Coldness, society and history

This is a historical reflection for once!

The temperature of my room (for heating-related reasons, far too tedious to go into) broadly mirrors the temperature of the outside air (i.e. very cold!). Forced to retreat to working, fully-dressed, in bed, to keep warm, this has prompted some empathetic historical musings.

I always thought the multitude of thick layers of clothing elite Tudor women wore would have been heavy and uncomfortable. But perhaps they were also very warm! Someone posted on Facebook a while back (oh the things phds share on “social networking” sites!) this, rather amusing, interactive exploration of Elizabethan female dress: Clearly ‘Cecily’, fully dressed, would be warmer under all her layers than I am under modern indoor clothes and a duvet! Considering that many parts of Tudor manor houses/castles/palaces would have been cold and draughty, and that most common modes of transport (carriages/riding/walking/boat up the Thames) were completely unheated, very warm clothing would have been essential to maintaining health. This would have been recognised, especially due to the early-modern medical mentality: a warm body, in the humoral medical system, was related to the perfect balance of the humours and so excellent bodily, mental and emotional health. Indeed, women were considered naturally more at risk of being overly cold, due to their inferior humoural state compared to men (men were “hotter” and “dryer”, while women were “colder” and moist-er”), so perhaps females were viewed as even more in need of warm clothing than men; certainly Tudor male garb – what looks to modern eyes like shorts and tights – doesn’t seem as warm as women’s layers of skirts.

It was also common for early-modern women to receive visitors while in bed. Morning visitors might be ushered into the lady’s bedchamber, and the lady might be lying in bed while receiving a social call (I presume that only female visitors were supposed to be allowed into a lady’s bedchamber, but I’m not sure). This was not at all uncommon, and was not merely reserved for sick women. It has always seemed rather strange to me, but, again, my sudden acquaintance with a central-heating-less world has rather changed my view. By far the warmest place in my room is under my duvet – due to the insulation it provides. It no longer seems so strange that women used to receive their friends while warmly situated under their bedclothes. Although bedrooms did have fireplaces, the fires would (I think) have been lit in the morning, but would not have been burning during the night. Therefore, it would have taken a while for the morning’s fire to warm a sizeable bedchamber (with drafty windows) sufficiently.

(Disclaimer: this is far from my area of research, and therefore my conclusions might be totally wrong! They’re just hypotheses :p )