Monday, August 10, 2015

The Last Medieval King of England

History very rarely has bright line rules where you can say one historical era ended and another began.  Richard III is often called the last king from the Medieval time period in England, & some people seem to get upset by that.  The statement isn't exactly correct, but because we like to have bright line rules & definitive starting & stopping points, I think Richard gets the "honor" of being the last Medieval king because of the incredible number of changes that happened during the Renaissance & Reformation, most of which occurred after he died.  

For example, just a tantalizing seven years after Richard died, Columbus set sail for China & ended up wandering around the Caribbean.  And a couple of decades after that, Martin Luther did the equivalent of starting a petition on Change(dot)org: He nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Church in Wittenberg. (Some wet blankets are now pointing out he merely mailed them to the bishop, but that doesn't make a good story, does it?), precipitating Henry VIII to write a defense of the Catholic Church, for which he was awarded the title "Defender of the Faith." At this point, events happen like collapsing dominoes--it's impossible to keep up with all the changes and inventions happening, so in the interest of simplicity (and sanity), we end up with Richard III being the last medieval king & Henry VIII being the first Renaissance king. (Forgive me, but I get a big kick out of Henry VII being relegated to the status of historical place holder.)

Geoffrey Chaucer (d. 1400), The Canterbury Tales (Westminster: William Caxton, about 1483). PML 693, f. q6v. The Morgan Library & Museum, Purchased with the Bennett Collection, 1902.
However, one of the hallmarks of the Renaissance, the printing press, was actually invented & in full use during the majority of Richard's life.  The credit is given to Johannes Gutenberg, who printed off 180 copies of the Bible in 1455, three years after Richard was born.  Books became more affordable and literacy spread beyond the nobility & upper classes.  In the context of England, the printing press was brought to England by William Caxton in 1476, when Ricard was 24.  Caxton set up his press at Westminster and began running off copies of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales." (Interesting side note: Chaucer was married to the sister of Katherine Roet, mother of Joan Beaufort, whose mitochondrial DNA helped identify Richard's remains.)

Jacobus de Voragine (ca. 1229–1298).
The Golden Legend.
Translated and enlarged by William Caxton.
Westminster: William Caxton, [between 20 November 1483 and March 1484]. 
Bridwell Library | Perkins School of Theology | Southern Methodist University 

Richard was a bibliophile & owned several printed books.  Caxton even dedicated one book to Richard, according to the Richard III Society: "Order of Chivalry." Access to published material & the spread of learning was so important to Richard & his one Parliament, that an exemption to "anti-alien" legislation was made so that clergymen & scholars could still have access to & import publications printed abroad and in languages other than English. 

It is in a way unfortunate that Richard, a well-educated man who valued literacy & promoted & supported education & the printing press during his lifetime, is associated with the Middle Ages, a time period most people associate with superstition, plagues, & illiteracy.  But in a way, speculating on what Richard would have done & how he would have reacted to the changes that were just around the corner from 1485 is one of the reasons people are still fascinated by him 500 years on.

Note on the illustrations: I chose the Wife of Bath illustration because she went on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, which I have also done. While her story is bawdy (Richard would probably have said "Merrie"), her tale has special meaning for me as it is one of the earliest mentions in the English language of this particular pilgrimage.  In Chaucer's time, the pilgrimage to Santiago was already over 500 years old.

The second illustration is from a book printed by Caxton during Richard's own reign. Both books were printed at Westminster.

1 comment:

  1. The debate over whether Richard III was a "medieval" or "renaissance" monarch involves a ton of factors. Most historians have tossed away the old historiography that the English renaissance, in particular, began at Bosworth. That division, as scholars like Roberto Weiss and Charles Nauert have shown, is very illusory and based on writings of late 19th-early 20th century historians who simply chose Bosworth as a "matter of convenience". The printing press' introduction into England was just one of the innovations occurring during Richard's life. Another important development was the use of the English vernacular language and the teaching of classical Latin and Greek. Lots of other things too. The bottom line, for me, is that there are connotations about calling a king "medieval" or saying that an age of "renaissance" was ushered in with a new political dynasty. I believe many scholars nowadays call the late 15th century the "early modern period" to avoid those connotations.

    Keep in mind that the Age of Exploration did not necessarily begin with Columbus' expedition of 1492. It all began with Henry the Navigator who led important expeditions to the western coast of African and discovered the Azores, Canary Islands and Madeira. Henry the Navigator was the son of Phillipa of Lancaster, who was the daughter of John of Gaunt. So the Age of Exploration really began during the "Lancastrian" time period by a Plantagenet. Which makes the argument about when the Renaissance began more complicated, since England had extremely close ties to Portugal and was importing sugar cane and madeira "wine" from those new discoveries.

    History is never so neat and orderly. And, in my opinion, there are multiple aspects to Richard III's life (both as duke and king) that reflect a more "progressive" attitude than that which society usually accords to the "medieval" age. So many stereotypes, so little time!