Helena Schrader's Historical Fiction

Dr. Helena P. Schrader is the winner of more than 20 literary accolades including:
BEST BIOGRAPHY 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
BEST CHRISTIAN HISTORICAL FICTION 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
BEST SPIRITUAL/RELIGIOUS FICTION 2017: "Envoy of Jerusalem"
Find out more about her published and future novels, and share insights from her research here.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Physical Factors: Heat

For the final entry in my five-part series looking at how objective factors can cause havoc for an unwary writer of historical fiction, I look at heat. The problem, as I noted at the beginning, is that even these measurable and seemingly immutable physical factors impacted people differently in the past.



Americans are notorious for their dependence on air conditioning. Many Europeans laugh at the way Americans cool their shops, offices and houses to temperatures below what they heat these places to in winter. Americans cannot even drive a short distance in the heat without turning on the air conditioning in their cars. We have, as a result, largely lost an understanding of how people cope with heat in the absence of artificial cooling systems run by electric motors. 

Yet air conditioning was not widespread until the middle of the last century. For writers of historical fiction it is mostly irrelevant. People of the past who resided in regions where high temperatures could be expected for extended periods of time coped with heat primarily by designing homes for ventilation and/or shade.  The architecture of the Middle East, for example, distinguished itself from "Western" (meaning northwestern European) architecture primarily by being inward facing. Exterior walls lacked windows, so that the oppressive heat of the sun did not find its way into the interior of homes or workplaces. Light came from central courtyards, which could mitigate the effect of the sun with shady trees and fountains or running water. 
Even markets were shaded.  Whereas markets in the West were usually held in the open air -- in a 'market place,' a piazza, Platz or plateia, in places where the climate was more oven-like, markets were not only covered but windowless. The souks of the Middle East are long, interconnected, artificial tunnels, with only rare openings to the heavens.

Yet there were other architectural devices for coping with heat too. Southern France, Spain, and immigrants from the West to the Middle East adapted to the climate not by imitating the architecture of the Arabs (which had cultural as well as climatic roots), but by seeking to increase cross-ventilation. Instead of keeping windows to a minimum, they multiplied the number and size of them. Galleries, loges, and balconies enabled breezes to enter the shaded interior rooms. Rooms with windows or doorways facing different directions had air circulation, the same effect that fans had in later centuries. Additional cooling was effected with running water, i.e. public and private fountains, and with shade-giving trees, and hand fans.


Clothing too was affected by climate. As any history of costume will point out, people living in cold climates tended to wear fitted clothing, while people in warm climates prefer loose, draped clothing. In cold climates, people wore multiple layers of clothes from long fitted underwear, to looser hose and undershirts, various forms of over-garments such as aketons and gambesons, tunics and surcoats, on to vests, frocks, jackets, coats, cloaks, and capes.  Women wore not just stockings and layers of petticoats, but corsets and slips and chemises under dresses, and shawls and capes and cloaks over them. With comparatively wind- and water-proof leather, wool and fur the effectiveness of these various garments in protecting against cold could improve. 

But dressing for high temperatures was more difficult because there were often moral objections to absolute nakedness -- at least for women -- and the practical problem that too much exposure to the sun is harmful. The solution from Ancient Greece to the modern Bedouins was to develop clothing that created its own shade, while allowing the air to move around the body, thereby cooling and drying sweat. 

The greatest difficulties in coping with heat in the past were encountered when people used to cool climates were confronted either with abnormal heat-waves in their own place of residence or traveled to a hot climate. One needs only think of difficulties English colonial officials and (even more so their wives!) encountered when trying to set up an English lifestyle in the hot and humid climate of Bombay or on the Potomac!  But when settling or traveling for extended periods it was possible to adapt lighter fabrics and various tricks known to the natives.

Greater discomfort was created when unusually warm weather descended upon people in regions where it was uncommon.  A heat wave in  regions where homes and clothes were designed primarily for warding off the cold would have been intensely unpleasant. It was not possible for an Elizabethan or a Victorian lady to simply strip down to a tank top and shorts and walk around half-naked as women do today. Thus, dressed for the cold, they had to endure the heat without the benefit of easy bathing or deodorants. Yet, as I noted before, they may have had other ways of coping which we have long since forgotten.

For readers tired of clich├ęs and cartoons, award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader offers nuanced insight to historical events and characters based on sound research and an understanding of human nature. Her complex and engaging characters bring history back to life as a means to better understand ourselves.



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1 comment:

  1. "(Americans) have, as a result, largely lost an understanding of how (primitive barbarians) cope with heat in the absence of artificial cooling systems run by electric motors."

    Yeah, that's a tragedy. ROFLMAO

    Okay, so I'm having some fun with you . . . but I'm still not giving up my air conditioner. LOL

    You always present an interesting perspective for consideration, Professor. Thanks!

    ReplyDelete