The obituary of Sir Steven Runciman from the Telegraph

I thought it would be worth adding the obituary of Steven Runciman to the blog. He remains one of the most senior in the Pantheon of Byzantists. I was asked recently to add more to the blog about Steven and his work; this is a start. Soon I will cover some of his work. In the meantime I know that this will be of interest.

First published in the Telegraph: 12:00AM GMT 02 Nov 2000

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.

For 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.

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Interested in Byzantium and Patrick Leigh Fermor
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5 Responses to The obituary of Sir Steven Runciman from the Telegraph

  1. On a visit a few years ago to Dumfries (Scotland) and my friends the poet Tom Pow and Julie Smith his wife (we had met when they lived in Edmonton, Canada, on the now-defunct Canada-Scotland Poet Exchange program), Tom asked me if I’d like to join him on a visit to a nearby tower, the home of the late Sir Steven Runciman. Would I! Actually, the visit was to Sir Steven’s niece, Dr. Ann Shukman, who was handling the last of the Estate. Alas, his library had already gone to St Andrew’s (or is it St Anthony’s?) but there was still a number of icons about the place and, after a bracing tipple of Russian vodka (Dr Shukman was a Russian literature scholar in her earlier life), we were taken through the rooms to view the icons, most of them post-Byzantine, accompanied by Ann’s stories of their provenance. Unfortuantely, I remember none. But I’ve stayed in sporadic touch with Dr Shukman because of our shared engagement with the theology and liturgy of the Orthodox Church, she as an Anglican and I as a cradle Orthodox. And so it was through her good offices that I was later able to meet and interview Bishop Kallistos Ware in his home in Oxford, for a radio documentary I was preparing for the CBC: “Six Things You Need to Know About Byzantium.” The “thing” we needed to know from Bishop Kallistos was that the Byzantines – indeed the Eastern Church – has neither forgotten nor forgiven the West for the ruinous assault on Constantinople in 1204.

    Sir Steven Runciman – Ann Shukman – Tom Pow – Myrna Kostash – Timothy Ware: how many degrees of separation?

  2. proverbs6to10 says:

    Myrna Kostash – Tom Sawford – where to next? 🙂

  3. Pingback: Hagia Sofia: Dome Secrets « Byzantine Blog

  4. I am a Sarawakian. Sarawak was once ruled by the White Rajahs. Sir Runciman wrote a book about them which has become a Bible about the British rulers. He told us exactly what happened in our history. Unfortunately, today’s writers stray away from writing about the truth. This prompted me to publish a book called The White Rajahs…Myths Retold; the Massacre of the Hakkas. The Hakkas were the Chinese gold miners. Sir James Brooke ordered the extermination of 3,500 of men, women and children after the so called Chinese Rebellion in 1857.
    To the locals, we see the event differently. The whole Web is telling the wrong White Rajah story. Below is an excerpt from the book:
    In today’s term, the colonists were institutionalized plunderers. Therefore their victims had every reason to retaliate until their legitimate rights were restored. In this light, fighters against the Brookes should not be “rebels.” In reality, the invaders were the thieves and the locals the masters of the land. West baised stereotype discourses on the White Rajahs described them as “atypical , not even colonists.”
    Most books blatantly lied. They say James Brooke was rewarded with the state of Sarawak peacefully. They closed their eyes to history saying Sarawak was founded after the Brunei capital was razed to the ground before the Sultan ceded our state to him. Many books give the impression that the Sarawak and Brunei were always on friendly terms. Nothing is further from the truth.

    The Rajah did lots of killings here. Robert Payne, in The White Rajahs of Sarawak reveals that James Brooke questioning himself in his diary: “Am I, then, really fond of war? And I answer – “Certainly”. However, he said he would not fight an “unjust war.” He attacked tens of longhouses during his first six to seven years in Sarawak. Payne observes: “For the rest of his life he was to be haunted by the nightmare of the Chinese rebellion, which plagued him like guilt.”
    Below is one of many imaginative “history” stories we read today in cyberspace: “After a long period of wandering, Brooke met the Sultan of Brunei who told him of the myriad tribes living in the south of his kingdom that were constantly warring with each other in his small sultanate. This ceaseless fighting disrupted the peace of the sultan’s kingdom, but he could not control them.
    “Brooke came up with a clever solution in which he aligned some of the tribes with the sultan and convinced them to conquer the others. This plan worked, resulting in lasting peace for the region. Brunei’s sultan was so pleased that he gave Kuching to Brooke in 1841, naming him raja over the lands which are now Sarawak.”
    Here is another cock and bull story: “In the 1840s, a British man and failed merchant by the name of James Brooke arrived in Brunei and offered to assist the Sultan keep order in an uprising that was flaring up in Sarawak, the southern portion of the realm. Brooke was successful in arranging a peaceful settlement, but the Sultan refused to pay him, and Brooke responded by threatening the rule of Brunei with his makeshift yet professional military force. The Sultan responded by granting Brooke the title of Rajah of Sarawak.”
    A “prevalent” lie is James Brooke was appointed as the Rajah of Sarawak by Mudah Hashim who had no such power. Brooke knew it. His own Journal disclosed that the idea of making him a Bruneian Resident only came after he resolved the Siniawan rebellion problem. Writing to his mother from ‘Kuchin’ he says: “….at the end of the war he (Mudah Hashim) professed that my assistance had alone saved the country and that my support absolutely necessary to him. He concluded by offering the government of the country of Sarawak.”
    The two then discussed in detail whether, under Brunei law, he could be one of the district governors entrusted with the duty of collecting taxes from the people. For this appointment, he had to patiently wait for five long months. He wrote home that for weeks on end, he never even got the chance to talk to his host.
    Could a local raja give away Sarawak to a foreigner merely for quelling a rebellion? Let us take this analogy. A man summoned the police when he found an intruder had broken into his house. After the police chased away the house breaker, the house owner “gratefully rewarded” the cop by giving him the house. Like robots, our local writers are “cut and pasting” this naive “reward” myth into their books and web blogs.- Desmond Leong

  5. Madeleine Kosmadopoulos says:

    Thank you for this informative article. I have been reading “the fall of Constantinople” and admiring the way it is written. Great to know about the author.

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