Empathy in history is “entering in the spirit or feeling” of another age. It is showing an appreciation, perception and/or understanding of the past. It is not imaginative, it is not a recreation, it is not fantasy. It is almost exclusively used as a written task.
Empathy is based on a detailed knowledge of the time period including aspects such as:
• the structure of society
• the living conditions
• the working conditions
• how people thought
• what people did
• how people dressed
• how and what people ate
• the weather
• health and hygiene
• codes of behaviour
• attitudes to those around them
• interpersonal relationships
• sources which may have survived from that period
When writing an empathy task care must be taken to
• ensure that nothing from another period intrudes.
- It is inappropriate to talk about watching something on TV or listening to the radio or using an electrical consumer item when writing in the World War One period.
- It is inappropriate to write a letter supposedly from the lowliest peasant in medieval society, unless you make it that the letter has been written by a learned scribe or a priest of the church or someone else who could write, as the peasant certainly would not have been able to do so and would have only signed the letter with his or her ‘mark’ - usually a simple cross;
- it is inappropriate to use modern slang in such empathy tasks when they refer to an earlier period. A good student will have gone to the trouble to find out what common language and slang was appropriate for the period.
• clearly demonstrate an understanding of the time period but make no comparison to today.
• use appropriate language levels for the intended audience of the task
- if you were a soldier on the Western Front in 1916 you would write to your brother, mother, father, sister, friend in different language styles and include different content.
- remember that correspondence was more formal even only 10 or 15 years ago, let alone,
100 years or 500 years so do not write in the type of slang/informal writing used in modern
- consider the age of the writer and the audience in choosing the level of language used.
- consider the status of the writer and the audience in choosing the level of language used.
• carefully choose the context of presentation unless writing under exam conditions when content, only, matters.
- a letter from 1930 would be presented in a different form to a “public announcement” of the 1850’s
- a letter from Gallipoli would not have a paper, stuck-on stamp on the envelope but would
be press stamped with “military mail” and the letter inside may be censored
- a letter from the 1200 to 1600’s would probably have a wax seal with a coat of arms
imprinted on it, sealing the letter within its own folds
- a proclamation from a king or queen would be on parchment or vellum, depending on the
time period, written in formal style with a great seal attached to the bottom.
Remember that good empathy demonstrates a detailed and proficient understanding of the time period and, therefore, that you have completed some important research.
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