Richard III and the missing paradigms

On CiF, Charlotte Higgins is getting a hard time with her Richard III piece. This need surprise no-one, because CiF is universally considered to be one of the shoutiest community care centres on the mainstream internet, even by those who hem hem comment there.

One of her points is, to be fair, a bit silly. Yes, this little exercise will have helped the University of Leicester’s “impact” measurement in the dreaded Research Excellence Framework no end. But while the damn thing is there, I’d much rather archaeology and history departments avoided being crushed by its spiky wheels and paid their dues to “impact”. Total crock it may be, but if you don’t survive it, you won’t be able to carry on being snooty about it for a living, as Kissinger almost said. Anyway, the impact measurement surely does most harm where actual funds are being diverted from the worthy to the flashy, which in this case is only partially true because the project was run in association with the Richard III Society and supported by some ad hoc fundraising. There are people across the globe who are happy to contribute to the cost of researching this particular Plantagenet king, a fact of anthropological interest in itself which I may come onto in the next post, lifetime of the universe permitting.

Her other point, which she has borrowed from Professor Morley at Bristol, is that our view of Richard III’s reign remains unchanged at the end of today, and this point is a sound one. This is not the stuff of which paradigm shifts in enquiry are made. Not that the disinterment of single individuals can’t be that, of course – think of Lucy, or the Ice Man, or Sutton Hoo, all in their different ways startling milestones in method or theory. But it is hard to imagine the archaeology or the history of medieval kingship undergoing a great revolution as a result of this one discovery, and the fuss surrounding it is disproportionate to its historical importance (and I say that as someone who was heard to squeak like an enraged gerbil when the BBC chose to cut away its press conference coverage to the downfall of Chris Huhne, who I think it is fair to say will be a footnote long before Richard III is, and today would perhaps prefer to be).

In fact, I’m a bit horrified by the idea – proposed in the comments at Prof Morley’s blog – that this is history’s “Higgs Boson moment”, because this totally impoverishes the public’s view of what historical and archaeological enquiry is. The stakes, the narratives, and the uncertainties resolved, would have to be a hell of a lot bigger than this. Discovering incontestable proof that – for example – agriculture in Britain predated agriculture in the Levant might be getting towards a similar order of magnitude. The advantage of parlour game history – did Richard III kill the Princes? was Shakespeare a cover identity? – is they allow you to explore a historical problem within fairly limited constraints, and with easy-to-grasp narratives, facts and characters. It’s fun, it exercises the mind, it gets people interested (including once upon a time me). And yes, actually it would tweak the political history of the reign if someone somehow managed to prove that Richard didn’t kill the Princes. But today’s revelations don’t even speak to that small mystery, and so we only have ourselves to blame if unkinder STEM colleagues write off the importance of the humanities on the basis of claims like that.

On the other hand, if I’m not lovingly polishing a shiny new paradigm, I have learnt a few horrifying things today about medieval humiliation, mutilation and war, specifically with regard to the whole sword-in-the-bottom thing (Films Disney Will Never Make #246). I have also learnt that an extremely precise oral history tradition about someone’s burial plot is, against all the odds, true. That might give us pause for thought about other oral history traditions of similar antiquity, and concerning some of the other characters in the Richard III canon. In fact, one of the extremely serious and not at all parlour gamey arguments you can make for the archaeology of individuals is that it allows you to falsify your archaeological claims with reference to known facts about an attested life, and then use this to evaluate your archaeological reasoning in other cases, where your claims cannot be tested.

So there are solid things to derive from the Greyfriars dig, with or without the accompanying glitz. But it likely won’t result in what Philippa Langley of the Richard III Society suggested it would: the rewriting of history books.



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