There’s no reason to see Richard III as a saint just because we can put a face to his skull.
Note: This article is from the Guardian.
If the secret plan of the Richard III Society was to return Britain to the middle ages, the job is done. As a court steps in to decide whether the (very) deceased monarch’s remains should rest in Leicester Cathedral or York Minster, one can only conclude that we “modern” British possess all the rationality, common sense and enlightenment of superstitious medieval peasants.
The row over Richard’s bones is exactly like a dispute between two medieval cathedrals over the right to some relic of the True Cross. All over Europe, cathedrals were built between 1000 and 1500 AD to house relics ranging from saint’s fingers to the burial shroud of Jesus. York and Leicester are in this sense acting true to form – they both want a famous relic. But how does that help anyone to understand history?
The discovery of Richard III’s skeleton under a car park was a fascinating dig that seemed to open a window on the past. But it has turned out to be a false window. Any wider insight this discovery might have brought about medieval life or our relationship with history has been swallowed up in a stupid tide of sentimentality.
It all has to do with putting a face on the past. A portrait bust of Richard III was created on the basis of his exhumed skull, and some claimed to be moved to tears by it. Suddenly, because his face was in the papers, Richard was One of Us.
There’s no rational basis to this. Nothing has been proved about his guilt or innocence. Richard III was a murderous tyrant according to Thomas More. It suited the Tudor age to see him that way, but the discovery of his bones makes absolutely no difference to working out what he really did and did not do. Did Richard order the deaths of the princes in the tower? Very plausible, if unproven. There’s no reason to see him as a saint, just because we can put a face to his skull.
I am all for the contemplation of portraits as images from other times. It’s moving to look at the painted face of Artemidorus on his mummy in the British Museum. But the visualisation of Richard shows the danger of putting images ahead of words. Because this medieval man has been given a face, and the illusion of intimacy that brings, his PR people have been able to ride roughshod over history.
The study of history is not, in the end, visual. It is wordy. You have to read books – and more than one. Many interpretations of many events make up the dense fabric of historical thought. Today’s popular history risks offering a bite-sized intellectual snack if it encourages us ro read just one paperback or watch one TV show. That’s just history-lite.
But when it comes to fetishising a face and some bones, as has happened with Richard III, we’re not even talking history – we’re talking myth. You can learn more about the middle ages by watching Monty Python and the Holy Grail than you can by weeping over Richard III.
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