Head wounds of Richard III. Left: a heavy weapon has sliced off the bottom of the skull on one side. Right: [edit] an arrow wound. [Posthumous wounds have been detected to the face, ribs, and pelvis, not shown here.]

Historians practise empathy as a profession. As Guy Halsall has argued frequently through his blog (and no doubt in person), this is one of the most important things history trains students to do. Reading a historical source well is to get inside the heads and hearts of all the players (not only the ones whose voices are explicitly articulated) to understand (if not agree with) them, and hence it is a personal, ethical and political action. Nevertheless, constant empathy is an emotionally taxing thing. Being able to see the other side (and the other other side, and the other other other side, and… you get the idea…) of every story is psychologically draining. Like trauma doctors who regularly have to look at mangled human bodies and face their suffering, historians develop their own kind of ‘professional shields’ to protect the psyche from the horrifying humanity of people in the past, especially —but not exclusively— their distress. By sifting data out of their stories, analysing it, and reconfiguring it into new narratives driven by whatever theoretical stripe, we are both making versions of the past accessible, and also, strangely, enabling a distancing between ourselves and our materials… or rather, I should say, real, historical people. Sometimes things break through this line of defence. A friend of mine tells a story about how reading Héloise’s reply to Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum as an undergraduate had her crying in class. Personally, I almost lost it at a major international conference when the speaker read out a contemporary description of the innumerable dead after the battle of Evesham (I don’t think I was alone, either). And today I find myself deeply moved by the revelation of the physical insults perpetrated on the body of Richard III before and after death. I can’t afford to be so deeply affected by the people whose lives I study on a regular basis, but I’m glad that I retain the capacity.