Sir Steven Runciman: The Spider, the Owl and the Historian

By Anthony, Bryer | History Today, May 2001 | Go to article overview

Sir Steven Runciman: The Spider, the Owl and the Historian


Anthony, Bryer, History Today


`THE SPIDER HAS WOVE HER WEB in the imperial palace, The Owl has sung her watch song upon the towers of Efrasiyab.'

This Persian distich about the Spider and the Owl was by tradition recited by the young Sultan Mehmet II as he surveyed the Sacred Palace of the emperors of Byzantium after his conquest of Constantinople on May 29th, 1453. One way or another, no historian of the event can avoid repeating the verse, from Edward Gibbon in 1788 to Steven Runciman in 1964 -- I quote an English version of 1734, where Efrasiyab is today's Samarkand. The story is too good to be true. These lines are impossibly romantic. Can they also be authentic? Yes, in so far as it is possible to capture an extemporary utterance which hung on the air for five centuries. Then in 1914 the account of Tursun beg, who was there to hear the sultan in 1453, was published and tradition was confirmed.

Historians less independent and less gracious than Steven Runciman, who cannot afford to be both romantic and authentic, might have been further irked by this private scholar's effortless style and sales. They just made things worse. Sir Steven did not actually need the sales to maintain a fastidiously modest style of life, the Runciman inheritance being decently distanced from its origins. As he said: `Riches should come as the reward for hard work, preferably one's forebears'.' As for literary style, the only model whom he acknowledged was Beatrix Potter, who may indeed have rivalled his sales -- though one obituarist claimed that Runciman earned more money for Cambridge University Press `than any author except God'. In fact CUP reveals that Runciman probably only beat God in the years 1950-80 -- not taking into account translations in many tongues. Another difference is that Sir Steven maintained a lucid textual consistency which is not found in sacred canon. Of Runciman's sequence, twenty of twenty-seven of his books remain in print, from Romanus Lecapenus (a tenth-century emperor, 1929) to A Traveller's Alphabet (Runciman's `partial memoirs', 1991). What twentieth-century historian can match that? Arnold Toynbee? The wonder is that both Runciman and Toynbee were historians of Byzantium, a medieval and Greek world as alien to the common Western reader as the Towers of Efrasiyab.

Take Runciman's style. In 1930 he began A History of the First Bulgarian Empire innocently enough: `Once upon a time, when Constans was Emperor in Byzantium, there lived a king called Kubrat...'. The book closes, 300 pages later, with a retrospective list of Bulgarian credits ending with `King Kubrat, and past the princes of the Huns, back through dim ages to that wild marriage from which [his] race was born, the marriage of the Scythian witches to the demons of the sands of Turkestan.' Is this Beatrix, or Harry, Potter? The dedication `by gracious permission to Boris III, Tsar of the Bulgarians' does not appear in later editions, after that sovereign died abruptly following an interview with Adolf Hitler in 1943. What are we to make of all this? With Steven Runciman died an often hilarious oral tradition of half the courts of Europe -- and Asia. As the Spider, Runciman charmed an extraordinary network of friends. He had played piano duets with the last emperor of China. He knew some quite surprising things about Scandinavian monarchs. Yet he was critical: `My interest in Byzantium was first aroused by reading Count Robert of Paris, a dreadful book which I felt by instinct to be quite wrong.' This from Runciman's lecture of 1962 on `Medieval History and the Romantic Imagination'. Runciman loved names and titles. He was denied the pleasure of being widower of a Spanish duchess (which would have entitled him a dowager duke in Castile), but treasured his honorary office of Grand Orator of the Great Church of Constantinople. Of all titles none is more magical than that of Emperor of Trebizond. Cervantes knew it. Did not Don Quixote imagine himself as being "already crowned Emperor of Trebizond"? …

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