I’d say a good third or thereabouts of the books that I own are from charity shops. Originally I used to shop in them because I was a poor student. Then it just became a habit. These days I still look in from time to time knowing that there’s a good chance I’ll pick up an interesting book. I like the random element of going in somewhere and perhaps walking out with a book which will set me off on a completely different course. It’s never been the same for me in bookshops. PArtly due to the far wider choice on offer, I can’t just browse until something takes my fancy: there’s just too much choice and I somehow lose the will. But in charity shops it’s easier to scan the shelves and perhaps come away with a gem.
So it happened the other week in a branch of Oxfam Books. I saw all three volumes of Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades bundled together, and thought that they would be worth getting. I had long thought I ought to do some proper reading on this key period in history, and these books seemed as good a place as any to start. I knew of Runciman’s reputation and thought that I could do a lot worse.
My copies, by the way, are paperback editions in Penguin’s old Peregrine imprint. Back in the old days, Penguin was mainly for novels, plays, and poems. Meanwhile Pelican was the imprint for non-fiction works of a more serious and/ or academic bent. So I can only assume that to be a Peregrine writer you had to have produced the weightiest of tomes.
Since getting the books last week, I’ve rattled through Volume One, and I enjoyed it immensely. I realise that a book published in the early 50’s is no longer at the cutting edge of historical research or interpretation, as was once the case with this work. It seems that in the light of recent global events the Crusades are again going through a period of re-evaluation. For that reason, I think, a layman like me welcomes the chance to read a book like Runciman’s, which by his own design tried to give an overview of the whole epoch. As he famously stated in his preface to Volume one, “I believe that the supreme duty of the historian is to write history, that is to say, to attempt to record in one sweeping sequence the greater events and movements that have swayed the destinies of man”.
That’s not to commit himself to a simple narrative account. Implicit in his description of the crusading enterprise and the crusaders themselves is the impression I got that he considered most of them to be boorish chancers. A good number of the Knights and nobles who made their way east it seems paid lip service to the notion of liberating the holy land in the name of Christ. However, their true intentions were less than pure, and a lot of them were in it to see what they could get in terms of plunder and staking a claim to the conquered lands on offer.
I am now also a great admirer of Runciman’s written style. Here is a man who makes a virtue of plainness and simplicity. Having finished Volume One feeling completely enlightened, I think I’m going to have to pitch in to Volume Two straight away.