The Corner

The Glittering Crusdaes of Sir Stephen Runciman

From a reader:

While one could hardly describe it as concise, it would be a disservice to fail to mention Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades. Despite the length, Runciman is an engaging writer, and I haven’t found a shorter text that truly does justice to the epic scale of the Crusades, both in their glory and in their brutality (which, to be fair, can be assigned to all involved). In addition, he’s able to sketch the conflicts not just between the European Crusaders and the Islamic world, but also the oft-neglected Byzantine empire, which found itself caught in the middle.

Apart from its length–three volumes–there are a couple of serious problems with Runciman’s Crusades. The first is that Runciman (who died at a very advanced age just a couple of years ago) missed out on critical recent scholarship. Runciman assumes in particular that the principal crusaders tended to be younger sons of noblemen, intent on seeking their fortunes in the Holy Land because they would inherit nothing at home. Yet as Thomas Madden makes clear, new studies have debunked this notion, demonstrating that the principal crusaders tended instead to be noblemen themselves–and that many sacrificed enormous portions of their holdings, selling land to raise troops and otherwise finance the Crusades. The Crusades had their undeniably worldly aspect, of course, but the best and newest scholarship makes it clear that the Crusades were led by men who considered them holy.

The still more serious problem: Runciman chooses sides. His favorites are the Byzantines, his second favorites the Muslims, and his bad guys the Crusaders themselves. Runciman even denounces the Crusaders for precipitating the fall of Constantinople, a charge that Madden and others reject.

Runciman’s prose is indeed gorgeous–I can’t think of a large work of history I’ve enjoyed so much, short of Macaulay himself–and he presents the epic with a sweeping energy and a glittering sense of personality and color. By all means, read Runciman. But read Madden too.

Peter Robinson — Peter M. Robinson is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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