“Were we to confront a seventeenth century Anglo-American we would experience a sense of culture shock as profound as if we had encountered a member of any other of the world’s exotic cultures. We mistakenly think of Americans in the seventeenth century as ourselves but somehow simpler, “quaint” perhaps, but people with whom we would feel an instant empathy. In fact [their] world was assembled according to a different set of rules…Recognizing this fundamental difference permits us to consider the people of that time in their own terms, rather than in those categories we impose on them.”
~James Deetz, “In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life”
Certain Christians today suggest a related attitude towards Scripture, to the effect that one should allow Scripture to shape the understanding rather than having the understanding shape Scripture. I think this could equally apply to the study of history, or even basic communication, especially in written form. It’s important to set aside what we think we know and allow history to speak for itself.
French historian Fernand Braudel suggests we “strip ourselves in imagination of all the surroundings of our own lives.” This seems like a goodly approach.