Sunday, March 29, 2015

About Richard III

Much was made this week just past about the re-internment of Richard III, following excellent work at the University of Leicester. The BBC, understandably, had somewhat to say about the matter, as have the Richard III SocietyNPR's Scott Simon, and many others. Among the many things that the discovery of the old king's remains and their reburial suggests is continued appreciation of the medieval--for the event would not have attracted the media attention it has or the number of attendees at the surrounding ceremonies did the medieval it represents not still command the regard of many in the world.

Or it at least can. As an early post to this blog notes, the end-date of the medieval in England can be argued across several dates. One of them is the ascent of the Tudors after the death in battle of Richard III in 1485, and if that is the date accepted, then Richard III is the last medieval king of England as well as the last (as yet) to die in battle.* If the end of the English medieval is taken as the 1534 Act of Supremacy, then Richard III is still a medieval king, although not epoch-ending as the 1485 date makes him. If the end of the medieval in England is, instead, the 1476 introduction by Caxton or printing to England, though, he is not: Edward IV would be, and Richard III would be the second early modern English king if the usual succession of cultural and historical periods is followed in such a case. But it is more likely that the 1485 date continues to apply (discussion of the issue is still worth having), and it is thus more likely that the death of Richard III marks the end of the medieval in England--at least in an "official" sense. Commemoration of that death, then, would also be a commemoration of the medieval, an acknowledgement of its importance centuries after the fact even if there are potentially problematic metaphors involved in celebrating the internment of the last medieval king of England.**

Another early post to this blog notes that part of why the medieval continues to occupy contemporary thought is its correspondence with current concerns. Divisive power struggles seem to remain concerns, as do the seesawing of power among two groups of dynastic elites effectively indistinguishable from one another by those over whom they rule and concerns over shifts in language. Political corruption does, as well. The life and times of Richard III speak to all such things, and celebrating him (as happens at burials) serves as a reminder of such speaking, arguing again in favor of keeping the medieval in mind.

The ceremony itself can be parsed, of course, with the changes from the rites Richard III would have recognized noted (the shift to Protestantism being among them) no less than the continuities, the unifying formal serving as synecdoche for the broader cultures which enfold it and offering once again a lens through which to understand ourselves the better. And that seems something well worth doing.

*Note that this is not an expression of hope. It is, instead, an acknowledgement that there are likely yet to be kings of England, and one of them might well die in battle.

**Joy at interring the last medieval king can easily be read as joy at interring the medieval, in a sense putting it entirely in the past. Simply enacting the burial cannot effect the change in fact, of course, but it can conduce to a blindness to the continuations of medieval practice that occur, as well as to the many good things that were present among the medieval that would be good to retain or return to in the modern and post-modern.

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