Sir Steven Runciman's timeless work has made headlines this month in the Telegraph, in an article by AN Wilson. Here is a snippet )of the article):
"The Sicilian Vespers is a phrase which refers to a bloody incident which took place on Easter Monday, 1282. At the Church of the Holy Spirit, half a mile to the south-east of Palermo, French officials mingled with the crowds to join in the festivities as the bells rang for evening prayer. The French were "overfamiliar" with some of the Sicilian women. Scuffles broke out. Daggers were drawn. Soon there were cries in the Sicilian dialect of "Death to the Frenchmen" ("Moranu li Franchiski!").
By nightfall, 2,000 French people in Palermo were dead, and the uprising spread to the other Sicilian towns. The outbreaks were not spontaneous: they had been planned by the enemies of the French – notably the Emperor in Constantinople and the King of Aragon. The long dominance of the island by Charles of Anjou was over.
Charles, the most powerful figure in the Mediterranean, had been on the point of invading Constantinople. Egged on by a succession of French, or Francophile, Popes, he had hoped not merely to regain Byzantium for the West, but also to subjugate the Eastern Orthodox Church to the authority of the Papacy. "
"With the Sicilian Vespers, there died any possibility of a universal Papacy dominating Christendom. The foundations had been laid for the phenomena that shaped modern Europe – the development of nation states, and, ultimately, of Protestantism. It is 50 years since Sir Steven Runciman's masterly book The Sicilian Vespers was published by the Cambridge University Press. It is one of those timeless works of history which is also a great work of literature.
Within less than 300 pages, he tells the whole complicated story of 13th century Mediterranean history – the struggles of the Hohenstaufen dynasty to maintain their power as Holy Roman Emperors after the death of Frederick II; the growth of the power of Aragon; the political machinations by the Popes; the doggedness of the Byzantine emperor Michael Paleologus. There is a supporting cast of dozens – it is a wonder that Runciman has made them all so vivid and yet the reader feel no muddle as his tale unfolds.
The story is about a single incident that fundamentally altered the whole course of European history. Yet out of all the details of rivalry between Guelf and Ghibelline, between French and German, between Angevin and Byzantine, there emerges an image as crystalline as a painting by Van Eyck. At the centre of it all is the chilly, unamiable figure of Charles of Anjou himself (brother of St Louis IX). Runciman wrote with wonderful eloquence, but he never overwrote. His narrative flows uncluttered by needless reference notes – there are some, but they nearly all refer to primary sources. His is the supreme example of a well-stocked mind not needing to show off all its wares. "
"This historical masterpiece ends with the charming story of King Henry IV of France boasting in the 16th century to the Spanish ambassador that he could subdue the Spanish in Italy should the King of Spain try his patience too far. "I will breakfast in Milan, and I will dine in Rome," he crowed. To which the ambassador replied: "Then Your Majesty will doubtless be in Sicily in time for Vespers." "
It has been absolute ages since I have read this book - I went through a stage of reading just about everything he wrote. Whatever other may think of his style of writing, I enjoy it. So this period in history is quite familiar to me.
Have any other members read "Sicilian Vespers" and what did they think.
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