Tuesday, 9 April 2013

"Thoughts On Bias" aka "Is The Real Richard Around? Bueller? Bueller?"

My "light reading" in between my school work is currently looking at the fateful spring months of 1483 when Richard III ascended the throne of England. With Richard's discovery, obtaining books on his life is quite simple. The challenge lies in finding one worth reading.
I am of the firm opinion that historians have an obligation to provide the public with truthful recollections of history. While personal bias is hard to avoid, it can be successfully negotiated. Generally, one writes a book because they hold an interest in the subject matter. Thus, that interest already teeters on the brink of bias. Topics commonly tend to drift in the historian's favor. More rarely, historians go the opposite direction and point out every minute flaw in theories that go against their own.

Richard III is a perfect example. I spent some time delving into book reviews to see which author provides the best rounded coverage of the man. The first book I read was by Ashdown-Hill, the man who "inspired" the Leicester dig. It was a short read and full of supposition: if this, maybe, let's imagine, etc. I can understand the use of such thoughts to cover vast swathes of unknown periods of time, but it doesn't provide any truths. I would argue that this is the perfect spot for historical fiction writers to fill the gap. Theories can be tested and perhaps promote proper discourse but it is at least held under the guise of fiction rather than historical fact. Back to Ashdown-Hill; as it turns out, he is a Ricardian. I know they are all not as loony as Phillipa Langley, but the group clearly has an axe to grind. I also read a book by Michael Hicks whom BBC History Magazine considers "the greatest living expert on Richard". Hicks actually devotes a third of the book to analyzing Richard's political takeover and he puts the debate into the form of a trial. Based on his research, which is definitely meticulous, Richard planned the usurpation shortly after his brother's death and mastered the use of propaganda and character-assassination to win over the public and several key supporters. A quick look at online reviews has people poking (or at least attempting to poke) all sorts of holes in Hick's theories. And of course, the accusation of bias is thrown around.

The truth hides, where it usually tends to be, in the middle. Yes, we know Richard wasn't the Shakespearian monster. In fact, he was very devout and cared for the rights of the poor and common man. We must also remember that he is not the saint the Ricardians want him to be. Plenty of men went to their deaths under his orders and the Princes in the Tower did disappear under his watch. So where then is the book that bridges the gap?

I do admit that I have but a working knowledge of Richard's accession. There are, however, striking similarites to another character I happen to know quite well. At this point, I own 18 books (non-fiction) on Anne Boleyn. Among these are several "landmark" studies with the second tier being retellings (ie rip-offs) of said landmark studies. Is there a well balanced book in the lot? If we put these volumes on a spectrum ranging from devil to saint, we can instantly bookend (pun intended) both sides. On the "devil" side is GW Bernard who actually plays the devil's advocate and questions Anne's innocence in the charges of adultery. She is not a major player in the creation of the English reformation and she apparently found herself in a situation beyond her capacity to control. On the other end of the spectrum is Anne the "saint". We have to look no further than Joanna Denny who portrays an Anne who could do no wrong. Henry, Katherine of Aragon, More, catholics in general...all are liars, masochists and venemous human beings. The book, if it should be called that, suffers from terrible research and even worse interpretation of sources. I barely made it halfway through the book.

With the ends in place, what of the landmarks? Common concensus amongst historians and the public give us a few: Friedmann (1880s), Ives (1986/2005) and Warnicke (1989). Friedmann's meticulous research is still the starting point for anyone interested in Anne. Because of it's publish date, it does smack of Victorian morality. Still, I think it provides a strong central hold on the spectrum. Ives is considered by many to have the definitive biography of Anne, myself included. His book is not without its detractors (Warnicke especially) but the amount of supporters definitely tips the scales in his favor. He presents a sympathetic Anne who, unlike Bernard's version, was a power at court with her wit and intelligence. She was a mover and Ives stretches it to suggest she manipulated the King himself in certain aspects. To his credit, he also details her flaws but the book as a whole is clearly pro-Anne. Thus, I think it should be placed to the right of Friedmann maybe 1/3 of the way up along the "saint" half. Warnicke spent the late 1980s dueling with Ives over various theories on Anne's downfall. To make it simple, Ives suggests a Cromwellian coup while Warnicke thinks it was Anne's second (and final) miscarriage. (Fun fact: it was Warnicke's book that was used for research for "The Other Boleyn Girl"...ugh). Warnicke too offers a spirited defense of Anne, more so than Ives I would say. This puts her halfway up on the "saint" side.

Any remaining books, especially newer ones, tend to pull heavily from Ives. Therefore, most of the second tier books fall between the center and Ives. I can't recall any of the others drifting into "devil" territory. Have we reached a concensus that Anne just wasn't a manipulative creature responsible for the destruction of catholicism (using a broad brush here) or have we simply convinced ourselves by the abundance of pro-Anne books that she was a renaissance woman who played the game of politics and lost? I do applaud GW Bernard for playing devil's advocate. Without challenges to popular theory, we may become complacent. We are now forced to strengthen our own theories which can only provide for an improvement in the long run.
Curious to anyone's thoughts on this rambling?

While I stand by my last sentence that we should approve of challenges to conventional thinking, I do find there is justice in this world because Joanna Denny's biography of Anne Boleyn is being flogged like a dead horse in reviews. If I wasn't such a book lover, I'd be using it for a door stop :)

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