I’m a sucker for a historical tale— as long as it’s full of drama, intrigue and at least one insane king. If the story also has two or three loony royals, that’s even better. Especially if one is suffering from a questionable mental disease that could have been easily prevented if his parents hadn’t been cousins or he hadn’t shagged every woman in sight.
I have a decided preference for true stories— because, most often, the facts are way more interesting than anything anyone could make up. (Err— perhaps someone should tell this to Donald Trump.)
History is full of stories that are, frankly, unbelievable. If you think Game of Thrones is exciting and awesome, you should pick up a book about the Plantagenet family. Those folks were CRAY. Loco en la cabeza. The kind of crazy where one minute they are achieving remarkable victories for England, and the next they are trying to secretly (or not so secretly) murder all their younger brothers before they had a chance to grow hair on their testicles.
Yeah, I’m not kidding.
If you think George R.R. Martin conjured all of his Game of Thrones storylines from his own mind, you don’t know enough about the Lancasters and Yorks. During their Wars of the Roses, the English crown exchanged hands so many times that you’d think it was a fucking game of Hot Potato. The kind you play on rainy days at school during recess. Well, if “recess” were a battle that you had to wear sixty pounds of armor, that is.
I like reading books or watching documentaries about intense periods of history, like these. In fact, I just spent the weekend reading a book by Dan Jones, my favorite medieval historian. Some people like to go to the beach on their days off, I like to read about revolutions, multi-generational family feuds and all the kings named Henry.
Anyway, as I turned the last page after Henry Tudor had emerged triumphant over one of history’s favorite villains, Richard III, I started thinking about poor Richard. Sure, he did lots of bad things… but, frankly, so did many other people at the time. Yet, somehow, in the years since, he has emerged as the great supervillain. The Lex Luthor of the Middle Ages. A grasping Voldemort that would lock young Harry and Ron in a tower.
But, what really separates Richard III from all the other medieval baddies? Of which we have many to choose from? He wasn’t the only one to knock off a relative, or two. He wasn’t the only one to steal a crown that wasn’t his. He wasn’t the only one to turn into a paranoid egomaniac.
But, Richard III did have one distinguishing feature. He had an orthopedic disability that caused him to have a serious case of scoliosis. This made him excellent villain material. It’s not surprising that William Shakespeare took that particular trait and ran all the way to the bank with it. It’s super easy to demonize a dude with a crooked and hunched back.
As a person with a disability (and also, scoliosis!), I’m left wondering… if Richard III hadn’t had this medical condition, would history’s recollection of him have been different? Would his contemporaries (and those in the decades following), have had such an easy time shoving him into the “EVIL” category?
At the time, those with disabilities weren’t looked upon kindly. Abnormalities, birth defects and other medical conditions were often seen as a “Curse from God” and punishment for inherent evilness and other wrongdoings. These prejudices persisted for much of human history, and can even sometimes be witnessed today (as much as I wish I could say otherwise).
The disability of Richard III, without question, influenced others’ perception of him. It’s easy to imagine a man that has been “cursed by God” to be capable of really nasty things. Especially in the medieval world where understandings of medicine, the human body, and religion were best left unexplored— and unquestioned. Even William Shakespeare penned these words for old Richard III, leaving us no doubt about how we should view the man’s nature: “I am determined to prove a villain.”
I can say one thing for certain. I’m really glad that I was not born during this crazy period. And that’s not just due to all the beheadings, the wars, and the general miserableness. You see, a girl with a medical condition, like Spinal Muscular Atrophy, would definitely not have lasted for long.
In addition to all the other preventable diseases that could kill me, all it would take is one tiny sniff of Black Plague and I would have been dropped in a patch of dirt outside the churchyard. You know, where the unblessed and cursed are left to rot? After all, sanctified ground within the churchyard is reserved for way better folks— like those that put the decapitated heads of their enemies on spikes outside the village gates.
In truth, I bet my medieval dirt nap would have been met with some relief. “Yay, the cursed girl is gone! Time to get back to sharpening my axe collection.”
Ahh, history. What tangled tales you weave!