Crusades, Spies, And Cruising

The colourful life of Steven Runciman: historian, scholar-diplomat, and possibly spy

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Steven Runciman with a Byzantine Art class at the University of Istanbul, 1941 (©Estate of Steven Runciman)

To the wider public, Sir Steven Runciman (1903-2000) was known and admired as a narrative historian of unusual gifts. His writing was fluent without being flamboyant, and his ability to present complicated events in a comprehensible manner, emphasising the vices and virtues of the main participants, was particularly impressive. He paid close attention to his sentence structure and vocabulary, and he regarded the writing of history as, in essence, a branch of literature. This laid him open to attack from those who found his characterisations too superficial, or those who chided him for choosing as evidence the most colourful stories rather than those that stood up to scholarly examination.

My first encounter with him was as an undergraduate at Cambridge; we had invited him to give a lecture on “Byzantium and Venice”, which attracted so large a crowd that most people had to sit on the ground. He insisted that the reason Doge Enrico Dandolo was so keen to tear Constantinople to pieces in 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, was that his eyes had been poked out in a pub brawl in that very city years before. A young American graduate student rose during question time and archly pointed out that the evidence for this was very shaky indeed; Sir Steven blithely waved this objection aside, pointing out that it was a good story told not too long after these events. Twenty or so years later he returned to Cambridge and once again gave a lecture on Byzantium and Venice. The pages of his script were rather yellowed by now; and the good old story was still there, without any adjustment.

This is not to diminish his achievement. He introduced the wider public to the much-ignored history of Byzantium, and his three-volume History of the Crusades for many years stood as the standard account in English of the crusading movement during the 200 years following the preaching of the First Crusade in 1095. His masterpiece, in my view, was his Sicilian Vespers, of 1958, which disentangled the complex interweavings of Byzantines, Catalans, Sicilians, French, Tunisians, Lombards and many other actors on the Mediterranean stage at the end of the 13th century. Characters were sometimes reduced to brightly-painted cardboard cut-outs, and his belief that a grand conspiracy linking the king of Aragon to the Byzantine emperor underlay the great Sicilian revolt against French rule in 1282 is now doubted; his portrayal of the Sicilians as a people mired in vendettas and plots, and motivated by deep Mediterranean passions, was surely an anachronistic caricature. But one should not assume that putting together a complex political narrative is somehow less demanding than writing the sort of thematic history many academic historians prefer to produce. Runciman had no interest in, and made no attempt to understand, the jargon that now litters the work of too many historians. He did read the sources and he did spend time checking his references, even if he sometimes wanted to believe the wrong ones.

That was one Runciman; in his enthralling biography Minoo Dinshaw does justice to this aspect of his life, reading his works closely — sometimes, perhaps, too closely. When Runciman wrote of the capture of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade as the greatest crime against humanity in history, I do not think he was provocatively alluding to the Holocaust, as Dinshaw suggests, but that he meant a crime against the humanities, against civilisation, the destruction of a great culture by jealous and greedy barbarians from the West. He had more respect for the Turks than for medieval Westerners, and in our last conversation, when he was 90, I am sure he told me he rather preferred Turks to Greeks — these generalisations about peoples were characteristic, and might leave Welsh or Jewish or indeed Greek audiences of his casual remarks feeling slightly bruised, but (as Dinshaw suggests) they were typical of his time and class. They were also a chance to show off his wit: visiting Hollywood he opined that, just as the best people in England had come over with the Conqueror, the best people in Hollywood had come over with Goldwyn and Mayer. This was surely less likely to ruffle feathers than Macmillan’s famous jibe about there being more Estonians than Etonians in Mrs Thatcher’s cabinet.

There was another Runciman, whom Dinshaw calls “Steven”, as opposed to “Runciman” the author: the son of Liberal politicians (for his mother also sat in the Commons), not aristocratic by descent but well connected to the political elite and, partly through his untiring efforts, to the royalty and aristocracy of Great Britain and south-eastern Europe; connected too to the Bloomsbury Group through his intimate friendship with Dadie Rylands; an aesthete, socially in demand, whose well-appointed rooms at Trinity he shared with his famous parakeet. At the same time, he confessed in his private letters to a shyness that made him sometimes feel out of place in the glittering company with which he mixed. The aestheticism was a sort of mask. Part of him did want to be a hermit scholar living in a Scottish fastness, and part of him wanted company — exotic and outrageous company, at that. What was seen by some as snobbery was, rather, fascination at the lives of kings, queens and noble lords, expressed through his unstoppable delight in telling those he met about his latest encounter with the Romanian queen (or whoever). Some of his stories clearly grew in the telling, and I do not really want to believe Dinshaw’s demonstration that he never actually played piano duets with the last emperor of China, a story I heard him repeat again and again.

Dinshaw does not spare Runciman, or his readers, in describing the largely homosexual circles Runciman inhabited. As he points out, for most of his life Runciman lived on the edge; brief encounters with guardsmen in London lavatories brought many eminent people to court, and perhaps Runciman was lucky to have escaped that sort of disgrace. He had many lovers, many infatuations, and a clear preference for blond young men (not boys), but he never settled down with one partner and he even, in some of his works, wrote of “unnatural vices” as if he deplored them. In his book The Medieval Manichee he explained that the term bougre, “bugger”, which seems to have been derived from “Bulgar’’, referred to the accusation that Bulgarian dualist heretics preferred homosexual acts; he wrote of the “sinister meaning” of the word. Here again we see him masking his real identity, as, perhaps, he had to do in the 1940s when he published those words. He also had an aversion to some of his predatory contemporaries who shared his sexual tastes, notably Anthony Blunt, a fellow Fellow of Trinity, physically not unlike him — tall, bony, rather ungainly. And this takes one to the question of Runciman and the world of espionage.

The third Runciman whom Dinshaw works into his story is the roving scholar-diplomat of the Second World War and after, in Turkey and in Greece. Here he and I gently cross swords, since Dinshaw quotes and rejects my view that Runciman was recruited to the post of Professor of Byzantine Studies at Istanbul University in order to keep an eye on the Germans in wartime Turkey. My main source for this was a Cambridge acquaintance of his, Tom Howarth, later High Master of St Paul’s School. According to Howarth, he was expected to pose as a disaffected British aristocrat; he was, after all, the son of Viscount Runciman, who was thought to have favoured the Sudeten Germans, and the idea was that he would get to know the German diplomatic team, which revolved around von Papen, the Reich’s ambassador in Ankara. Actually, Dinshaw admits that he did have contact with German diplomats and that he did travel very frequently to Ankara; moreover, his appointment was partly engineered by Michael Grant, a distinguished classical scholar who was certainly a British agent. To say that Runciman may never have produced valuable information is not to say that he made no effort to do so. (In any case, any information would have been compromised by the Turkish spy Cicero, who was a servant in the British Embassy and who was working for the Germans.) I once asked Sir Steven about this, but he was unforthcoming — by then any links to the world of spying conjured up unhappy memories of the treason of Guy Burgess, whom he knew very well at Cambridge. What, in any case, does one mean by “spy”? Runciman was not, apparently, on the payroll of British intelligence; but that does not mean he was not expected to report to his contacts.

Overall, though, Dinshaw has written an extraordinary book, for he has burrowed deeply into every aspect of Runciman’s life. Sir Steven did leave the typescript of an unfinished autobiography, but Dinshaw has seen a mass of correspondence (in the case of Dadie Rylands, it spans 72 years). If anything, he has done too much research: we do not need to know about the future life of so many of Runciman’s less eminent friends and sexual partners. His decision to organise the chapters in the book around the names of tarot cards nicely reflects Runciman’s superstition (or posed superstition) but leaves the reader puzzled, as Dinshaw switches back and forth in time and place within and between chapters. The literary style might have irked Runciman, with its occasionally ornate vocabulary — Dinshaw might have heeded the advice of Runciman’s school friend Eric Blair and have chosen Anglo-Saxon words over Latin-based ones where they exist. Runciman would have recoiled at this sentence about the Byzantine town of Mistra in the Peloponnese: “Steven himself was the deserted hill-town’s most prominent votary in the Anglosphere.” These are, however, minor criticisms of an exceptionally fascinating, always readable and penetratingly intelligent account of one of Britain’s most distinguished and colourful historians.