Did you know…

…just to what extent climate and geography controlled everyday life?

Of course it still does, but for us, in the heat of summer, it’s a matter of flicking the A/C on, or taking refuge in the library, or in a nice neighborhood pool without waves or treacherous currents, and with some nice lifeguards on duty . Or in the winter, we all have efficient furnaces without bothersome smoke, fireplaces that are almost as safe as electric radiators.

In 12th-century Russia, in Novgorod, the climate was not unlike that of the upper Midwest today. The winters were long: the first frost probably came early in October, and by November, the rivers were frozen and easy to navigate before the heavy snowfalls.

In 1242, Alexander Nevsky fought the Teutonic Knights in the famous “Ice Massacre” on April 5, which means the ice on the lake Chud’ (Peipus) was strong enough to support two armies until the Germans were pushed onto thin ice. In other words, April 5 was cold!

How Russians kept warm, we think we know: heavy garments, lots of fur, lots of layers. But also large, stone stoves to keep the houses warm in winter.

Novgorod was a wooden city: large stoves and hot fires were a problem, so much so that it was not, as the saying goes, a question of whether, but of when, there would be a major fire. The answer is, historically, about every 20 years, there would be a fire large enough to be recorded in the Chronicles.

In the summer, bread stoves built away from buildings could be used, but that would not solve the problem of heating the houses in winter. To minimize the need for fires, the windows of the houses are reputed to have been very small and tightly shuttered. Which made for long, dreary winters when embroidery was not a very likely occupation. Music and storytelling, on the other hand, must have been quite popular.

The summers could be hot, with days reaching 100°, although only for very short periods. Then the cozy, dim and warm houses must have been rather stuffy and unpleasantly humid. There are many references, both in period and in more recent times, to people sleeping in “barns” — probably unheated, less insulated areas that were used for storage in the winter. Since summers were rather short, this discomfort was probably endured with good humor. I imagine that for the children, the opportunity to spend the night in a barn was like a holiday. Some things never change.