My congratulations to the team of archaeologists and other researchers at the University of Leicester who searched for, excavated and confirmed the bones of Richard III in what is now a car park on the site of a Franciscan friary. It is surely an archaeologist’s dream to dig up not just any old bones, but the bones of a named and, better still, famous individual. Since this event has proved newsworthy enough to be plastered all over national and international webpages, I do not wish to add to the inflationary response of comments and popular questions in terms of what should be done with the skeletal remains, are they really Richard’s, did he or didn’t he murder the princes in the tower and more along these lines. But because disability in the Middle Ages has been and still is my main research interest, I feel compelled to add my tuppence worth with regard to Richard III and disability. Keeping it as short and sweet as possible, my comments boil down to three points:
1. I have previously criticised the tendency among writings of disability history to trot out the figure of Richard III time and again as an example of a ‘disabled’ individual (in my book Disability in Medieval Europe, p. 11). Not only has much of disability history been rather restricted, in that the myopic focus on well-known, generally famous, powerful or influential, individual characters perforce distorts the picture (where in such narratives are the untold masses of mundane, unknown, and perhaps rather boring disabled peasants, artisans and other historical bit-part players?). A classic example of disability history as a history of famous people was produced in 1932 by Hans Würtz, a German medical specialist and founder of a famous orthopedic clinic (Oskar-Helene-Heim in Berlin-Zehlendorf), whose pioneering (for the time!) work Zerbrecht die Krücken (“Smash the Crutches”, published Leipzig: Leopold Voss) presented some 500 examples of famous ‘supercrips’ from throughout history. Würtz hoped to provide encouraging examples of people who ‘despite of’ their physical conditions achieved great things as political or military leaders, artists, or scientists. He derived from Nietzsche his emphasis on using personal willpower to overcome one’s impairment and hence to transcend disability. While considered rather patronising and even derogatory nowadays, such works of achievement narrative nevertheless subscribe to our cult of individuality. Focusing on individual biographies, such as the story of Richard, perforce focuses our gaze on elite ‘disabled’ figures, since in the days before Facebook only such figures merited the attentions of written history. (In case someone raises this point: the protagonists of miracle healings, though probably numbering in their thousands during the medieval period, are rarely, before the advent of protocolised canonisation proceedings in the early 13th century, given the kind of biographical detail we like to hear.)
2. But the figure of Richard III also highlights yet again the difference between disability and deformity, or rather, the problematic relationship between these two categories. Even if one momentarily disregards the recent findings from the excavations at Leicester, the previous historiographical accretions – via Holinshed and Shakespeare to modern disability history – had portrayed Richard as possibly deformed, yes, but hardly ‘disabled’. Whatever his physical condition, Richard was quite able. Able to walk, ride, fight and rule. No mention that his physical condition prevented him from doing any of these and other things. But what his physical state did do is affect his character, according to not just the older histories, but somewhat bizarrely a notion still very much alive and well today. Interviewed for a Channel 4 documentary in conjunction with the excavation and the subsequent craniofacial identification and facial reconstruction by forensic scientists, Richard III Society member Philippa Langley, originator of the search, said: “It doesn’t look like the face of a tyrant. […] He’s very handsome.” More than anything this throws us back to the age-old stereotype of the evil mind in an evil body. Richard can’t have been a Bad Guy, now that we can see what a handsome face he had, and can see that he wasn’t really a hunchbacked, crippled disabled person. Basically, this is physiognomics. Let me contextualise the descriptions of Richard’s appearance a little. It just so happens that the ‘science’ of physiognomy, derived from pseudo-Aristotelian antecedents (Physiognomonica), really took off in a big way during the humanist renaissance of the fifteenth and peaked during the sixteenth centuries when the first histories of Richard and his times were written. Although scholastics like Albertus Magnus and other learned folk such as Pietro d’Abano had already in the thirteenth century linked outer physical appearance with inner psychological characteristics, it was not until the popularisation of such notions in the fifteenth century that physiognomics became big business. The kind of ‘How To’ manuals for princes often included sections on using physiognomics to judge the character of one’s courtiers and rival princes. It is hardly surprising therefore that Richard’s appearance, whatever it may have been, was described in the language of physiognomy by the fifteenth and sixteenth century writers. To conclude this point, may I express how heartening it is to read this statement by Lin Foxhall, Head of the School of Archaeology and Ancient History at the University of Leicester: “Our archaeological research does not tell us anything about the character of Richard III, and of course his physical condition and appearance were not a manifestation of his character.”
3. So now to the actual excavation findings. They raise equally interesting questions with regard to the severity or not of deformity/disability. As the BBC article put it: “Richard III was portrayed as deformed by some Tudor historians and indeed the skeleton’s spine is badly curved, a condition known as scoliosis. However, there was no trace of a withered arm or other abnormalities described in the more extreme characterisations of the king.” According to modern medical opinion, this type of scoliosis would have developed during teenage years, and one of the effects of spinal curvature is the shortening of an individual’s overall height. So Richard III is estimated to have stood about 5ft 8ins (1.7m) tall without the scoliosis, “but the curvature would have made him appear ‘considerably’ shorter.” Most shortened stature is not a disability, but the news report exaggerates the degree of this shortening, still pandering to the received popular stereotype of linking physical disability with character. There’s probably quite a grey area on the scale of stature, where people are not quite dwarf but not quite ‘normal’ height either, but even with the spinal curvature now evidenced in his skeletal remains, Richard would not have been classed as so short as to constitute physically impaired. What about the curvature itself? Richard’s twisted spine may look spectacular, but in fact may have had hardly any impact on his living person. Scoliosis need not be painful, nor affect motion. And one shoulder higher than the other does not a disability make – especially when the clothing of the times could easily have redressed any unbalanced symmetry. From which one may conclude that – any – skeletal remains need interpreting with caution when it comes to making inferences about the lived experiences of an individual.