To The Castle!

carnarvon-castleSo you’ve always wanted to live in a castle?

Come on, girls, at some point in time you thought this (probably before you started actually doing housework).

Guys, doesn’t a big massive room filled with your armor, weapons, and hunting trophies sound cool?

Today, we present you with a brief history of castles and some details of what it was like to live in one back in the Middle Ages. Will you still want to live in a castle by the end of the article? (We want to know in a comment!)

Why Build a Castle?

To keep the good guys in and the bad guys out.

Originally a castle was build for protection against enemies (man or beast).

Because the castle offered protection, it became an important part of the feudal system; the lord of the land lived in the castle and his farm workers (peasants) lived outside the castle walls, cultivating the land…but when an enemy approached the peasants would take refuge in their castle. There were a lot of problems with the feudal system, but it did provide protection for lower social class people in exchange for their labor in the fields or shops.

A Brief History of Castles

(Walled cities and defensive fortifications go all the way to the Book of Genesis in the Bible, but we want to talk about the “classic” castle development during the Middle Ages.)

Sketch of a Motte & Bailey Castle. (By Duncan Grey, found on Wikicommons)

Sketch of a Motte & Bailey Castle.
(By Duncan Grey, found on Wikicommons)

Motte & Bailey Castles – progressing beyond simple earth works, this first type of “castle” appeared in the Early Middle Ages, around the 800’s and 900’s to be precise. A deep motte was dug about the village which was also surrounded by a stockade. The dirt dug from the motte was piled to make a “hill” (called a “bailey”) and up there another wooden structure was built as the residence of the landowner. A wooden stairway connected the manor house and the village. Later, the structures might be rebuilt with quarried stone. It was decent protect but had fatal flaws – particularly the separated residences.

Ruins of a Castle Keep. (www.commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bergfried_Burgruine_Niederviehhausen.jpg)

Ruins of a Castle Keep.
(www.commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bergfried_Burgruine_Niederviehhausen.jpg)

Donjon or Keep Castles – these fortresses were built of stone! Basically, they took the concept of the motte and bailey castle and combined it. Now, the landowner’s dwelling place was in a large stone tower (usually called a “keep” or “donjon”) and an outer wall protected the courtyard around the keep. These fortifications were prevalent from the 900’s through the 1200’s and the concept of multiple “layers” of fortifications remained important.

The entrance to Caernarvon Castle shows several features of the concentric castle design: a strong gate and towers protruding from the walls for cross fire defense.

The entrance to Caernarvon Castle shows several features of the concentric castle design: a strong gate and towers protruding from the walls for cross fire defense.

Concentric Castles – these castles, designed and built during the latter part of the 1200’s and through the 1500’s in Europe, employed geometry and logical military thinking. (The architectural idea actually came from ancient walls of Constantinople). Towers were placed on along the outer wall so a crossfire of arrows or crossbow bolts would provide better defense. These castle often had moats (wet or dry), strong gatehouses, and several walls of defense.

Walled Towns – as towns became well-established they built defensive walls, usually employing the defensive towers pioneered on the concentric castles.

It’s important to remember that different regions unique variations might be made to castle design to best suit the needs of that area.

Would You REALLY Want To Live In A Castle?

The walls are stone. The chambers are large. It’s cold, and the only source of heat is a fire in the fireplace (or put on more clothes.) Tapestries might adorn the walls if you’re important, but they’re not exactly heaters.

No carpets. Floor are either wood, dirt, or stone (depending on where you live in the castle). Rushes are strewn on the floor and everybody throws their trash in the rushes. Oh, and there’s that pack of hunting hounds making their home with you (and they don’t scratch on the door when they want to go outside…)

Meals were commonly eaten in the a large room of the castle.

Meals were commonly eaten in the a large room of the castle.

There’s always work to be done. What’s your position in the castle? Maid, cook, page, peasant, tradesman, stable-boy, laundress, archer, man-at-arms, gardener, huntsman, lord of the manor, lady of the manor, priest, clerk, chamberlain? That’s going to determine if you live in the nicer part of the castle, in the workshop area, or in a little cottage just outside the walls.

This a feudalistic society. There are far more servants, tradesmen, farmers, and skilled laborers than “lords, ladies, princes, and princesses.” There is work to do…even if you’re nobility.

Fair lady, you can’t sit around listening to plucking harp strings – you oversee the servant women in the castle to make sure everyone has clothes, the household chores are completed, and prepare to welcome guests.

Noble knight, you have to be prepared to assist the king or lord you own allegiance to – that means practicing the arts of war, riding to the hunt, teaching your squire how to care for your horse, and doing any other tasks you might get assigned. Oh, and if your castle comes under siege you’ll be fighting to protect everybody…and did we mention medical care isn’t good? Recommendation: just don’t get hurt, but you’ll still have uphold your sense of honor and duty.

Thoughts

I think if we could time travel back to the Middle Ages, we’d find life much rougher than we imagine. Castles were built because there was a real threat. Yes, they were homes and workplaces, but their primary function was protection.

So “Chivalry or Medieval Madness?”

Well, I wouldn’t say life in a castle would live up to our idealized imaginings, but castles were a product of their times and were built with a purpose. So I’d say reality of the era!

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. Agree with my conclusion? Would you want to live in a castle during the Middle Ages? If so, what role would you want to have in the castle society/feudalism?

About Sarah Kay Bierle

I’m Sarah Kay Bierle, historian, living history enthusiast, and historical fiction writer. When sharing history, I try to keep the facts interesting and understandable. History is about real people, real actions, real effects and it should inspire us today.
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