Medieval Castle Life

On The Road Travel Essays

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Medieval Castle Life

(COURIER: Use this anywhere when appropriate, but it would be perfect during the Loire Valley field trip.)

Castles were not primarily dwelling places. They were places of protection from attack and from bandits. The "Lord of the Castle" was politically responsible for the well-being of the people of his area. Thus, his castle became a fortress to which the people could flee in case of an invasion. The need for protection dictated the style of the castle; it was massive, strongly fortified, and had small windows (often mere slits in the walls). Furniture was crude. The stone floors were covered with reeds or straw mats. Life went on mainly in one central room, where everyone ate and slept, including animals. There was no front door, only a small opening reached by a ladder. No central heating - only a huge fireplace; but even this couldn't keep ice from forming high up on the stone walls. Spices from the East were valued because they covered up the foul taste of spoiled meat. Body perfume had a similar function.

Castle life was boring during the long winter months, and even the tiniest diversion was prized: a wandering minstrel, a pilgrim on his way to Chartres, a hunt, or even warfare. It was the people's only contact with the outside world.

As the crusaders brought back luxury goods from the East, things gradually improved. The people in the castles demanded greater refinements and more comfortable furnishings. The one central room gave way to several different rooms with different functions. The "Great Hall" (the medieval equivalent of our living room) was used for official gatherings, entertainment, and trade bargaining. Near the Great Hall was the "Room," where day-to-day life went on. Shutters and windowpanes kept out winter winds. Tapestries and paintings adorned the walls. Carpets or mats replaced the straw on the floor. Carved wooden furniture — including elaborate chairs, chests, mirrors, and tables — lent grace to the room interiors. Some of these items were brought from Italy, especially Venice. ("Venetian mirrors" became a famous luxury article in Europe.) People slept in beds instead of on rough mats. For the well-to-do, these beds had elaborate wood canopies, possibly to protect the sleeper from loose stones in the ceiling. Caged birds, including parrots, amused the ladies. Other rooms were the wardrobe closet, kitchen (often located in a different part of the castle so that smoke from the hearth wouldn't blacken the tapestries), and the bathing chamber. Every great house had its tub; sometimes the lord of the castle would entertain friends while swimming around in it. Contrary to popular belief, medieval Europeans were concerned with bodily hygiene, and bathed frequently. It was only later, during the Renaissance, that this custom ceased and was not restored again until the 19th century.

Siege warfare in the Middle Ages  Since the castles on the Loire were the center of French political life, much warfare raged around them. And since each castle was heavily fortified, a whole new type of military art was needed to take it: the art of the siege. The first stage in a siege was investment: Surrounding the castle with a strong force of troops, who dug ditches and built wooden fortifications to withstand a sortie from the castle or an attack from a force trying to relieve the castle. If the siege lasted over several years, a whole fortified town would grow up around the base of the castle.

Sapping was a common technique, designed to collapse one of the castle walls. The besiegers dug a tunnel under the wall, supporting it with wooden props; then they set fire to the props and hurried out. The fire would destroy the props and the tunnel would collapse, taking part of the wall with it.

Catapults were siege-engines which the Romans had used in ancient times and which were common in Europe in the Middle Ages. They would use either a spring or a counter-weight to hurl a projectile over the castle wall, or into the wall itself. The "mangonel" was a large catapult that could hurl a 200-pound stone 200 yards. Sometimes they threw pebbles with a shrapnel effect; sometimes they launched arrows which had been dipped in pitch and then set on fire, or flaming twigs. Sometimes even rotting carcasses of animals were hurled over the walls to start a plague inside. (This is the origin, perhaps, of "germ warfare!") Sometimes huge crossbows were made which could throw logs 15 feet long at the castle or against a force of soldiers. These siege-engines had to be protected from the castle-defenders, of course, and they were often covered with ox-hides, or wooden planks and dragged into place with great effort.

The battering-ram is perhaps the best-known siege-engine. This was used against the heavy door of the castle. For the larger models, 100 men would be needed to operate it. Imagine the deafening blows of such a ram! To protect the door from the blows, the castle-defenders would drop bales of wool in front of the ram to soften its effect. Or they would lower a noose from the wall to catch the ram and then pull it aside. Stones or boiling oil would be rained down on the battering ram in a desperate effort to stop it.

The most elaborate of all the siege-engines, however, was the mobile tower. Highly skilled carpenters built these towers of wood, with wooden rollers, and covered them with ox-skins for protection. The mobile tower might be 150 feet high and shelter hundreds of men. To move the tower up close to the wall, the castle's moat had to be filled in, or covered with a wooden ramp. In a large siege, 8 or 10 of these towers would be used at various points against a single castle. The mobile towers would lower drawbridges over the top of the castle wall, and hundreds of attacking soldiers would rush over the bridges into hand-to-hand combat with the defenders.

Even if the outer wall was taken, there were any number of inner walls, separate towers, and hidden defenses which had to be taken one by one. Narrow staircases and hidden passageways enabled defenders to hold out for a long time. Since a castle was hard to take, the besiegers often had no choice but to "sit it out," sometimes for months and years. Time and disease did the rest. The castle-defenders would be weakened by starvation or plague, and would then surrender. Or someone would slip out of the castle to betray its secret to the besiegers. Sometimes the half-starved defenders would revolt and open the doors. At other times wells would be poisoned by the besiegers.

The coming of gunpowder and modern artillery spelled the end of siege-warfare for all time. A new type of military architecture resulted: low, massive towers, some with walls 40 feet thick. Louis XIV's great strategist, Vauban, was to develop such defenses on a grand scale. No longer were castles both military and residential structures. The two types of structures went their own way, fortunately for us, since attacks on residential chateaux no longer took place, and they were spared for later generations of visitors to enjoy. The political consequences of gunpowder should also be noted: it enabled kings to maintain undisputed authority over nobles, whereas during the Middle Ages the king was often no more powerful than a half-dozen or so of the strongest lords; this resulted in perpetual instability and constant warfare. By the 17th century, the military supremacy of the king brought internal peace within each nation. Wars continued, of course, but they were between countries, not between king and nobles within one country.

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