Flights of the Enchanter

Noël Annan

  • A Traveller’s Alphabet: Partial Memoirs by Steven Runciman
    Thames and Hudson, 214 pp, £16.95, February 1991, ISBN 0 500 01504 X

At the end of the First World War a schoolboy at Eton had come to the conclusion that people could be divided into the stupids (the hearties) or the sillies (the clever trendies). Nor did his teachers escape censure. He thought them ill-informed, and one wrote wistfully in his end-of-term report: ‘I wish this boy were kinder to me.’ Steven Runciman was already beginning to see history in a different perspective from his mentors. In those days one was taught that during the Dark Ages the Catholic Church civilised each wave of barbarians and preserved the link with the ancient world through the Holy Roman Empire. It tried to deflect the kings and counts from their endless feudal warfare by inspiring them with the noble ideal of the Crusades. True, the Crusades failed to liberate the Middle East from the infidel, but the fall of Constantinople liberated those forces that led to the Renaissance and revived the learning of the ancient world.

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