ample, may differ for a theme of changes in health and one of patterns of working life and employment.


One kind of explanation in history involves showing that what people did in the past makes sense in terms of their ideas about the world. This kind of explanation is often called empathy. Here we run into some problems. The word “empathy” has more than one meaning, and it tends to be used only because finding a single word that does the job better is difficult. (Other labels are “historical understanding” and “perspective taking”; however, the former is too broad, and the latter tends to get confused with “multiple perspectives,” which is more a matter of the points of view from which accounts are constructed.) The use of the word “empathy” in history education is to some extent stipulative (that is, the word is assigned a particular meaning, whatever other meanings it may have in the world outside history education). To that extent it is jargon, but there is no harm in this if it helps professionals reach a consensus on what they are talking about.

The central idea here is that people in the past did not all share our way of looking at the world. For this reason, when writing or reading history we must understand the ideas, beliefs, and values with which different groups of people in the past made sense of the opportunities and constraints that formed the context within which they lived and made decisions about what to do. Thus empathy in the study of history is the understanding of past institutions, social practices, or actions as making sense in light of the way people saw things. Why, for example, would a free peasant agree to become a serf in the Middle Ages? Southern (1953, pp. 109-110) explains an act that appears almost perverse to us now by showing how it could fit into a pattern of beliefs and values: “There was nothing abhorrent in the idea of servitude—everything depended on its object. All men by sin have lost the dignity of freedom and have made themselves, in varying degrees, slaves of their passions….” He quotes St. Anselm:

Is not every man born to labor as a bird to flight?…. So if all men labor and serve, and the serf is a freeman of the Lord, and the freeman is a serf of Christ, what does it matter apart from pride—either to the world or to God—who is called a serf and who is called free?

Southern continues:

It is easy to see that from this point of view secular serfdom had no terrors. The burdens and restrictions it imposed were of featherweight compared with those imposed by the radical servitude of unredeemed nature. At best, this human

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