One of the best resources for the historical novelist (at least, for those writing stories set between approximately 1750 and 1950) are books on manners and etiquette. There are tons of them, especially in the Victorian period, and they provide insight that you will never get from a novel, a scholarly history or even diaries of the period. A guide to etiquette tells you two things: what people were encouraged to do, and what they were forbidden to do. The second makes much more interesting reading.
This is also true of statutes and laws and proclamations. Here’s an example from the government of the city-state of Nürnberg in the 15th century:
SINCE the honorable council has been definitely and credibly informed that day and night, within and without the city, also on all sides in and before the forest, many and various sins, especially of unchastity, are committed without restraint or shame, tempting the vengeance of God, and likely to bring injury to good people, THE COUNCIL FORBIDS any woman of the town or other woman to commit unchastity with a man […] within a radius of half a mile of the city, except upon the Meadow, and in addition under the Lesser Bridge, there alone and nowhere else: this the council will suffer for the prevention of greater evil…
Nürnberger Ratsverordnung 1480
You notice how the city council has pretty much given up on all-out abstinence. They know that they can never stop the fooling around, but they are going to try to corral all those young women of loose moral fiber (men, apparently, aren’t the problem) into specific places, at specific times. In case the good men of the council need to find them.
In short: if an individual or a group of individuals lays down laws and in the process devotes a lot of print to how awful and unacceptable behavior X is, that is a strong indication that a lot of X is going on.
Here’s another example, this one from Decorum: A Practical Treatise on Etiquette and Dress (1882) about how one should be behave (or not behave) at a Christening:
For a guest to show any annoyance if a child cries loudly, or is in any way troublesome, is the height of rudeness. Remarks or even frowns are forbidden entirely, even if the infant screams so as to make the voice of the clergyman entirely inaudible. Etiquette requires that the babe be praised if it is shown to the guests, even if it is a little monster of pink ugliness.
Now the question must be: where to find these valuable manuals on manners. And I’m going to tell you. On Thursday, in my monthly column at Writer Unboxed.