STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER…
STRAWBERRY FIELDS FOREVER….
A mere few days after receiving John Ashdown-Hill’s latest book, THE MYTHOLOGY OF RICHARD III, I noticed that one of the national newspapers was, perhaps not surprisingly, continuing in the grand tradition and dispensing yet more mythology about the King, in the following article on food allergies.
Now the idea that Richard had such an allergy is not a new one; it has been around for a while, appearing in an article written by a certain author of populist history books a year or two ago. Her highly speculative article claimed that the hives caused from such an allergic reaction could produce the effect of a ‘withered arm’ as mentioned in More and Shakespeare, and also implied that Richard’s seemingly rash actions that afternoon in regards to Hastings were somehow connected.
Strawberries are indeed quite a noted allergen, and the usual result, if you are unlucky enough to be sensitive to them, is Urticaria (hives.) These are blotchy, raised swellings, and usually appear on more than one area of the body. It therefore seems most unlikely just Richard’s arm would be affected, had he such an allergy; and also the subsequent ‘swelling’ would be the exact opposite of ‘withering.’ His arm would have looked larger, not smaller and enfeebled, and would have had noticeable red lumps and bumps.
There are other complications to severe strawberry allergy. Tingling lips and mouths are not uncommon, and more seriously, a swollen tongue. In worst case scenario, there can be closing of the throat, breathing problems and even anaphylactic shock. Nothing even remotely similar to this is implied or described in More or the later Shakespeare.
However, it is mentioned by More that Richard bit or chewed his lips (as stated in the article in the link.) Now, as this description of the King was written by a non-contemporary, it may or may not be true. But what is absolutely true is that Richard’s supposed lip-biting was NOT mentioned in regards to the council meeting and the strawberries…it was mentioned in general (as well as having eyes that ‘whirled around,’ apparently).
Therefore, if there is any truth in the story, the lip-biting was far more likely to be an ordinary nervous ‘tic’, no different from nail chewing, hair fiddling, whistling, toe tapping etc. …all things millions of people do everyday without thinking and without significance.
Richard was 30 years old at the time of the council meeting, and one might suppose by that age he would know if he was sensitive to strawberries, although it is true that on occasion people can develop such allergies later in life. What intrigues me is that I have seen in some quarters debates about whether Richard knew of his condition, using the ‘withered arm’ produced by the fruit as an excuse to accuse Elizabeth Woodville of witchcraft! I find this rather extraordinary, since if he knew he was allergic, he could not have predicted WHERE or how quickly the rash would have formed. There would also be the danger of mouth or throat swelling, which would hardly be desirable if he expected there might be armed conflict that day.
Of course the whole ‘strawberry allergy’ theory conflicts with the words of St Thomas More, beloved of such ‘luminaries’ as David Starkey and other traditionalists, despite being a child at the time Richard died. More stated quite bluntly that the deformity of Richard’s arm was there from birth. We now know with complete certainly there was no deformity at all, and following on from that, in all likelihood there were no strawberries either, let alone a reaction that made a single arm looked withered and caused Richard to ‘flip out’ and execute Hastings.
If Richard’s genome does throw up ‘strawberry’ allergy (or pineapple, a fruit he’d never have seen, or a hatred of asparagus) I think it is quite safe to say it had little to do with what happened in the council chamber that day, except, maybe, to make him slightly uncomfortable and itchy!
And my take on the infamous strawberries? Their mention is quirky enough to imply ‘something’ but maybe not what people have been looking for in vain. I suspect that perhaps they are purely symbolic. A little research has shown that strawberries feature in another of Shakespeare’s plays…as a symbol of treachery.