Who owns the history of the winter of our discontent? A reply to Mary Beard et al - blog by Gurdur


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Who owns the history of the winter of our discontent? A reply to Mary Beard et al
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Posted 05-Feb-2013 at 11:27 AM (11:27) by Gurdur
Updated 05-Feb-2013 at 11:52 AM (11:52) by Gurdur

Richard III was a king in England back in the days when a king was expected to take up sword himself, no matter how bookish or slight of build he was. Richard the Third was both bookish and slight of build, and had damage to his spine, most likely resulting in raising one shoulder a little higher than the other, making him look off-kilter. He was the very last king of England to actually die in battle, and he died bravely, fighting on despite being surrounded by foes and vastly outnumbered.

Why is this important to you, even though you may never have heard of him? Because the way you think about Richard III, or any other historical figure, says a lot about you and what you want to be, and about scepticism and belief. Richard III is a prototypical historical figure, one who sums up how people use and abuse history. He died at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485; he was in his early 30's when he was killed. The battle was part of The Wars Of The Roses, a long, complex conflict in England that spanned just over thirty years, very much like a savage Game Of Thrones. After his death, supporters of the new king busily started propaganda drives to demonise Richard III. One of the most important points is how his alleged physical deformity - a curvature of the spine, scoliosis, which may have made him look oddly out of kilter - was supposed to reflect a moral deformity. In other words he was painted as a morally evil man merely because he had a physical deformity, and the extent of his physical deformity was greatly exaggerated to make him look bad. The specific myths surrounding a person illuminate much more the personality of the myth-maker, in this case the condemnation about alleged physical problems and false moral connections.

He was also accused by the propagandists of having two young princes murdered, but evidence is scanty and ambiguous. Josephine Tey wrote an examination of the accusations against Richard III in her novel "The Daughter Of Time", a book which first came out in 1951 and is still well-worth reading. Its title comes from a quote from Sir Francis Bacon, "Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority". Tey's book, while criticised, is still an important step in scepticism and learning how to see through propaganda and simplistic narratives. The entire history of royal propaganda on this score has resulted in a backlash from modern-day champions of Richard III; the issue still is emotionally alive in England today. All of which means that the announced discovery of Richard III's skeleton, with public statements and presentation of evidence and in the last couple of days, is of a great deal of interest to the British public, even though Richard III's death was over 500 years ago. The University of Leicester issued a press release about it all, the skeleton was laid out for public viewing, but guarded by a security staffer and two chaplains, and there was some discussion on Twitter about whether Richard III should be re-buried using the Sarum Rite. Maev Kennedy (@maevesther), writing for the Guardian, gave a fair picture of the wide-spread public interest here, then here and here, while Paul Lay, also writing for the Guardian, strikes a somewhat more peevish note.

The Guardian even mounted a live-blog of the events and arguments. The Daily Telegraph upped the stakes by going back yet another 500 years, taking the chance to ponder the chances of finding the bones of Alfred The Great (who died in 899). Meawhile, professor of classics Mary Beard (@wmarybeard), already widely known through her description of the abuse she had received from trolls, became embroiled in the Richard III controversy by publicly questioning on Twitter the way in which the University of Leicester had publicised the finding of the skeleton. She then followed that up with a piece written for the Times Literary Supplement, in which she laid out further concerns.

Going over all the concerns raised by many different people in many different ways:

The most sophomoric and woefully inadequate reactions have been from academics who immediately posted to the effect of why should they care. In my opinion, pure ego, demanding explanations handed to them on silver platters. It's also a failure of scientific responsibility and science-communication. I won't bother with links to suchlike. Similar are the concerns raised by non-academics, again to the extent of why should they care. The obvious answer is that many people of the public do care, so they might as well get over themselves and deal with it. None of us really has the luxury of putting up with perpetual teenage sulkiness.

More justifiable are some of the concerns raised by Mary Beard and others. After a bad beginning in which she described a visceral reaction several times to the uni logos everywhere over the event, and which seemed simply snobbish at times, she raised more important points, as when she said, "... I weep for the unglam and excellent research culture we have lost". Others joined in in the conversation on Twitter raising worries that universities would be put under ever more pressure to back only sensationalist exploration and discovery programs.

There seems to me a basic mistake here; people seem to assume it's either glam research, or non-glam "good" research, and the second makes the first suffer. Yet the huge problem today of British academic research is the present national government and its swingeing budget cuts, not glam results produced by one uni or another. The enemy is not rival unis. Part of the problem is the overall failure at science-communication, the failure to help make non-glam research accessible and interesting to the public. This is something scientists must face up to; no amount of angry wishful elitism in response can make up for such failure.

On the specifically history side of it all, there is also the eternal question of just who owns history. Many professional historians and other scientists and science-communicators see a need to combat the "Great Man" narrative of history, to put history into much wider and better context. Science historians such as Rebekah Higgitt (@beckyfh) and Vanessa Heggie (@HPS_Vanessa) who blog together on the Guardian, or science and history communicators such as Stephen Curry (@Stephen_Curry, professor of structural biology, and also a blogger for the Guardian), or the blogger @rmathematicus, do much invaluble work combating myths and bad narratives in science and history, especially on the myths surrounding historical individuals. Yet like it or not, individuals do often matter as do masses, and Richard III does not fit the Great Man structure so much as more of a Wrongfully-Understood (and falsely accused) historical character, which probably accounts for his modern appeal more than anything else. People in general do like to get to the truth as they see it of things, and Richard III has become - rightly or wrongly - a symbol of truth-seeking and resistance to propaganda. History belongs to the people as much as it does to professional historians.

Most importantly, all the criticisms need positive alternatives to be offered alongside them. Why is Josephine Tey's book so popular, despite its flaws? It's largely because Tey gave a positive alternative to the then generally-given narrative surrounding Richard III. She gave a positive picture of how to apply scepticism and to weigh evidence, and alternative narratives. The need to offer a positive alternative when making criticisms is a pressing one, for history and science communication.

A video from the University of Leicester on the archeological dig for the skeleton of Richard III:

One last note: the title of this blog post of mine comes from a line in Shakespeare's play about Richard III. One commentor claimed we would not even remember Richard III were it not for Shakespeare, which completely misses the point: Shakespeare wrote lots of plays about English kings, yet Richard III is one of the very few of them to strike such public resonance, and that despite Shakespeare's bias against him.

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    lifelinking's Avatar
    Just read and very much enjoyed this blog over lunch. Thanks Tim.
    Posted 07-Feb-2013 at 02:05 PM (14:05) by lifelinking lifelinking is offline
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Making it personal: historical over-identification | teleskopos

14-Mar-2013, 11:26 PM (23:26)
ow seriously, and how personally, many of the members identify with this. As Tim Skellett wrote in a post reflecting on the academic response to the Richard III announcement, “Richard III has become – rightly or wrongly –

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