An odd anecdote of Sir Steven Runciman

The other day I was adding items to my “Crusades in the News” project–about the only intellectual activity I felt capable of doing, given that I’ve been neutralized for my entire spring break by the flu. As break is over, surprise surprise, I’m feeling better. That, friends, is how the universe laughs at you. But I digress…

I found one of the big post-9/11 articles by Tom Madden, “The Real History of the Crusades,” from 2002. It should be familiar to anyone who’s read into the “Crusades Debate.” In running a search for articles in the last quarter of 2014, however, I came across an odd piece from, by Uri Avnery titled “Crusaders and Zionists.” In it, Avnery recounts what I found a fascinating anecdote about the Byzantine scholar who became the most famous crusades scholar of all–Sir Steven Runciman.

Given Runciman’s well-known opinion of the crusades, and his equally well-known opinion that the 4th Crusade was the greatest crime against humanity ever seen (this after 1945, mind you), I was surprised to read the following:

A few years later, I read Steven Runciman’s monumental A History of the Crusades. My attention was immediately drawn to a curious coincidence: after the First Crusade, a strip of territory along the sea was left in the hands of the Egyptians, extending a few kilometers beyond Gaza. The Crusaders built a string of fortifications to contain it. They were in almost the same places as our own outposts.

When I finished reading the three volumes, I did something I never did before or since: I wrote a letter to the author. After praising the work, I asked: Did you ever think about the similarity between them and us?

The answer arrived within days. Not only did he think about it, Runciman wrote, but he thought about it all the time. Indeed, he wanted to subtitle the book “A guide for the Zionists on how not to do it”. However, he added, “my Jewish friends advised against it.” If I ever chanced to pass through London, he added, he would be glad if I called on him.

I guess by-and-large we often forget that Runciman was first and foremost a Byzantinist, and that his antagonism to the crusades came from the way they supposedly damaged the empire’s ability to fight the “real” enemy, the various Muslim powers in the eastern Mediterranean. But that he had a prescriptive set of lessons in mind, and not just a series of warnings about his “one long act of intolerance in the name of God,” is surprising to me, and I’d like to have this story confirmed if possible. I’d also like to know more about the writing of A History of the Crusades in general, if anyone can point me in the right direction.

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