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Sentiment and the Writing of History

sen·ti·ment

noun

1. an attitude toward something; regard; opinion.

2. a mental feeling; emotion: a sentiment of pity.

3. refined or tender emotion; manifestation of the higher or more refined feelings.

4. exhibition or manifestation of feeling or sensibility, or appeal to the tender emotions, in literature, art, or music.

5. a thought influenced by or proceeding from feeling or emotion.

from Dictionary.com

 

I had the misfortune of discussing Michael Hicks’ book Edward V: a Prince in the Tower with a Ricardian.  She was ranting and raving over Hicks’ following statement:

"If Edward V suffered for what he was, his cruel fate brought him all the vengeance on earth that anyone could desire -- and perhaps also hereafter.  Surely the terrified boy besought God both for mercy during his life and salvation after his death.  The former was denied; the latter was a matter of faith that not everybody can share... Nothing has been passed down against his character.  Our sole witnesses report a youth of high promise well-suited to fulfill his predestined role.  He was the hope of his parents, his dynasty, and his nation..."

She felt that it was sentimental and had no place in a historical work.  I might add that she had never shown any repugnance toward sentimentality when it came to Richard III, although she did point to Paul Murray Kendall as another biographer given to sentiment.  I disagreed, and the discussion turned into a quarrel. 

Now, I admit that Hicks is a much warmer writer than his mentor Charles Ross, but it is not unusual or out of line for a historian to provide subjective analysis following an objective accounting of the events and sources. 

If the historian has laid out sources in an objective and rational way, no adult reader can complain that his/her thought processes and reading processes were disrupted trying to pick objective facts from the historian’s conclusions. 

It is not just Hicks and Kendall who insert their sentiments into their narrative.  It turns out that all historians do it.  Is Christine Carpenter using undue sentiment when she says that Richard “reacted with an ineptitude that beggars belief”?  Or scolds Kendall for pointing to the violence and instability of Edward V’s reign as “proof” that child kings are problematic (she reminds us that it was Richard who made his reign so)?  Or Charles Ross for inserting the words “a true son of his father” into his narrative about Edward V’s spirited defense of his household officers at Stony Stratford.  Or his references to pro-Ricardian “lady novelists.”  How about Anthony Pollard’s inclusion of Dafydd Llwyd ap Llewelyn ap Griffid’s poem in Richard III and the Princes in the Tower?  Isn’t that a purposeful attempt to garner modern sympathy for Richard III’s youngest victims?  And pro-Ricardian historians do this as well.  Was Costain over the line when he said that Richard didn’t need the precontract to justify his usurpation because he was the best man for the job?  How about Clement Markham, who made a career of defending those whom he thought were underdogs and who declared Richard to be a very English hero?  What about Jeremy Potter, who complained about Mancini’s “purple passage” when describing how men burst into tears when mention of Edward V was made after Richard III’s usurpation?  Sentiment in historical works seems to be a wide-spread problem.

Interestingly enough, the Ricardian ended up declaring Jonathan Hughes to be the most objective of all, which made me wonder whether she had actually read his entire book.  I couldn’t resist drawing attention to an excerpt in Hughes’ The Religious Life of Richard III that even I, staunch Edwardian, was reluctant to mention, as it compares the 12-year old Edward V with the 12-year old Christ child:

“His (Richard III’s) doubts and anxieties would have increased after July 1483 when rumors regarding the disappearance of the Princes spread and his unpopularity increased, despite his displays of piety.  In the expression of religious sentiments in this period there was considerable affection for young children, and in Richard’s own copy of the Revelations of St. Mechtild there are many visions of the Christ child appearing as a 12-year old boy.  What must have most taken Richard by surprise, however, was the widespread, instinctive reactions of horror to what was presumed to be the murder of two innocent children. 

Returning to Jeremy Potter’s “purple passage” remark, I believe that what Ricardians really object to is anyone having any feeling at all for Edward V’s fate.  However, I can’t imagine anything more subjective and sentimental than historians rejecting all the sources because they don’t like what they say.  Ricardians are remarkable at denouncing a source as “Tudor propaganda” and then using that very same source as an authority when it says something that they like.  They are also remarkable for preferring speculation and fiction over the sources of the past, and if that isn't undue sentiment, I don't know what is.

Edward V and little Richard of York, helpless as they were in the Tower, had two weapons in their favor: the loyalty of those who stayed true to their father and their word and the sentiment that children naturally evoke.  It makes some Ricardians very unhappy to see that these children continue to evoke sentiment in those who are unimpressed by the sentiments that they try to arouse so passionately for the man who destroyed them.  

 

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