Breaking News: Shaking some sense into the Ricardians

Woo HOOO! My thesis just became a whole lot more saleable. Unfortunately it also needs re-writing! ūüôā ‘Loyaute me lie’ it is ….:-)

Breaking news: I don’t know how to tell you this guys, but if Richard III was alive today he’d definitely be on our side! It looks like disability was on the losing side in 1485 too. The ¬†idea that the Tudor spin-doctors created the myth of Richard III’s deformity purely in order to discredit his reign, ¬† that Richard III was a good guy and the hunchback was an IDS style spin has just been exploded. ¬†We really DID have a ‘hunchback’ king get as far as the throne! (Oh, and he had kids)

Last February in an almost too good to be true archaeological discovery the bones of a man were unearthed underneath a car park in Leicester, where once the church of the Grey Friars stood in which Richard III was reported to have been buried. Amazingly the very first excavation trench uncovered a skeleton with major trauma to the skull and clear evidence of scoliotic spinal curvature. ¬† ¬† ¬†The car park in question? Leicester Social Services Department, the woman who found him the chair of the Richard III Society and chief instigator and fund-raiser for the project of finding Richard’s resting place was the biggest proponent of the ‘he was a good guy, he CAN’T have been disabled’ concept.

I must admit even I was horribly skeptical, but it would seem that Richard III’s supporters (and a few disability historians) have just struck phenomenally lucky. Bone analysis clearly puts the body within the right time scale and a DNA match with one of Richards direct descendants makes even sceptical scholars certain that they have the biggest find since Victorian workmen uncovered the bodies of two young boys in the Tower of London (where Richard’s nephews were supposed to have been murdered.

This archaeological find is the Holy Grail for Ricardians ¬†who are firm believers that Richard III has been wronged by history and was misrepresented by Tudor and later chroniclers. Shakespeare’s Richard III is the best example of this trend, a hunchbacked king whose evil is sigaled by his deformity and whose disability has twisted him beyond redemption.

The prevailing assumptions for the last 400 odd years having been that the hunchback king did the murders were occasionally disputed by the odd crackpot claiming that a nice normal bloke got a rough deal from the press and was turned into the stuff of panto villains for a king who had at best a rather shaky hold on his new throne. ¬†Now to me, it seems perfectly logical. You make up stories about the guys with the disabilities, and then they are so much easier to knock down but then I live in Cameron’s Britain….and even _I_ now have the benefit of hindsight.

This story will also be the Holy Grail for disability historians (few though we are) and students of Disability Studies ¬†will doubtless be excited to add another definite historical personage to the list of disabled figures from history. ¬†Doubtless a few of us will also be remarking on the fact that this rather high profile discovery was aired on a distinctly ‘light’ television channel not exactly famed for its advanced interpretations of the social model of disability.

As an avid watcher of historical documentaries I was constantly irritated by the almost total absence of any scholars of medieval history (the programme was presented by an enthusiastic but unscholarly actor- comedian- not even Tony Robinson) and the lack of attention given to the implications of the discovery. ¬† The fact that disability studies is virtually unknown discipline was particularly obvious in the language used by all but the medical pathologist who analysed the bones. One of the reasons why despite being ‘pro-Richard’ and thus nominally ‘a Ricardian’ ¬†I do not subscribe to ‘The Ricardian’ (the Society of Richard III newsletter) is that adherents to Richard’s modern day cause tend to fall into only one camp- those who believe that if Richard was innocent, the hunch back, the murders of the princes in the Tower and the Tudor propaganda is all myth.

I have the satisfaction of having been one of the few folk to run with an original idea- that Richard could have been the evil king of legend and had no prosthetic looking hump, that he could have been a good king and still murdered many people as many of the other medieval kings found it necessary to do, OR that he could have had major deformities and been a perfectly good king: now there’s a thought. ¬†Major deformity or none, minor deformity or none you could dig up ¬†hundred medieval kings and measure their long bones analyse their spinal columns AND this STILL wouldn’t tell you whether they was a good person or a despotic ruler or not, but then as a scoliotic myself I may be a little biased.

My M.A. thesis was a discussion of the question of attitudes to deformity. How to explain to the historians that their ideas have an unthinking bias toward the beliefs of the era they study. ¬†It may seem simplistic to suggest the idea that just because Richard III had deformities (sorry guys I’m getting 1485 technical here) he was NOT evil and that proof of the one is not proof of the other, but somehow, search as I might I could find no scholar who actually picks up on this bias in the writings of other historians.

Personally I can’t think why people have got so narrow about it since people would not normally run with the idea that the world was in fact flat until Columbus discovered America, nor that students of Victorian poets could prove or disprove their subjects opium addictions via the science of phrenology. ¬†Scholars of Richard III seem to unaccountably be running with the hare and hunting with the hounds in that their preoccupations mirror the ideas of an era that believed that a persons moral character was stamped upon his or her physique. ¬†‘Distortio vultus sequitur distortionem morem’ (‘distortion of the face follows distortion of the morals’)

In particular, Sir Thomas More who wrote a History of Richard’s rein for his successors the Tudors, (and who incidentally believed that in a well managed society when people became a burden ‘to themselves or their relatives’ they should choose to die) believed implicitly in Richard’s wickedness or was paid to write it so.

The usual run of Richard fans will hang tooth and nail onto the idea that ‘he could not have been evil’, (and that so presumably the body found at the site of Richard’s recorded last-resting place could not possibly BE Richard), that he could not have had a hunchback, ‘how would he fit in the armour?’ and that if so he would not have been able to sit on a horse. ¬†Yes, really, they are fans of what happened at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 who yet have no notion that medieval armour was always tailor-made -although perhaps custom-built might be the more appropriate expression, just vas there are folk who do not question their belief that a disabled person would not have been able to fight in a battle. ¬†It seems that no-one likes to let go of a good theory, still less when they have no real life experience of walking around with scoliosis.

It was gratifying to see at least one Ricardian change her views on Richard (even if a more scholarly programme or in depth study might have considered why we were being led through a major historical discovery by a woman whose knowledge of Richard’s history appeared to be rather less firm than her beliefs about what she was going to find. ¬†Those beliefs were so strong that she seemed as shaken as any ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ participant to discover that the hand me down stories about her hero were in fact true. She nor the archaeologist had even considered the possibility that the spine of the skeleton they were looking for would be found out of the ‘normal’ expected alignment, something that as an open minded scholar I would have at least considered as a possibility. I did find myself a little thrilled at this point (as a disability historian I’d just nabbed myself a real historical deformity not just in the interesting and tortuous byways of ¬†retrospective tabloid skullduggery but an actual scoliotic king, and maybe even given the wounds and indignities inflicted on him after death (the pathology matches the chronicle accounts exactly) ¬†a hate crime victim (?)

All very affecting right down to the pathetically small box needed for a mans bones even when covered with his banner and arms, but where in all this were the disability historians? ¬†It was left to te forensic pathologist to explain scoliosis (to a woman who has been fascinated by Richard II for years and written reams in his defence (so much so that she could not bear to consider the implications or essentials of the alternative version. I HAD hoped for a scholar of David Starkey’s weight, to sum up the basics of Richard’ career and the theories about his deformity and historical reputation. Or even for the Shakespearean actor Anthony Sher who at least played Richard as a scoliotic hunchback and did considerable research for the role, even going so far as to meet some people with cerebral palsy (‘spastics’ in those days) but Richards first moments above ground were attended perhaps as pitifully as his last had been by a few still loyal and sympathetic retainers.

What all this suggests to me is that we are still in the dark ages of myth as far as disability and ability are concerned, that Disability Studies is still far behind feminism, gender studies or Black cultural theory in its visibility or vocalisation of its theories but worse that as a culture the 21st century has clung stubbornly to beliefs about human ‘types’ that are over five hundred years old, that the mass of people see the disability and think of the stereotype before considering the living, breathing individual.


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