Richard III and Mary Ingalls

What do King Richard III and Mary Ingalls have in common? Science and a good story.

Both were featured in news stories on Monday, because new scientific or medical information came to light. Both have the scientific, literary, and historical communities buzzing.

Richard III

Richard III of England
Richard III of England

Richard III’s bones were discovered in a Leicester, England parking lot. Archaeologists managed to extract his skull and do a terrific reconstruction of what he really looked like:

They also saw a curvature of his spine and determined he had scoliosis, which they think he developed in adolescence.

Mary Ingalls
Anyone who has read the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder knows that Laura’s older sister Mary became blind when she was ill with scarlet fever,

“Mary and Carrie and baby Grace and Ma had all had scarlet fever…the fever had settled in Mary’s eyes, and Mary was blind.” From By the Shores of Silver Lake

"Her blue eyes were still beautiful, but they did not know what was before them..."
“Her blue eyes were still beautiful, but they did not know what was before them…”

Well, it turns out that Mary didn’t go blind from scarlet fever, but from viral meningoencephalitis. She was 14.

This news was released yesterday, the same day that I heard that the bones in the car park were definitely those of Richard III.

One thing that struck me was the connection between these two people who needed to have their stories cleared up, mainly because so many of us who are living are still invested in their stories.

Humans are made up of stories. We’ve been telling stories forever. Our lives are our stories. When you talk to a friend do you give her a list of what you’ve done that day? “My day? Oh, it was great. I woke up. I ate breakfast. The kids went to school. I drove to work. I worked. I drove home. I ate dinner. I went to bed.” Not likely. More likely is that you tell her a story. You tell her about your boss or a co-worker. You tell her about your kids and something funny or infuriating they did. You tell her about a problem. The point is is that you do it in story form. You paint a picture of your day in words.

Both Richard III and Mary Ingalls have well known stories.

Richard III was a king of England, much maligned because he lost a battle with the Tudors. The Tudor propaganda juggernaut got to work as soon as Henry VII became King and smeared Richards’ character mercilessly. Shakespeare (writing under the last Tudor) wrote a play about him that made him into a hunchbacked monster who cruelly had his nephews killed. That’s the Richard so many of us know about. However, a group, the Richard III Society, has been working to restore his name and image. They were the driving force behind exhuming the bones and reconstructing Richard’s image from the skull.

They are working to clarify Richards’ story.

Shameless Plug!! If you are interested in reading a wonderful historical fiction account of Richard’s story, you should read The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman. If you do, you’ll see just how much a historical medieval king can come to life!

Explaining that Mary Ingalls did not go blind from scarlet fever, serves a different function. It can put my mind at ease if I or someone I love is diagnosed with scarlet fever. If my only knowledge of scarlet fever is from the Little House books and my child is diagnosed with scarlet fever, I may become worried and afraid.

The story in my mind, the one I tell myself, is the one I learned from the books. Scarlet fever is a terrible illness that can strike my child down with blindness. A child who gets scarlet fever and has the Little House books as a reference, will become scared too.

I remember reading about Mary’s blindness when I was 8 or 9 years old and it was scary and sad and disturbing. That’s my story about scarlet fever.

Now researchers are clarifying Mary’s story.

Another Plug!! If you have young children and haven’t read the Little House books, you should do so. They are classics of American literature.

What both findings do for me is to reinforce my belief of just how strong story works in our lives, in our minds, in our culture, and in our histories.

What do you think about the Richard III and Mary Ingalls findings?

1 thought on “Richard III and Mary Ingalls”

  1. Just found this about Beth, from Little Women: “Complications of scarlet fever in the mid1800s could include rheumatic fever, which led to heart disease. This seems to be what happened to Beth.”

    I was wondering how something that is described as “strep, with a little rash” could ultimately lead to Beth dying in Little Women. I still have to look up rheumatic fever to understand, and the quote is just from IMDB, but at least it explains the possible consequences of a strep infection in the time before antibiotics.

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