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The Hunchback King

Richard III controversy

T
wo days ago a friend told me that a colleague of hers had been offended. I asked why. She told me that it was to do with King Richard III. Known throughout history as the Hunchback King, recent events have brought this name-calling into controversy.

The idea of King Richard having a hunched back was thought apocryphal. He was given a hunched back in Shakespeare's play about him, which was written over a century after his death in 1485 (his death was in 1485; the play was in 1592 - to avoid the dangling modifier issue). Before then, his physical attributes were that of rumor and myth.

That is until recently, when his body was found underneath a car park in Leicester, at the site of the Battle of Bosworth Field. He did indeed have a hunched back.

Well, actually he had a condition known as scoliosis. It is a deformation of the spine, a curve where a curve shouldn't be. Scoliosis affects posture, and comes in varying degrees.

Which is where we come to the offence; the person who took offence has the same condition. The complaint was that the news was referring to King Richard III as the Hunchback King. Hunchback is deemed derogatory.

Obviously you don't have to have the affliction to take the offence. So do you? Are you offended when the story of Richard's exhumation goes along the lines of "...King Richard the Third, also known as the Hunchback King, who died in the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485..."?

Should a news source use such an offensive word?

The argument for changing the language is the offence to scoliosis sufferers. The counterargument is that King Richard III was indeed known as the Hunchback King. The news is simply stating a fact, a popular fact from the classroom to help the public identify which monarch is the one in question.
The counter-counterargument is that the term "hunchback" is not nearly as loaded as other words deemed so utterly offensive today - i.e. what if he was referred to as the N-word King? Would the news be so quick to dismiss the accusations of derogatory language?

Can the definition of offence be retrospectively changed? Should we wince when we read the words 'negroes' and 'coloureds' in books before the Civil Rights movement? Or, for a more recent example, should radio stations have censored Fairytale of New York by the Pogues for the line "You scumbag you maggot, you cheap nasty faggot?"

One answer is yes, and that our morals and teachings today should be applied to the past the same way that we know slavery has always been wrong. One answer is no, and that to not refer to his nickname on the news is akin to censorship and no different from censoring his physical traits in Shakespeare's play.

My answer is I don't know. I too have scoliosis. It's not sufficient to warrant the term hunchback, but if it were would I be offended?

I don't know. Richard III died in 1485, and he's causing me a headache tonight.



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