Steven Runciman rejected the Church, but understood it

Steven Runciman with a koala in 1959

‘Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory,” says the baron to his son in Disraeli’s Contarini Fleming. I wonder whether he would have approved of biographies of historians. There are not nearly enough of these amusing books, many of which have given me more pleasure than shelves of novels. I would, for example, trade the account of Hugh Trevor-Roper’s Mastership of Peterhouse, Cambridge, in Adam Sisman’s Life for very nearly the whole of George Eliot’s output.

Recently I acquired a copy of Marie Halle and Edwin Bonney’s Life and Letters of John Lingard, 1771–1851. Though little read these days, poor Fr Lingard was a wonderful historian, far more responsible in his use of sources than Macaulay or Hallam, if not nearly so good a writer. To this day the easiest way to debunk any number of idiotic Protestant clichés concerning our religion – the old wheeze about clerical celibacy being a Norman import to the British isles, for instance – is to reach for his History of England. Fr Lingard was also, one learns, a very pious and kind man and a devoted caretaker of souls.

The usual objection to lives of historians, namely, that they are lacking in outward incident, is rubbish. The same charge might be levelled at the lives of the saints. Few books have given me more pleasure this year than Minoo Dinshaw’s very fond and very long biography of Sir Steven Runciman, Outlandish Knight, which has just been issued in paperback. It is emphatically not a saint’s life.

That is not to suggest that it is an especially sordid book, though there are certain passages which I would shrink from quoting in a family paper like this one. Rather it is a biography of a man who rejected the Christian religion, and the Roman Church in particular. Which makes it all the more curious that he seems to have understood certain aspects of the faith better than many of its modern-day adherents. Here he is, for example, at the beginning of The Medieval Manichee:

Tolerance is a social rather than a religious virtue. A broad-minded view of the private belief of others undoubtedly makes for the happiness of society; but it is an attitude impossible for those whose personal religion is strong. For if we know that we have found the key and guiding principle of Life, we cannot allow our friends to flounder blindly in the darkness.

From there, he goes on to explain, in language that would do well as a paraphrase of St Thomas, that heresy poses an even graver threat than unbelief. How refreshing it is to see this spelled out! There is nothing more tedious than the sort of Catholic who apologises for persecutions of heresy, as if we know better now than Athanasius and Ignatius of Loyola and those other tedious barbarians. Even those who do not, like Runciman, accept the articles of the Creed should be able to imagine what it would be like to do so and what might be the obvious logical concomitants of such a belief. Historians need a large imaginative sympathy for all sorts of persons, however different they might be from themselves.

One also gets a sense from Dinshaw’s book of how important it is that historians understand that theirs is an essentially literary vocation. Here is how Runciman begins his shamefully out-of-print History of the First Bulgarian Empire:

Once upon a time, when Constans was Emperor in Byzantium, there lived a king called Kubrat on the shores of the Sea of Azov. In due course he died, leaving five sons behind him, whom he bade live in concord together. But the brothers in a short time quarrelled, as princes often do, and, dividing the inheritance between them, departed each his own way, bearing his portion of the people with him.

Imagine caring whether a word of this is accurate. For Runciman, the attractions of Central Europe and Byzantium were chiefly romantic. Like those of most great historians, his tastes were formed in childhood. When the young Ronald Knox told a family friend that his favourite thing to do was “lie awake and think about the past,” he was speaking as the future author of Enthusiasm. The force, if that is not the wrong word altogether for something so ebullient, of his endearing personality is conveyed on every page of this delightful book, and one often wishes that he had done more in this line, perhaps a history of the papacy. All writers of history should aspire to these unfortunately rare qualities.

The publication of Dinshaw’s Runciman leaves only the lives of Dom David Knowles and Samuel Eliot Morison unwritten among the last century’s most eminent historians. But I suspect that an even better subject for him would be Knowles’s Cambridge contemporary Maurice Cowling, the “Tory Marxist jester” once accused of having that “distrust of all merely secular improvement which can be found in the unreconstructed heartland of the Church of Rome”. Among other things, Cowling once had the good sense to attack Salman Rushdie, a distinction he shares with his old nemesis Trevor-Roper and John le Carré among other luminaries. There is probably at least half a chapter there.

Matthew Walther is a national correspondent for The Week and a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow