Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Ricardus Tertius Dentatus: Textual History and the King's Teeth

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Ricardus Tertius Dentatus: Textual History and the King's Teeth

Article excerpt

The midwife wondered and the women cried: / "O Jesu bless us, he is born with teeth!" (1)

These curious spy-faults impute as a great fault and a prodigious evil to King Richard that he was born with some teeth in his mouth--though I do not think that this prelate or the lawyer ever spake with the duchess his mother or her midwife about this matter. (2)

According to legend, when the infant who was to become the infamous King Richard III was born, he had sharp teeth. In Henry VI, part 3, these teeth "plainly signified / That [he] should snarl, and bite, and play the dog," and that "[he] cam[e] to bite the world." (3) Shakespeare's plays repeatedly raise the specter of Gloucester's natal dentition, more so than any of the other details from what was by the early seventeenth century a well-established tradition circulating in drama and historical chronicles about the last Yorkist king's monstrous birth. (4) The first extant version of this story appears quite soon after Richard's death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, perhaps as early as 1486, and no later than 1490, in the Historia Regum Anglie, written by John Rous (d. 1491). The story next appears in Thomas More's History of King Richard III, composed ca. 1514-18. (5) So compelling was this legend that, since then, it has consistently been referred to, even in passing, in writings about Richard III through the twenty-first century. The common approach to it is usually similar to that of George Buck, above, who dismisses it offhand, and indeed uses the legend's transmission as grounds for the foolish credulity, or the mean-spirited bias of authors looking to ingratiate themselves with the Tudor monarchs. (6) Richard's teeth and abnormal birth have seen some critical attention in studies of Shakespeare's character, particularly in relation to physiognomy, bodies, and disability. However, the significantly older origins of this motif in medieval literature and folklore, and its appearance in two important texts for historical studies of Richard, have yet to be discussed.

I discuss here the origins of the myth of Richard's monstrous birth, with particular attention to these teeth, an anatomically minute, yet intensely resonant detail in the overall textual body that constitutes Richard's deformity in post-Bosworth writings. The appearance of this motif and its ongoing notoriety in Richard's story, I argue, marks a discursive crossroads where folklore and medieval popular culture intersect with changing conventions of historiography in the late medieval period. The tenacity with which the legend continues to adhere to historical research on Richard's career is a result of the paucity of contemporary or near-contemporary accounts of his reign, and of the fact that some of these documents, particularly Rous's Historia, are constituted from a rich hybridization of popular accounts of the legendary history of Britain and of much more recent political events in the last decades of the fifteenth century.

Richard, as Duke of Gloucester and later king of England, has--for better or worse--enjoyed a high profile in both popular historical writings and those of traditional academic circles. As Charles Ross observes, "something has been written about [Richard III] in every single generation since his death ... Nor does this quick-flowing stream show any signs of drying up; indeed, in recent times it has reached flood proportions." (7) Few detailed historical sources contemporary to the period of Richard's kingship survive. Because of this, the early accounts of the reign have frequently (if not exclusively) been seen as potential mines of the factual details about both the career and personality of the man himself. They have less often been considered as products of their complex textual and cultural frameworks, or as dialogic components of the dynamic and flexing discourses in medieval conceptions of historiography. This essay contextualizes the story of Richard's monstrous birth within three closely related cultural matrices: popular folklore, medieval chronicle history, and late medieval vernacular romance. …

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