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  • Kristin Bundesen, PhD

Is history factual, or just another form of fiction?

Highlights from the Understanding Diversity in the 15th and 16th Century conference, Edinburgh, Scotland April 2023. The last in this series.

This is the last post in this series - a serialized version of my lecture at the Edinburgh conference.

We’ve talked about multiple diversity issues within the 15th and 16th centuries but very little mention of the differently-abled such as Richard III. In 2015, I gave a lecture titled “Found Under a Parking Lot: Richard III, the Deformed King We Love to Hate” This was shortly after Phillipa Langley orchestrated the remarkable dig for Richard III’s bones, which in itself has been turned into a movie by Steve Coogan not yet released in the States so I’ve only seen the trailer. Received wisdom is that people of the time believed that outward appearance was a manifestation of a person’s soul or character. If the body was deformed, so was the person. Therefore, that person should be avoided. Richard, Duke of Gloucester, later King Richard III, has been portrayed as evil because of deformity of his body. Shakespeare tells us that he was hunchbacked with a withered arm. Clearly he must be evil.

Here are two historical portraits. They are copies of earlier portraits, so we can not count on their accuracy. The portrait on the left is a 1520 copy of an original He doesn’t look deformed. It’s possible that you can decide that one shoulder is higher than the other. On the right, is a late 16th century copy of an original. This portrait, in which he appears to be placing a ring on the little finger of his right hand, has been seen by some as evidence of his cruel nature and by others as evidence of his humanity.

And below is the image of the cleaned up skeleton after the scientists at the University of Leicester dug him up from the car park and got him all spic and span. The spine is most definitely curved.

“King Richard was three fingers taller than I, but a little thinner being not so thickset and much leaner; he also had very thin arms and legs though a great heart”. Nicolas von Poppelau, ambassador from Silesia (1484)

The only personal interview description of Richard.

Above is one of the only contemporary descriptions of Richard, by someone who actually met him: Nicolas von Peppelau, ambassador from Silesia in 1484. There is no mention of a crooked back or a withered arm. There is mention of his great heart implying a sense of generosity and warmth. Is this the man who murdered, or ordered the murder of his nephews and poisoned his wife because he lusted after his niece?

In that lecture, I made the point that fiction and fact are intertwined. That each informs the other. In the case of Richard III, there were the facts, rewritten by the victorious Tudors and adapted for the stage by Shakespeare, and then revisioned 400 years later by Josephine Tey in the A Daughter of Time (1951). In Tey’s book, a detective is recuperating in hospital and for fun and distraction starts researching Richard III with the help of an American graduate student. The detective decides that Richard was a good guy. Tey's fictional account revitalized the Richard III Society bent on rehabilitation of the last Plantagenet monarch which in turn lead to the remarkable dig portrayed in the fictional movie based on the true story of digging for Richard. Part of the reconstruction of Richard’s reputation includes the creation of a suit of armor worn by a young man with the same spinal curvature as that displayed in the dug up Richard. Apparently, it IS possible to go to battle differently-abled and be known for a generous heart.

Fiction plays a crucial role in society in several ways.

  • Fictional stories can help readers empathize with characters who are different from themselves, and in turn, develop empathy towards real people who may be different from them in some way.

  • Fiction can encourage readers to think critically about the world around them by presenting them with complex and challenging ideas, scenarios, and characters by engaging with these ideas in a safe and controlled environment,

  • Fiction can provide readers with an escape - particularly important during times of stress or hardship.

  • Fiction can be used to explore complex societal issues such as race, gender, and class, allowing readers to engage with these issues in a more accessible and engaging way.

Not only do we, as Joan Didion wrote, tell ourselves stories in order to live, but we tell stories to remember, to enquire, to challenge received wisdom, and to move beyond ourselves..

Do historians need to adopt the role of moral therapist for as Professor Southgate proposes in order to advance human happiness. Or should fiction serve this purpose? Neither of these questions need be answered as I propose that we should not limit our thinking to the binary.

Dorothy Dunnett was a master of historical fiction. Within her two major historical series The House of Niccolo and The Lymond Chronicles set in the 15th and 16th centuries respectively, she skillfully weaves a rich tapestry of diverse literary influences and traditions into her novels. However, it is her deep knowledge and extraordinary research of the period, her historical research, that allowed her to bring vividly to life not only the settings and events but also the intellectual and cultural milieu of the time.

Dunnett's works feature an array of characters from different social strata, nationalities, racial and ethnic backgrounds, religious traditions, gender fluidity, sexual identity, who challenge these perceived or presumed boundaries. As the conference has informed us, the complex interactions reflect the broader cultural exchanges taking place during the 15th and 16th century. Dunnett created a literary landscape that mirrors the diversity and dynamism of the period - a diversity that is frequently overlooked, or washed away in traditional historical narratives.

Dunnett's novels can serve as a testament to the power of literature to transport readers across time and space. They investigate and discuss within constructs that combine fictional and historical characters and events. They require effort. They require a willingness to learn via sweeping perspectives across unfamiliar territories and narrow canyons where consequences rush through like a torrent or water breaking through a dam.

But it is worth the effort. I hope we all continue our work bringing to light the places we have been through investigation and discourse, through disquisition and in case you haven’t read Dunnett, DO. If it’s been a while, I encourage you to start them again.


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