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Steven Runciman, The Sicilian Vespers – and historiographical narratology

Lars Boje Mortensen explores the role of historiographical narratology in Steven Runciman's The Sicilian Vespers and in a 13th-C chronicle.

Top image: A nationalist German painting from 1870, showing the heroic German youths, Konradin and his close friend Friedrich von Baden, about to be executed by the shifty and arrogant French. A major point of Runciman’s book was in fact to point out the deep origins of European nationalism as a consequence of papal policies in the 13th century.


Sixty years ago a great classic of medieval history appeared, The Sicilian Vespers – A History of the Mediterranean World in the Later 13th Century by the renowned crusade and Byzantine historian Steven Runciman (1903-2000). While research into the rule of Charles of Anjou as King of Sicily (1265-85) and the momentous uprising – the Vespers – against him (1282) has obviously moved on very significantly since then, the book remains an excellent introduction and a gripping read.


One of the fortes of this political and military narrative is its very rich population of historical actors carefully balanced with a sustained focus on the figure of Charles and of his main opponents, Manfred of Hohenstaufen, Michael Palaiologos, and Peter of Aragon as well as a series of popes, especially Innocent IV and Gregory X. Another strength is the (no doubt often deceptive) certainty with which Runciman strings together the political machinations of his protagonists: only very rarely does he admit to something we do not know, which then becomes a powerful statement of authentication of all the rest.


The brilliant narrative technique also shares some important features with a contemporary chronicle which Runciman no doubt knew very well, the elaborate but little-known history composed by the papal scriptor Saba Malaspina in the years 1284-85 (now in a thoroughly commented edition by Koller at MGH, but still with no modern translations). Saba’s chronicle was a reaction to the crisis of the uprising. The ruler so strongly supported by the papacy had overcome the house of Hohenstaufen, but was now, out of the blue apparently, seriously challenged by the Sicilians and the house of Aragon. The Chronicle contains the fullest contemporary account of the Sicilian Vespers, its background and immediate aftermath; it was partly written when Charles was still alive, but finished with the notice of his death and the death of Charles’ puppet French pope, Martin IV (disliked by Saba).

By comparing the two narratives, I do not mean to say that Runciman was especially inspired by Saba. But I do think that insights from historiographical narratology – which is mostly practiced on pre-modern chronicles – also entail lessons for the study of modern scholarly works. There are at least four striking similarities between the two treatments of the theme: (1) framing, (2) narrative pauses, (3) prolepsis, (4) historical judgement.

(1) Both chroniclers frame their story with 1250 and 1285. Runciman includes an ouverture about Sicily and an epilogue about the wider significance of Charles’ rule, but the main narrative is unleashed by death of Frederick 2 of Hohenstaufen and the void, confusion, elation and desperation it left in all of Italy. How epochal it was, could only really be seen after Charles’ defeat of Frederick’s grandson, Conradin, in 1268, but both chroniclers obviously shared that important hindsight (in contrast to some chronicles written in the 1250s). It is still an Italian point of view though, and one could imagine chronicles from a French vantage-point which would begin with Charles’ entry into Rome, or an Iberian, beginning with the conquest of Sicily in 1282.

(2) The complex political narrative of both Saba and Runciman is interspersed with narrative pauses. These occur at important junctures and include portraits – for instance of Manfred after his death at the battle of Benevento in 1266 – and reflections on the wider meaning of events, on good and bad rulers, on the lasting guelf-ghibelline conflict etc. As different as these reflections are, the pauses give weight, air and variation to both narratives.

(3) Perhaps the most striking similarity is narrative anticipation, or prolepsis in narratological terms. The malpractice of Charles’ judiciary and his tax-collectors, especially in Sicily, are mentioned with increasing frequency by both historians. First small drips – that he should not have allowed this – then longer and more dense explanations of misrule thickening towards the outbreak of the rebellion. The reader is kept in suspense, but is also gradually given the tools to understand how such a spectacular massacre and change of rule could suddenly happen, even when Charles had both military might and papal authority behind him. The anticipation is executed with great art by both Saba and Runciman, but given the real shock of the rebellion for contemporaries, the story could also have been told without prolepsis, and rather with a full explanation after the account of the Vespers.

(4) Throughout Saba is convinced of Charles’ divine role in establishing the rule engineered by the papacy. But his chronicle is neither a celebration of the house of Anjou, nor a guelf partisan piece. He criticises a number of popes, and wishes for harmony between guelfs and ghibellines, not the extinction of the latter. His moral judgement of Charles, therefore, is in fact rather close to that of Runciman who famously pronounced him a failure. Whatever the nuances might be, in both cases the chronicler assumes the right to pass lenghty moral judgement on the main protagonist of the story, thus enhancing the power of his own writing.

Historiographical narratology – applied to medieval and/or modern accounts – is not only an approach to compare and discover structures, rhetoric, bias, literary qualities etc in individual works of history, but can actually serve to triangulate between two or more narratives and the historical substance itself. This certainly does not mean that the past only exists as narrative, but it does rest on the conviction that any deeper understanding of a historical substance will always be narrativized to some extent.

Editing was completed: 17.06.2018