A few notes on historians...

Sad to note that Jonathan Riley-Smith died a little while ago.
However, there is a new biography out of Steven Runciman, Outlandish Knight, by Minoo Dinshaw. The famous Beaton portrait of him with his parakeet Benedict is on the cover. I met Runciman briefly in his later years, when he lectured to the Scottish Hellenic Society in St Andrews: he was honorary President of the History Society at St Andrews, and bequeathed the university his library. I think he'd dialled down his campness for the occasion, unfortunately. His real failing as a historian was his preference for romance over accurate handling of sources.

Gorgeous 'new' 15C book on Outremer!

If you are a connoisseur of beautiful books, Taschen are the publishers to go to... Now they've done something Outremer-friendly! I picked up this gem in the university bookshop while sheltering from the rain at lunchtime: Sébastien Mamerot: A Chronicle of the Crusades. It's a translation of a 1470s history of Outremer, with the original MS illustrations. So if you want to see all the usual suspects looking as if they've wandered in from the Wars of the Roses, this is where to go! The plates are gorgeous! And, being Taschen, it's affordable!
Toulouse cross

Exhibition review - 'Sicily: Culture and Conquest'at the British Museum

As so often happens with an exhibition close by that you can visit any time you feel like it, I only finally caught this a few days before it closed. So, apologies to anyone who might have been inspired by a more timely review to sprint to the BM to see it for themselves!

The Guardian's reviewer raved about it, and certainly the prehistory and classical section of the exhibition was wonderful - the Sicilians had lent some wonderful artefacts, and they were beautifully laid out and interpreted (with the assistance of some glorious full-wall-sized photographs of Sicily's classical sites landscapes, that you felt you could walk into). But the Norman section was just a bit of an anticlimax, because the bulk of the really stunning artefacts from that period can't travel. There were photographs of Roger II's palace at Palermo, including a marvellous one of the ceiling of the Palatine Chapel, printed as a huge transparency and mounted on the ceiling, with benches so you could sit and gaze up at it; that was good, but it's a poor look-out when the photographs are better than the original artefacts. And there was one crushing disappointment; I came round a corner and thought 'Cripes! Have they really managed to borrow Roger's coronation mantle from Vienna???'  But on coming closer: 'Er, no, they haven't; this is a rather crude copy in lurex cord on what looks like cotton.' That was a real let-down.

So, although there were certainly some lovely artefacts (and the catalogue is definitely worth a riffle, and indeed a purchase especially if you can find it at cut price), there's no need for Oltramarines who missed it to shed too many hot tears.

Actually I think my favourite memory of this whole exhibition is a couplet by a 12th-century Sicilian-Arab poet who served at the court of Roger II, one Abd ar-Rahman of Trapani:

"The oranges of the island are like blazing fire among the emerald boughs,
And the lemons are like the pale faces of lovers who have spent the night crying.”

Is the touch of bathos at the end present in the Arabic original?  And if so, did Abd ar-Rahman actually intend it? I dare say I'll never know…

The earliest mediæval heraldry? – the Notitia Dignitatum

The Notitia Dignitatum has some fascinating proto-heraldry (late 4-early 5C CE) in the form of military shield designs, with different units having their own devices. There's a great website on it here. I discovered it via the Osprey books on the late Roman and Romano-Byzantine armies. It's interesting to see the roots of armorial devices in the very early Middle Ages. I recommend downloading the Paris and Munich editions!