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And another thing… This:

Skeleton recently identified as that of Richard III

seems to answer a question that has been at the back of my mind since high school. Viz., whether the king really had a physical deformity, or whether this was all so much Tudor rhetoric. Given that it seems the former was the case (i.e. skeletal analysis shows evidence of scoliosis; they haven’t just laid it out oddly to make it *look* hunch-backed), it raises an important point that isn’t necessarily new but possibly in need of restating:

The academic world, or perhaps the world in general, has an excessive tendency to regard historical reportage, particularly in medieval and ancient texts which are already highly ‘othered’, as metaphorical, mythic, exaggerated, or just plain baloney. I see this as having been intensified by the linguistic turn, at which point historians everywhere suddenly realised (or at least articulated) that language is/was a manipulable and fallible vehicle for the ‘truth’ about historical pasts. This theoretical inheritance puts us at risk, occasionally, of throwing the baby of historical depth and complexity out with the bath-water of Whiggish certainty. The king’s remains remind me that sometimes or rather, also, the most politicized and rhetorical of texts can reflect observed realities, and we really should be working harder to keep both our trust and our cynicism –if that’s the word I want– in constant dialogue when approaching the past.

No doubt there’s more to say, but I’m still digesting this, and I refuse to be rushed…

Head wounds of Richard III. Left: a heavy weapon has sliced off the bottom of the skull on one side. Right: [edit] an arrow wound. [Posthumous wounds have been detected to the face, ribs, and pelvis, not shown here.]

Historians practise empathy as a profession. As Guy Halsall has argued frequently through his blog (and no doubt in person), this is one of the most important things history trains students to do. Reading a historical source well is to get inside the heads and hearts of all the players (not only the ones whose voices are explicitly articulated) to understand (if not agree with) them, and hence it is a personal, ethical and political action. Nevertheless, constant empathy is an emotionally taxing thing. Being able to see the other side (and the other other side, and the other other other side, and… you get the idea…) of every story is psychologically draining. Like trauma doctors who regularly have to look at mangled human bodies and face their suffering, historians develop their own kind of ‘professional shields’ to protect the psyche from the horrifying humanity of people in the past, especially —but not exclusively— their distress. By sifting data out of their stories, analysing it, and reconfiguring it into new narratives driven by whatever theoretical stripe, we are both making versions of the past accessible, and also, strangely, enabling a distancing between ourselves and our materials… or rather, I should say, real, historical people. Sometimes things break through this line of defence. A friend of mine tells a story about how reading Héloise’s reply to Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum as an undergraduate had her crying in class. Personally, I almost lost it at a major international conference when the speaker read out a contemporary description of the innumerable dead after the battle of Evesham (I don’t think I was alone, either). And today I find myself deeply moved by the revelation of the physical insults perpetrated on the body of Richard III before and after death. I can’t afford to be so deeply affected by the people whose lives I study on a regular basis, but I’m glad that I retain the capacity.

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I teach and research at the Centre for Medieval & Renaissance Studies in the School of Philosophical, Historial and International Studies, Monash University (Australia). Views expressed here are my own and not representative of the CMRS, SOPHIS or Monash.

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