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Sentiment and History

A Ricardian and I once argued passionately about sentiment and its role in the study of history.  The trigger for this debate was Michael Hicks’ biography, Edward V, the Prince in the Tower.

The sentiment Hicks demonstrated for Edward at the front and at the end of the book irritated her; she argued that sentiment had no place in the study of history, and said that the injection of sentiment disrupted her reading process.  To demonstrate her impartiality, she included Paul Murray Kendall’s sympathetic biography of Richard III as another example of sentiment.

I argued that sentiment, especially in the introduction and conclusion, does not devalue a history, and that a historian has every right to include it in his/her analysis of an historical figure or event.

I also argued that the sources themselves were loaded with sentiment, and that most histories, even scholarly works, cannot avoid the sentiments of the sources.  Objectivity is important when drawing a well-reasoned conclusion about historical events; one’s reaction to the conclusion will not be objective.  The very act of being human precludes us viewing the fortunes of these other human beings dispassionately.

There is no doubt that Michael Hicks is a warmer writer than Charles Ross, under whom he studied.  I don’t necessarily think that is a bad thing.  In the case of Edward V, sentiment becomes a weapon, and the Ricardians know it.  Sentiment towards a vulnerable and powerless young boy and his little brother is the natural reaction most people experience, and it’s the only weapon the young and powerless have and, ultimately, the only weapon Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, had.  What other weapon did Edward have against his uncle and his allies, after Richard had made him his prisoner and destroyed his strongest friends?

Sentiment has always been a part of history.  Sentiment as a motivator is very powerful.  If this were not true, there would be no need for propaganda, as appeals to the heart often overrule appeals to the mind.  Man may be a rational animal, but emotion is more potent than rationality.

Every student of history knows this.  Charles Ross may be right when he writes that other matters that had nothing to do with the deposition and disappearance of Edward V and Richard of York were ultimately responsible for the opposition to Richard III that led to his defeat at Bosworth.  However, so potent was sentiment for Edward V and Richard of York that contemporary writers attributed it as a cause and, even today, Ricardians believe that they can transform Richard’s reputation if only they can prove that he did not murder them.

Of course, this is not true, and we must defer to the veracity of Ross’ observations.  The deposition and disappearance of Edward V and Richard of York might have initially made Richard unpopular, but his subsequent actions as King were really what brought him to Bosworth field two years later.  The deposition and disappearance of the Princes could always be the moral justification that his opposition used to rationalize their more selfish motives.

How can a historian ignore sentiment when the contemporary sources are replete with it?  Contemporary Dominic Mancini, writing in December 1483, reports that men “burst into tears” when mention of Edward V was made after his disappearance.  The Croyland Chronicler, who claimed to be a member of the King’s Council, insists that the council wanted Edward V to succeed his father “in all his glory” — a loaded phrase if I’ve ever heard one, and this from a writer who is annoyingly succinct.  He further quotes “a certain poet” (“And so to avenge the White, the Red Rose bloomed…”) and says that Tudor’s victory at Bosworth avenged “the children of Edward IV…in especial.”  References to the Holy Innocents in regards to Edward V and young Richard of York are particularly sentimental, as the 12- and 10-year old Princes were hardly of an age to be compared with the babies and toddlers slaughtered by King Herod.  The poetic references to the Princes as “Christ’s angels” and their influence on the legend of the Wicked Uncle and the Babes in the Wood are all expressions of sentiment that historians ignore at their peril, because this was the stuff that drove the propaganda against Richard and for Henry Tudor, their avenger.  There is probably more.  We have no idea of the themes used in the broadsides and bills of Richard’s opponents because he had his servants confiscate and destroy them whenever they were found, but it is not hard to imagine that Richard’s dastardly destruction of Edward V and Richard of York was a theme that was rehearsed frequently.

The Ricardian who debated the issue with me had been subjective enough in her own arguments to cause me to wonder at her new-found love for objectivity.  However, her motivation was plain enough.  It wasn’t sentimentality or subjectivity per se that she objected to, but their application in Edward V’s favor.

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