Nick gave me a copy of Steven Runciman’s book, The Sicilian Vespers, several years ago. I only read it last week, however, during a visit to Sicily, only to find I found that the book didn’t in fact have a great deal to do with Sicily at all, which makes a brief appearance at the beginning and at the end. It was, however, immensely enjoyable, and I learned more about European diplomacy, c.1250-1282 than I ever thought I would care to know. And the final paragraphs of the book are superb:
The Sicilian men who poured, with knives drawn, through the streets of Palermo on that savage evening struck their blows for freedom and for honour. They could not know to what consequences it would lead them and with them the whole of Europe. Bloodshed is an evil thing and good seldom comes of it. But the blood shed on that evening not only rescued a gallant people from oppression. It altered fundamentally the history of Christendom.
The lesson was not entirely forgotten. More than three centuries later King Henry IV of France boasted to the Spanish ambassador the harm that he could do to the Spanish lands in Italy were the King of Spain to try his patience too far. “I will breakfast at Milan”, he said, “and I will dine at Rome”. “Then”, replied the ambassador, “Your Majesty will doubtless be in Sicily in time for Vespers”.
It is an excellent joke, and a very fine book.
Nick wrote [20.4.2002]: It is also *invaluable* as a “Who’s Who” to Dante’s Inferno. I’m surprised you didn’t mention this.