I have a psychologist friend who claims it's impossible for one generation to understand another to any great extent. Being raised in different times means we just don't react to things the same way. We've all seen the lists that chart those differences: events and objects that mean a great deal to fifty-somethings (phonographs, first man on the moon) that twenty-somethings think of as ancient history.

For the historical writer, that adds another layer of problems. Not only to do we have to get the clothing, the events, the characters, and the dates right, we have to imagine interactions between people who are far removed from us in how they lived their lives. Things that were of concern to them, keeping their homes warm enough to prevent frostbite, for example, don't even occur to most of us.

I have two coping mechanisms when I write history. First, I remind myself that people are people and always will be. The concerns outlined by Maslow in 1943 hold true, pretty much. So while beliefs and attitudes have changed greatly, people will always want to be fed, safe, loved, etc., and they will work to become so.

Secondly, I imagine that societies organize themselves in similar ways, no matter the age. I can't visit an Elizabethan palace and observe, but I was for years part of an organized group that probably operates similarly: a school. There were many people there, some I got to know well, some I knew only in passing. Relationships developed for various reasons: schedules, tasks to be accomplished, interests, previous relationships, and personality. The schedule meant that I shared free time with certain people, so I got to know them. Tasks I had to accomplish meant that I worked with those who supported those tasks or shared them with me. Interest made me seek out those who understood my aims and frustrations. People I knew in other venues, relatives, former students, even fellow Methodists, were already close, so working together was natural. As for personality, I spent time at work with some just because I liked their company. Of course there were those above me, who controlled the process and tried to make it run smoothly. Sometimes I was close to them; sometimes I just worked within their guidelines. And there was the support staff, who had different schedules and tasks but were often good friends and invaluable to every success I can lay claim to.

Knowing the workings of that group, I imagine that at Court the same principles applied: the layers of rank, the tasks to be completed by cooperation, the personalities that affect the process. So when I write about Tudor palaces, I picture a small-town high school. Same dynamics, different day.

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Comment by Peg Herring on October 31, 2009 at 9:55pm
My history teacher memory says Pericles, but my memory is corrupt, too. But yes, that's exactly it.

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