Steven Runciman’s The Sicilian Vespers

A couple of years back I had occasion to review Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades, and before that his Medieval Manichee, a study of the Christian Dualist heresy. From the very beginning of his career it has been apparent that Runciman is a historian of no mean order. He has done the thing all modern historians hope to do, and almost none manages: he has combined the writing of history as literature (“historiography” in academic argot) and the study of history as a scholarly discipline, if not an exact science.

Henry Adams, Francis Parkman, Prescott, Gibbon, Froissart, Tacitus, Thucydides, Ssu-ma Ch’ien — for many centuries the Muse of History was one of the chief of the minor goddesses and history was a major art. Alas for our day, she has fallen on evil times and become a maundering academic drudge. A writer like Arnold Toynbee owes his reputation as a stylist essentially to the outrageous barbarity of his style, its endless verbosity and eloquent muddle, like a country vicar on one of the duller Sundays after Trinity. His reputation as a philosopher of history is due to the procrustean rashness of his scantily substantiated hypotheses. In her old age the Muse has fallen into the hands of the Goths who know her not.

Steven Runciman is a horse of another color. He is an indisputably good writer, clear, perspicuous, able to marshal immense detail and vast casts of characters; able, again, to communicate that feeling of the very time and place which is perhaps the first virtue of good historical writing. His subject this time is the thirteenth-century struggle for supremacy among the states and cities of the Mediterranean; a struggle which centered in Sicily, but spread as far as Germany and the Holy Land, and which was watched with more than neutral interest by the powers of England and France. It may be an illusion, but we live again in the quarries of Sicily with the dying Athenians, and on the bloody causeway with Cortez and Malinche. So we are there, our iron shoes clanging on the arid stone floors of that immense architectural hallucination Krak of the Knights; in the desert of the Holy Land we watch the leper King of Jerusalem wither and die like the Fisher King of the Grail Romances — it is an infectious verisimilitude. You can see, smell and hear Manfred’s and Conradin’s armies, trapped in melees at narrow bridges, horses splashing through fords and swirling in high waters, the terrible sun on afternoon battlefields full of men in stinking armor, the Sicilian burghers running through the streets with torches and long knives.

This participation extends even to certain engaging prejudices. Runciman is now not quite as down on Frederick II as he was when he wrote the Crusade book, but he doesn’t like him or his bastard, Manfred, either. You feel that this is for no bona fide historical, social or political reason, but the result of a residual British prudery. Both of them just might have made it at lurid Balliol, but never at Cambridge. They were frank atheists and practically wallowed in what Dr. Kinsey used to call extramarital sexual outlets. That Frederick II was the only civilized ruler in the West between classical and modern times is beside the point for Steven Runciman. He is awed by his magnificent appetites and the splendor of his mind, but he isn’t going to be pleased if he can help it.

The Sicilian Vespers is much more than a study of that legendary revolt itself. It is the story of the final breakdown of the possibility of the Empire, as distinguished from the Imperial dream; of the moral compromise of the Papacy that was to lead eventually to Papal Courts worthy of Suetonius, and the disgust of the Reformation; of the beginning of the invidious and destructive role of France in the peninsula, that was to endure at least until Napoleon III; and, wistful enough in its special way, the last assertion of the spirit of the Greek polis, the last bright flicker of the precious city-state ethos in a Greek Italy then two thousand years old. Through it all glitter the brocades and marbles of the oriental, pagan, birth of the Renaissance, the songs of the troubadours and Arabic minstrels, the speculations of Hebrew Kabbalists and Greek-Italian Aristotelians, the mysteries of alchemists and magicians — the last two Hohenstauffen courts, where what the French call l’esprit laïque, the character of Renaissance and modern man, was invented.

Plenty has been written about Frederick II and Manfred, some of it bombastically romantic, but this whole world — what was really the southeast borderland of Western civilization — has seldom been seen steadily and whole. It is the march, the pressure area, between Gothic, Byzantine and Arabic civilizations, all three in their decline or rather decadence. It is hard to think of a more splendidly caparisoned historical stage, or one more crowded with spectacular characters, or one more haunted by fascinating mysteries and immoralities. It provided Gibbon with some of his most encrusted and brilliant pages. It requires a tremendous amount of hard work to coordinate its documents and sources and to disentangle its dilemmas and disputes. It is certainly not overcrowded with historians. Steven Runciman seems to have staked a claim on it as very specially his own. Long may he flourish, for he certainly makes it fascinating reading.



This review of Steven Runciman’s The Sicilian Vespers (Cambridge University Press, 1958) originally appeared in The Nation (17 May 1958) and was reprinted in Assays (New Directions, 1961). Copyright 1958. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Rexroth’s review of Runciman’s History of the Crusades
Other Rexroth Essays