceration which British historians have since struggled to surpass: "High ideals were besmirched by cruelty and greed, enterprise and endurance by a blind and narrow self-righteousness; and the Holy War itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is a sin against the Holy Ghost." James Cochran Stevenson Runciman was the second son of Walter Runciman, the first Viscount. His paternal grandfather was a Geordie of Scots descent who ran away to sea at 11, was a master mariner by 21 and founded a shipping line. His maternal grandfather ran a chemical works in Jarrow. His parents were both Liberal MPs - the first married couple to sit together in the Com- mons - so he knew Winston Churchill from before the First World War. His best friend at Summer Fields prep school was the son of Herbert Asquith, and in 1991 he claimed to have known every Prime Minister of the century except Campbell Bannerman, who died when he was three, and Bonar Law, "whom nobody knew". He was a linguist from the age of three, when his governess began to teach him French. Latin followed at six, Greek at seven, and Russian at 11. With these accomplishments and a budding interest in history, he was a King's Scholar at Eton, and from there he won a scholarship to Trinity College, Cambridge. His mother had taken a first in history at Girton, and he followed her example with a first in 1925. He soon became a fellow of Trinity and a university lecturer. His rooms in Nevile's Court were famous for their French 1820s grisaille wallpaper, depicting Cupid and Psyche, and his exquisite bric-a-brac. He kept a green parakeet called Benedict, which he use to spank with a pencil for misdemeanours. He was already immensely grand, and loved socialising. As well as books and pictures - including Edward Lear watercolours - he collected anecdotes and people, and the names in his gossip did not so much drop as float diaphanously. He was a broad-gauge gossip, ranging across the academic, literary, social and royal spheres with tales and tittle-tattle about many generations in many countries. A typical example was his story of the Queen of the Belgians who had one of the first facelifts, and was left with a permanent smile, so that when the King died she had to return to the clinic to have it let down again. Through his Eton friend Dadie Rylands, now a young don at King's, Runciman met John Maynard Keynes, and through Keynes's wife, Lydia Lopakova, he met Diaghilev. Rylands also introduced him to the Bloomsbury circle around Virginia Woolf (whom Runciman never much cared for). Lytton Strachey's attacks on the then accepted greatness of the British Empire formed a precedent for Runciman's growing scepticism about much earlier attempts at conquest; and the enthusiasm of Roger Fry and Clive Bell helped to foster his interest in Byzantine art. As a bachelor don he was a guide, friend and teasing mentor to a number of undergraduates, including Guy Burgess and Noel Annan, whose affection he won for life. He gave intimate lunches and dinners enlivened occasionally by telling the fortunes of his guests, including the odd king, by Tarot card. But his heart was in travel and research, and the historian George Trevelyan advised him to leave Cambridge if he wanted to write. So in 1938, having come into a considerable fortune on his grandfather's death, he resigned his fellowship at Trinity (though the College made him an honorary fellow in 1965). During the war he was a press attaché to the British legation in Sofia and then in Cairo, and from 1942 till 1945 was professor of Byzantine history and art at the University of Istanbul. From 1945 until 1947 he was head of the British Council in Athens - while Osbert Lancaster was at the Embassy and Paddy Leigh Fermor was at the British Institute. He then devoted himself to writing books, dividing his time, when he was not on his travels, between his house in St John's Wood and the Island of Eigg, where he entertained friends by showing them the singing sands and the spot where the Queen of Eigg beheaded numbers of Christian martyrs. At Trinity Runciman had produced three books, written with the lucidity and grace that were to be his hallmark. The Times commended both The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus (1929) and The First Bulgarian Empire (1930), saying that "many happy flashes, both of inspiration and phrasing, show that he has studied his Gibbon to good effect". These were followed by the book that first made his name, Byzantine Civilization (1933), which in fewer than 300 pages conjured up a full picture of Byzantine life and thought, and it gave a much-needed new dimension to medieval history. In 1947 he published The Medieval Manichee, which he had written in part before the war and in which he pursued the famous dualist heresy from the Bogomils in Bulgaria to the Albigensians in France. It was, however, his great History of the Crusades (1951, 1952 and 1954), that made Runciman known to a much wider public. No adequate history in English existed when he began, and he broke with his French predecessors by telling the story not just from the viewpoint of the West, but also as Islam and Constantinople had seen it. To do this he drew on Greek, Armenian and Muslim texts, as well as on more modern sources. The book is a model of narrative history. The three volumes are each divided into five parts, so that the reader primarily interested in one facet of the story can find his way without difficulty. But Runciman was uninterested in historiography. Not for him the sociological techniques, the excursions into demography, geography and economics of the Braudel school of history. He told the tale, he was readable, and his account was authoritative - a standard work for years to come. He continued the story with The Sicilian Vespers (1958). In 1965 Runciman wrote his most elegiac work, The Fall of Constantinople, once again making use of multifarious sources, Muslim as well as Greek. He had already explored the political and theological rift between the Catholic powers and the Orthodox Greeks in The Eastern Schism (1955), and there was a poignant sympathy in his account of a civilisation that knew itself to be doomed but would not compromise its style of life. He was to continue writing books on Byzantine history for a further 15 years, following the fortunes of the Orthodox Church in captivity, the theocracy, style and civilisation of the medieval Greeks and the relations of Church and State. His researches took him often to the Balkans and the Near East, where he had friends from many walks of life. Even so, he found time in 1960 in a splendid display of versatility to publish The White Rajahs, a study of the Brooke family in Sarawak. To do this he had to travel to the Far East, and soon after- wards he travelled to South America. All the time he was writing papers for historical journals, but these contributions to learning paled beside the list of his lectures. As well as such named lectures as the Waynflete at Oxford (1953-54), the Gifford at St Andrews (1960-62) and the Birkbeck at Trinity, Cambridge (1966), he spoke at many American universities, and was happy to journey to the most out-of-the-way places. He could be an unforgetable lecturer, as for instance when he spoke with melancholy resignation on the last days of Constantinople. Runciman held public appointments over many years. He was a trustee of the British Museum and a member of the ad- visory council of the Victoria and Albert. From 1974 he was a vice-president of the London Library, which two years ago gave a lunch party to celebrate his 95th birthday and the 75th year of his life membership. He later marked the anniversary in his own way, paying for a long-overdue replacement of the library's alarming passenger lift. He warmly approved the motto selected for it from the Vulgate Book of Daniel: Plurimi pertransibunt et multiplex erit scientia ("Many shall run through it, and knowledge shall be increased"). In Greece Runciman was welcomed as a historian who did not talk as if Greek history stopped with Alexander, and who recognised that the Greeks see Byzantium and the Orthodox Church as more integral to their culture than Sparta. He was paid the signal honour of having a street named after him in Mistra, the site which he celebrated in a book published in 1980. He chaired the Anglo-Hellenic League, and sat on the board of the National Trust for Greece. He held honorary degrees from many universities and lectured in more than a score of countries. He was knighted in 1958 and appointed CH in 1984. His last book, published in 1991, was A Traveller's Alphabet of places that excited his interest. Brought up in Northumberland, he loved the Border countryside and was deeply attached to Scotland. When his family sold Eigg he removed to Dumfriesshire where he lived in a peel tower near Lochmaben. He sat on the councils of the National Trust for Scotland and the Museum of Antiquities, and took a lively interest in the Scottish Ballet. When guests sang Scottish songs, he liked to accompany them with plenty of legato. Tall and large-boned, with auburn hair glinting, he would glide into a party and soon be surrounded. His quizzical, expressive face would register alarm, amusement and incredulity as he told stories or listened to others. Not much given to ponderous discussion and sceptical about schemes to improve the world, he stood by his division of people into two groups, first made at Eton: the agreeable and the "sillies" (among whom, of course, were numbered many clever fools). His capacity for friendship was remarkable, and not only in this country but wherever he went on his travels there are many who will miss his wit and knack of giving pleasure. He did not marry. The Hon Sir Steven Runciman, CH, FBA, historian, was born on July 7, 1903. He died yesterday aged 97.


The obituary from the Daily Telegraph.


Sir Steven Runciman, who has died aged 97, was the pre-eminent historian of the Byzantine Empire and of the Crusades; he was also a celebrated aesthete, gentleman scholar and repository of the civilised values of Edwardian times. His magnum opus was the three-volume A History of the Crusades, published between 1951 and 1954. In its preface Runciman set out his credo, one that derived from Gibbon, and stressed the claims of grand narrative over narrow analysis: "I believe that the supreme duty of the historian is to write history, that is to say, to attempt to record in one sweeping sequence the greater events and movements that have swayed the destinies of man." For Runciman, the Crusades were not romantic adventures but the last of the barbarian invasions, albeit ones that brought about the dominance of Western civilisation. His opinion was partly determined by his sympathy for the Byzantine Empire, often at odds with the Crusaders and an oasis of culture surrounded by unappreciative savages. It was a condition with which he identified. His prodigious work on a culture previously damned as effete was largely responsible for the blossoming of Byzantine studies in Britain. His view of the historian's task - and his belief that one writes to be read - demanded that he aim as much at a non-specialist audience as at fellow academics. His lucid style was admirably suited to this, with a simplicity and dispassion that had been the ideal of Byzantine iconographers. The popular success that his books enjoyed showed that others too came to enjoy the labyrinthine complexities of Levantine history. They had in Runciman a surefooted guide who could render the past visible and familiar, as in a memorable description of the messianic Peter the Hermit - "his long, lean face horribly like that of the donkey he always rode". James Cochran Stevenson Runciman was born in Northumberland on July 7 1903. He was the second son of Walter Runciman, a member of Asquith's cabinet, and the grandson of a shipping magnate, Lord Runciman. Steven's father was created Viscount Runciman of Doxford in 1937 and the next year led the mission that persuaded the Czech government to make concessions to Hitler. Steven's mother was the first woman to take a First in History at Cambridge and the first wife of an MP also to secure a seat in the Commons. Steven breathed a rich mixture of political gossip (he would go on to meet all but three of the 20th century's Prime Ministers). One of his first memories was of waiting for suffragettes to carry out their vow to break the windows of the houses of Cabinet Ministers. With their afternoon walk imminent, Steven and his young sister inquired of the two burly ladies waiting outside when their protest would begin, since they were anxious not to miss the fun. The campaigners left in a huff, and the Runcimans' was the only house left undamaged that afternoon. Steven could read Latin and Greek by the time he was six. He was a frail child, with a shyness that he learned to hide but never overcame. In 1916 he went to Eton as a King's Scholar; the future George Orwell was in the same election. In his first year, however, Runciman grew seven inches and his worried parents kept him at home for much of the remainder of his schooldays. He passed the time reading history books. Consequently, when he did see his teachers he thought them ill-informed. "I wish this boy was kinder to me," read one master's report. In 1921, Runciman went up as a History scholar to Trinity College, Cambridge. There he found in the fashionable pose of aesthete a mask for his diffidence. Among those invited to take roseleaf jam in his rooms - home to a large green parakeet named Benedict - were two other beautiful young men, the aspiring arbiters of taste Stephen Tennant and Cecil Beaton. Beaton hastened to copy Runciman's liking for Fair Isle sweaters and used him as one of his first models, photographing him with a budgerigar on his finger. Runciman took every opportunity to travel, visiting Istanbul for the first time in 1924. There he was told by a gypsy, correctly, that he would have several illnesses but live to a ripe old age. Runciman had a lifelong fascination with the supernatural (and the naturally superior); he later read the tarot for King Fuad of Egypt and became court fortune teller to King George II of the Hellenes. On graduating in 1924, Runciman approached practically the only scholar then interested in Byzantine studies, J B Bury, and asked to be his pupil. Bury initially refused, relenting only when he learned that Runciman could read Russian; he promptly thrust articles in Bulgarian at him and told him to come back in two weeks. Later lessons proved difficult to arrange, as Bury's overprotective wife took the precaution of burning all letters addressed to him. Runciman was reduced to waylaying Bury during his daily walk along the Backs. Runciman's dissertation on a 10th-century Byzantine emperor secured him a Fellowship at Trinity in 1927, and provided material for his first two books, The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus (1929) and The First Bulgarian Empire (1930). His researches had, however, been interrupted by pleurisy, and in 1925 he recuperated by sailing to China. In Peking, he was summoned to play piano duets with the ex-Emperor, Henry Pu Yi, who told him that he had chosen his forename out of fondness for the Tudors; his chief concubine, whom he hated, was named Bloody Mary. When Runciman returned to Cambridge, he found that the college servant with whom he had boarded his parakeet refused to relinquish the bird, telling him sternly: "Polly likes it here." Runciman taught at Cambridge until 1938 and was fondly regarded by his students, among them Noel Annan and Guy Burgess. He also continued to travel widely, collecting people and places. His charm brought him friends that included George Seferis, Benjamin Britten and Edith Wharton, while his taste for exalted company brought encounters with, among others, the royal houses of Bulgaria, Romania, Siam and Spain. He saw much of the world before it subscribed to a uniform culture. In 1934 he visited Bulgaria, encountering the Istanbul-bound Patrick Leigh Fermor, and on the way back from Mount Athos, Greece, in 1937 helped to deliver a baby. It was, he said, "a sight no innocent bachelor should see". In Siam he saw a ghost, which dissolved before his eyes, but missed lunch with Bao Dai when the young ruler of Vietnam broke his leg playing football; "not," thought Runciman, "a suitable pastime for an Emperor." During the Holy Fire ceremony in Jerusalem at Easter 1931, he and Princess Alice, who were seated in a gallery, amused themselves by dropping molten wax from their candles on to the bald patch below of the unpopular garrison commander; the irate soldier was the future Field-Marshal Montgomery. In 1937 Runciman inherited a substantial sum from his grandfather. This gave him the freedom to surrender his Fellowship and concentrate on writing books. When the Second World War broke out, he was recovering from severe dysentery and his health meant that he was only offered the untaxing job of censoring letters written by the Army's Cypriot muleteers. Burgess got him a job instead with the Ministry of Information and he was soon back in Bulgaria as press attache. Runciman always denied that he had in fact been a spy there, but in the records of the Italian Secret Service, which fell into British hands, he was rated "molto intelligente e molto pericoloso". In 1941 the Germans advanced on Sofia, and Runciman narrowly escaped death when a bomb exploded in the Istanbul hotel to which he had been evacuated. The device, concealed in the embassy luggage, had been set to explode aboard the train from Sofia; but the train reached Istanbul an hour early, and the bomb killed eight people in the lobby as Runciman was inspecting his room. In 1942 Runciman was appointed, at the Turkish government's request, Professor of Byzantine Art and History at Istanbul University. There he researched his history of the Crusades. Having used his diplomatic contacts to smooth the accession of the young leader of the order, he was also made an honorary Whirling Dervish. From 1945 until 1947 Runciman headed the British Council in Greece, and from 1960 until 1975 he was President of the British Institute of Archaeology at Ankara, but after the war he concentrated principally on his writing. Among his later books was his only excursion into modern history, a biography of the White Rajahs of Sarawak commissioned by the Colonial Office, but more notable were The Fall of Constantinople, 1453 (1965) and a compelling analysis of the massacre in 1282 that ended Charles of Anjou's hopes of controlling the Mediterranean, The Sicilian Vespers (1958). His study of dualist heresies, The Medieval Manichee (1947), remains a standard work, while Byzantine Style and Civilisation (1975) is an exemplary introduction to the subject. Although he disliked public speaking, Runciman took up many requests to give lectures so as to see new places, especially in America. In Alaska in 1970 he visited Eskimos who still followed the Russian Orthodox rite, and at Las Vegas when he played the slot machines he twice hit the jackpot. Runciman later became fond of the sunshine of Bahrain, but Greece remained his first love. He was chairman of the Anglo-Hellenic League (1951-67), and was instrumental in restoring the ill-maintained grave of Rupert Brooke on the island of Skyros. He was much honoured by the Greeks, who named a street after him in the well-preserved Byzantine town of Mistras. He also became Grand Orator of the Greek Church, historically the senior lay member of the Patriarch's synod. or many years he kept a house in St John's Wood, London, where he gave garden parties, but after he and his brother sold the island of Eigg, which they owned, in 1966, he made his base a peel tower in Dumfriesshire. There he kept hens and an excellent collection of drawings, including sketches of Greece by Edward Lear. He was a Councillor Emeritus of the National Trust of Scotland. His partial memoirs, A Traveller's Alphabet (1991), recalled places he had visited from Athos to Zion, but revealed little of himself. In person he possessed courtesy, wit and culinary skill, and could, when treated as the fusty academic that he was not, deploy an armoury of filthy stories. Four hundred guests came to his 90th birthday party; his cake took the shape of the greatest of all Byzantine churches, Hagia Sophia. In 1999, he presented the London Library (of which he was the longest-serving life member) with a much needed new lift. A plaque within in it bears his name and the Latin inscription Plurimi pertransibunt et multiplex erit scientia (the Vulgate version of Daniel xii 4: "Many shall run to and fro and knowledge shall be increased"). Earlier this year, aged 97, he made a final visit to Mount Athos to witness the blessing of the Protaton Tower at Karyes (the capital of the monastic community), which had been refurbished thanks to a gift from him. Steven Runciman was knighted in 1958 and appointed a Companion of Honour in 1984. He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1957. He remained a bachelor, but liked the idea of marrying an elderly Spanish Duchess in order to become a Dowager Duke; the title, he felt, would have rather suited him.