Steven Runciman

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Sir Steven Runciman
Runciman in 1957
James Cochran Stevenson Runciman[1]

(1903-07-07)7 July 1903
Died1 November 2000(2000-11-01) (aged 97)
Radway, Warwickshire, England
Alma materTrinity College, Cambridge
Known forA History of the Crusades
Parent(s)Walter Runciman, 1st Viscount Runciman of Doxford
Hilda Stevenson

Sir James Cochran Stevenson Runciman CH FBA (7 July 1903 – 1 November 2000), known as Steven Runciman, was an English historian best known for his three-volume A History of the Crusades (1951–54). His works had a profound impact on the popular conception of the Crusades.


Born in Northumberland, he was the second son of Walter and Hilda Runciman.[2] His parents were members of the Liberal Party and the first married couple to sit simultaneously in Parliament.[3] His father was created Viscount Runciman of Doxford in 1937. His paternal grandfather, Walter Runciman, 1st Baron Runciman, was a shipping magnate.[3] He was named after his maternal grandfather, James Cochran Stevenson, the MP for South Shields.

Eton and Cambridge[edit]

He said that he started reading Greek by the age of seven or eight.[4] Later he came to be able to make use of sources in other languages as well: Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Hebrew, Syriac, Armenian and Georgian.[5] A King's Scholar at Eton College, he was an exact contemporary and close friend of George Orwell.[3][2] While there, they both studied French under Aldous Huxley[citation needed].

In 1921 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge, as a history scholar and studied under J. B. Bury, becoming, as Runciman later said, falsely, "his first, and only, student".[3] At first the reclusive Bury tried to brush him off; then, when Runciman mentioned that he could read Russian, Bury gave him a stack of Bulgarian articles to edit, and so their relationship began. His work on the Byzantine Empire earned him a fellowship at Trinity in 1927.[2]

Work as a historian[edit]

After receiving a large inheritance from his grandfather, Runciman resigned his fellowship in 1938 and began travelling widely. Thus, for much of his life he was an independent scholar, living on private means.[3] He went on to be a press attaché at the British Legation in the Bulgarian capital, Sofia, in 1940 and at the British Embassy in Cairo in 1941. From 1942 to 1945 he was Professor of Byzantine Art and History[3] at Istanbul University, in Turkey, where he began the research on the Crusades which would lead to his best known work, the History of the Crusades (three volumes appearing in 1951, 1952 and 1954). From 1945 to 1947 he was a representative in Athens of the British Council.[2][3]

Most of Runciman's historical works deal with Byzantium and her medieval neighbours between Sicily and Syria; one exception is The White Rajahs, published in 1960, which tells the story of Sarawak, an independent state founded on the northern coast of Borneo in 1841 by James Brooke, and ruled by the Brooke family for more than a century.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, one of the leading historians of the Crusades,[6] denounced Runciman for his perspective on the Crusades.[7] Riley-Smith had been told by Runciman during an on-camera interview that he [Runciman] considered himself "not a historian, but a writer of literature."[8]

According to Christopher Tyerman, Professor of the History of the Crusades at Hertford College, Oxford,[9] Runciman created a work that "across the Anglophone world continues as a base reference for popular attitudes, evident in print, film, television and on the internet."[10]

Interest in occult[edit]

In his personal life, Runciman was an old-fashioned English eccentric, known, among other things, as an æsthete, raconteur and enthusiast of the occult. According to Andrew Robinson, a history teacher at Eton, "he played piano duets with the last Emperor of China, told tarot cards for King Fuad of Egypt, narrowly missed being blown up by the Germans in the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul and twice hit the jackpot on slot machines in Las Vegas".

A story from his time at Eton of an incident with a then-friend, Eric Blair, who later became famous writing as George Orwell, is told in Gordon Bowker's biography of Orwell: "Drawing from new correspondence with Steven Runciman, one of Orwell's friends at Eton (which he attended from 1917 to 1921), Bowker reveals the (perhaps surprising) fascination of Blair with the occult. A senior boy, Phillip Yorke, had attracted the disfavour of both Blair and Runciman so they planned a revenge. As Runciman recalled, they fashioned an image of Yorke from candle wax and broke off a leg. To their horror, shortly afterwards, Yorke not only broke his leg but in July died of leukaemia. The story of what happened soon spread and, in somewhat garbled form, became legend. Blair and Runciman suddenly found themselves regarded as distinctly odd, and to be treated warily".[11][12]


Runciman was homosexual.[13] There is little evidence of a long-term lover, but Runciman boasted of a number of casual sexual encounters and told a friend in later life: "I have the temperament of a harlot, and so am free of emotional complications". Nevertheless, Runciman was discreet about his homosexuality, partly perhaps because of religious feelings that homosexuality was "an inarguable offence against God". Runciman also felt that his sexuality had potentially held back his career. Max Mallowan related a conversation in which Runciman told him "that he felt his life had been a failure because of his gayness".[14]


He died in Radway, Warwickshire, while visiting relatives, aged 97.[15] He never married.

Earlier the same year, he had 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.[4][16]


Edward Peters (2011) says Runciman's three-volume narrative history of the Crusades "instantly became the most widely known and respected single-author survey of the subject in English."[17]

John M. Riddle (2008) says that for the greater part of the twentieth century Runciman was the "greatest historian of the Crusades." He reports that, "Prior to Runciman, in the early part of the century, historians related the Crusades as an idealistic attempt of Christendom to push Islam back." Runciman regarded the Crusades "as a barbarian invasion of a superior civilization, not that of the Muslims but of the Byzantines."[18]

Thomas F. Madden (2005) stresses the impact of Runciman's style and viewpoint:

It is no exaggeration to say that Runciman single-handedly crafted the current popular concept of the crusades. The reasons for this are twofold. First, he was a learned man with a solid grasp of the chronicle sources. Second, and perhaps more important, he wrote beautifully. The picture of the crusades that Runciman painted owed much to current scholarship yet much more to Sir Walter Scott. Throughout his history Runciman portrayed the crusaders as simpletons or barbarians seeking salvation through the destruction of the sophisticated cultures of the east. In his famous "summing-up" of the crusades he concluded that "the Holy War in itself was nothing more than a long act of intolerance in the name of God, which is a sin against the Holy Ghost.[19]

Mark K. Vaughn (2007) says "Runciman's three-volume History of the Crusades remains the primary standard of comparison." However, Vaughn says that Tyerman "accurately, if perhaps with a bit of hubris, notes that Runciman's work is now outdated and seriously flawed."[20] Tyerman himself has said, "It would be folly and hubris to pretend to compete, to match, as it were, my clunking computer keyboard with his [Runciman's] pen, at once a rapier and a paintbrush; to pit one volume, however substantial, with the breadth, scope and elegance of his three."[21]


Sir Stevenson Runciman Street in Sofia, Bulgaria


Published works of Runciman include the following.[26]


  1. ^ Constable, Giles (2003). "Sir Steven Runciman, 7 July 1903 · 1 November 2000". Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. 147 (1): 95–101. JSTOR 1558132.
  2. ^ a b c d "Sir Steven Runciman obituary". The Times. 2 November 2000. p. 25. ISSN 0140-0460.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g Hill, Rosemary (20 October 2016). "Herberts & Herbertinas". London Review of Books. ISSN 0260-9592. Archived from the original on 6 January 2022. Retrieved 22 October 2016.
  4. ^ a b "The Last interview with the Great Byzantologist Sir Steven Runciman". Pantokratoros Monastery. Archived from the original on 6 January 2022. Retrieved 10 April 2017.
  5. ^ "The library of Sir Steven Runciman" (text.article). University of St Andrews. Archived from the original on 11 April 2017. Retrieved 10 April 2017.
  6. ^ Peters, Damien (2017). The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading. Taylor & Francis. p. 66. ISBN 9781351353106 – via Google Books.
  7. ^ "Crusade Myths". Ignatius Insight. Archived from the original on 6 January 2022. Retrieved 3 January 2016.
  8. ^ Andrea & Holt 2015, p. xxii.
  9. ^ Hertford College, University of Oxford. "Professor Christopher J. Tyerman".
  10. ^ Andrea & Holt 2015, p. xxiii.
  11. ^ Bowker, Gordon (2004). George Orwell. Little, Brown. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-349-11551-1 – via Google Books.
  12. ^ Keeble, Richard Lance (26 January 2019). "Gordon Bowker". The Orwell Society. Archived from the original on 3 March 2022. Retrieved 3 March 2022.
  13. ^ Dinshaw, Minoo (2017). Outlandish Knight: The Byzantine Life of Steven Runciman. Penguin Books, Limited. ISBN 978-0-14-197947-2 – via Google Books.
  14. ^ Malcolm, Noel (5 October 2016). ""I have the temperament of a harlot": on the life of Steven Runciman". New Statesman. Archived from the original on 6 January 2022. Retrieved 7 February 2019.
  15. ^ Pace, Eric (3 November 2000). "Sir Steven Runciman, 97, British Historian and Author". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 6 January 2022. Retrieved 10 July 2016.
  16. ^ a b Clive, Nigel (2 November 2000). "Obituary: Sir Steven Runciman, Historian whose magisterial works transformed our understanding of Byzantium, the medieval church and the crusades". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 7 January 2022. Retrieved 11 September 2014.
  17. ^ Peters, Edward (2011). The First Crusade: "The Chronicle of Fulcher of Chartres" and Other Source Materials. University of Pennsylvania Press. p. 314. ISBN 978-0812204728 – via Google books.
  18. ^ Riddle, John M (2008). A History of the Middle Ages, 300–1500. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 315. ISBN 9780742554092 – via Google Books.
  19. ^ Madden, Thomas F (2005). The New Concise History of the Crusades. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 216. ISBN 9780742538221 – via Google Books.
  20. ^ Vaughn, Mark K. (2007). "God's War: A New History of the Crusades". Naval War College Review. 60 (2): 159. ISSN 0028-1484. JSTOR 26396832. OCLC 1779130. Archived from the original on 24 September 2020.
  21. ^ Madden, Thomas F. (December 2006). "Fighting the Good Fight". First Things. Archived from the original on 22 October 2020. Retrieved 3 March 2022.
  22. ^ "No. 41268". The London Gazette (Supplement). 31 December 1957. p. 2.
  23. ^ "No. 49583". The London Gazette (Supplement). 30 December 1983. p. 19.
  24. ^ "APS Member History". Retrieved 5 October 2022.
  25. ^ "Sir Steven Runciman: Obituary". The Telegraph. 2 November 2000. Archived from the original on 6 January 2022. Retrieved 10 July 2016.
  26. ^ "Steven Runciman (1903-2000)". Bibliothèque nationale de France. Archived from the original on 24 January 2022. Retrieved 3 March 2022.


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