These four books deal with periods and problems fairly widely separated in space and time, and yet they have features which make consideration of them together worthwhile. The earliest is Christopher Donaldson’s Martin of Tours, which concerns the life of a soldier who around the middle of the fourth century left his career in middle life to become a hermit and ultimately bishop of a see in north France. Consul of God by Jeffrey Richards is built around the life of another monk bishop, this time a Roman aristocrat who became pope about two hundred years after Martin’s time and is best-known to English readers as the man who sent Augustine and some monks to convert the heathen English – Gregory the Great. The third book, William Kapelle’s The Norman Conquest of the North considers a wider period than its short title indicates, for it establishes the history of what became northern England and southern Scotland in the period between 1000 and 1135. Last in time, and also the shortest, is Mistra by Sir Steven Runciman: this treats the troubled history of the most important Byzantine city in the Peloponnese, and concentrates on the period from the 13th to the 15th centuries.
One difference between the four is obvious: it is clear that Mistra is directed towards a different audience from the other three, for whereas all have scholarly apparatus, though to differing degrees, Runciman writes to aid the traveller to Mistra to understand what he sees. His book will certainly do that, particularly its chapters on the buildings of the city and on the learned men who lived there, although one may wish that he had allowed himself a little more space in his narrative chapters, where characters and places crowd in upon each other. Yet all four books have striking similarities.
In the first place, they all have very considerable problems because of the nature of the sources available. St Martin, for example, scarcely occurs outside the works of Sulpitius Severus, whose Life, written before the saint died, was a best-seller in its day: but although he knew his hero, he leaves much unsaid. Christopher Donaldson widens his view, so that many of the enormous changes through which Martin lived become clear, but there is, inevitably, something of a gap at the centre. There are richer sources, in some senses, for Gregory: his own letters and treatises tell us a lot, but there is much even about the conversion of England which Bede, who lived only a century afterwards, did not know, and which we can never know. Professor Kapelle has to battle with fragmentary chronicles, the notoriously difficult Domesday survey (which does not cover much of the North) and a thinnish layer of other legal records. In many ways, his is the toughest book of the four both in conception and in execution. He is to be admired for his courage in battling with many giants of an earlier generation and with well-established scholars today, and he writes with care and courtesy. For Mistra the sources are voluminous, but none put the town at the centre of their stage, so mastery of a high degree is needed to weave a coherent story.
It is, however, scarcely surprising that these subjects should be hard to reconstruct since they all come from periods of disturbance when records had less chance of surviving and when the interests of many of those who were literate may well have been directed to more practical matters. Both Martin and Gregory belong to that crumbling, shifting world, still in many ways centred on the Mediterranean but with perhaps stronger links will the world that followed them – with, say, the world of 800 AD – than with the world of Julius Caesar. Throughout the years dealt with in Kapelle’s book, the North was repeatedly raided from one side or the other, and much of the book explores the meaning of these raids and their effect on the society and institutions of the area. Late Byzantine history is moulded by the different interests of Latins, Greeks, Slavs and Italians, a tangled web indeed, though Mistra apparently had periods of prosperity based mainly on its silk industry.
Besides such similarities, all these authors have to deal with ages whose structures and preoccupations were often very different from our own. How well do they help us to appreciate these differences? I think they all have their strong points, although Runciman, just because he writes so little, is the least satisfactory. Subjects like the attraction and power surrounding a hermit’s life, the place of the healing ministry and the significance of relics in the fourth-century Church are all sympathetically conveyed by Mr Donaldson. Jeffrey Richards analyses the power and limitations of Gregory’s pontificate clearly, and is a fair guide through recent scholarship. He has an eye for practicalities, and does not give as much weight as some have done to the power of ideas. Even so, he brings out how deeply Gregory was torn between the calls of his office and his desire to be free from the concerns of this world. He knew the tension between the roles of the two sisters of Lazarus, Martha and Mary, which he popularised to stand for the active and contemplative lives. William Kapelle succeeds in reshaping the chronology of Norman expansion and making more sense of Northern history than any other single book, but it is not one to recommend to beginners. I suspect, nonetheless, that it is the book of the four which will be most argued over. I do not recall, for example, that the Normans’ early lack of interest in stabilising and settling the North has ever before been connected with their desire to have bread made from wheat – a grain which could not easily be grown in that wet and hilly terrain. It is not so much crops and climate which form the centre of Runciman’s story as families, and their often tortuous policies. To these he is a confident guide, and the visitor to Mistra will be well served if he takes this book with him. Then he will be able to people some of the churches and ruined palaces he clambers to on that steep hill with memories of the Frenchman William of Villehardouin who built the castle, of the offshoots of the imperial families who ruled there with the imposing title of Despot, and of the original thinker, George Gemistus Plethon, who was the centre of a scholarly circle in the early 15th century.