Saturday 11 April 2015

A Medieval Frame of Mind, by Laurie Graham

Three weeks ago I was in Leicester for the re-interment of King Richard III. Amidst the modest but beautiful ceremonies and the sincerity of the thousands who lined the streets and queued for hours to pay their respects at his coffin, there was something else: the television imperative to keep talking in excited voices even when there was nothing new to say.

Richard III, by Graham Turner
‘Why?’ asked presenter Jon Snow, so forcefully I thought he might levitate clean out of his chair, ‘Why on earth would a King risk his own neck by going into battle?’ 

Granted, the Royal Health & Safety Directorate would advise against it these days, but seriously, it was a question that encapsulates our difficulty of getting into a medieval frame of mind. It’s too easy for us to think of the 15th century as being like the 21st century but without indoor plumbing.

Why would a King risk his life leading a cavalry charge? Because he was a warrior, that's why, trained from childhood in military skills, and because in the 15th century might was right. There was no arbitration. Battlefields were where crowns were won or lost.  

Did Richard fear for his life that August morning at Bosworth Field? Like every other soldier mustered there he knew how flimsy the veil is that separates life from death. Death was a fact of daily life. Richard’s wife, whom he apparently loved, had died, but he was already thinking of the Plantagenet succession and shopping for another bride.  His only child had died too. There was nothing remarkable about that either.

Richard’s personal Book of Hours shows us that like all his contemporaries he lived in the fear of God and the hope of salvation, and if Jon Snow had been around on the eve of the battle to ask him why he insisted on riding forth the next morning, you can be sure that King Richard would have been baffled by the question. His world view was not the same as ours.

It’s a problem every historical novelist faces, to get beneath the sallet and the wimple and into the minds of people who saw the world very differently than we see it today. Tudor historian David Starkey misses no opportunity to sneer at historical novelists but here’s the thing: ‘Serious’ historians aren’t so very different from us.  There are facts and figures, verifiable to a certain extent. Interpretation of them is a matter of joining the dots.  A novelist aims to join the dots in an engaging and entertaining way. When they succeed they may whet a reader’s appetite to know more and to read to read more widely and even more deeply. Nothing wrong with that, Dr Starkey.   


Sue Bursztynski said...

Well said, Laurie! And it's not the only thing in which people can get it wrong. The mindset was very different.

Lucky you, getting to attend the re-interment!

Joan Lennon said...

Hear, hear!

Sue Purkiss said...