Friday, 8 February 2013

Bring up the bodies?

A last post about Richard III. Here’s his face reconstructed from the skull.

What’s really fascinated me about the finding of his body – apart from the discovery itself – has been the reactions to it. Fellow academic historians and archaeologists seem to have been depressingly dismissive about the historical value of Leicester’s find and the way that the University have played it up. There’s a shrivelling whiff of miserablist sour grapes about all this. The finding of named individuals from the past is incredibly rare – and I bet if any classicist were offered the chance to look on the mortal remains of Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar the response would be rather different. This find is a chance for ordinary people to touch the past – to be thrilled by the reality of what happened long ago and for academic work to spark popular interest. The professionals should be celebrating a moment for their discipline to make it into the limelight.

There’s also something wonderfully medieval about the attitude to these bones. The city of York has made a counterclaim for the body because that’s where Richard came from. It’s just a modern squabble over who gets a saint’s relics – the citizens of Bari and Venice fighting over who had the bones of St Nicholas in the Middle Ages. It has, of course, nothing to do with the fitting place, but all about the modern religion of tourism – the bones of King Richard, wherever they are buried, will bring visitors to the city. The Venetians knew this well – and were prime holy body snatchers. St Mark was their trump card (if his bones ever existed) and ensured a rich stream of paying guests.

The Richard thing has also sparked a potential chain reaction of similar attempts. There’s a vicar in Winchester who thinks King Alfred is buried in his church and would like to find out. The Richard III society wants to exhume the bones of the princes in the Tower from Westminster Abbey for DNA testing. The Church of England is likely to stand firm on this. Richard was found in a car park but the Church is worried that voyeuristic exhumations from holy ground could open up a can (or coffin?) of worms. ‘Inter their bodies as becomes their births’, says the victorious Henry Tudor in Shakespeare’s play about Richard III.

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