Kristin has been reading Don Quixote recently, and has a nice, long post up about the book:
I mentioned that I had been reading Don Quixote, and at one point there are these women who’ve supposedly been cursed to grow beards (actually, they’re men pretending to be women as a joke on Don Quixote, but that’s beside the point). Don Quixote’s squire Sancho Panza says, “I’ll wager they don’t have enough money to pay for somebody to shave them.” And I realized, which I never had before, that if your fantasy world doesn’t have safety razors and good mirrors, you can’t have all the men walking around clean-shaven unless there are a lot of inexpensive barbers.Learning things from old fiction is an especially good way to research writing historical fiction. You can read all the books on the history and daily life of a certain time period that you can get your hands on, but none of these will give you as good a feel for what was considered the normal daily routine, and what was considered unusual and noteworthy, as reading fiction written by those living in that age. I've recently been reading Ovid's love poems (the Amores, the Art of Love, Love's Cure, and The Art of Beauty). Some of the advice is surprisingly modern. For example, women are advised not to let their armpits smell or their legs bristle. And some of it is barbaric by our standards. The Romans, it seemed, had no concept of date rape. (Ovid's advice to men amounts to "Go for it.") I still haven't quite gotten what I wanted from these books, though, which is a sense of the Roman attitude toward love, rather than their attitudes towards sex. Ovid's book amounts to advice for pick-up artists, though there is a sense that there were a lot of loveless marriages in Ovid's time. I'll have to give a more full report once I finish the last couple of books.
The bottom line is that if you really want to understand a culture, you can learn a lot from its writings.