Thursday, May 15, 2014
We tend to think of medieval history as taking place in castles, but in fact castles were an important aspect of medieval life for only about four centuries, from when they were first developed, around the year 1000, to when the invention of gunpowder and cannons made them less viable, around 1400.
A castle combines two structures that had been separate in the early Middle Ages: an elegant home for an aristocrat (or "palace") with a fort. Forts had generally been temporary structures, encampments of soldiers in times of war, although cities had had walls going back to Roman times.
The first eleventh-century castles, permanent forts that were also dwelling places, mostly combined a grim stone tower with a wooden palisade, surrounding a bailey with many other wooden buildings: kitchens, stables, storerooms, barracks, weapons shop, and the like. Quickly stone replaced wood for the outer walls and soon for many of the structures in the bailey.
No two castles were alike. They were added to, renovated, rebuilt every generation if the castellan (lord of the castle) could afford it. Generally they were built in a spot easy to defend, on a hilltop or in a loop of a river. Tall walls made them hard to attack. In practice, by the middle of the twelfth century it was nearly impossible to capture a castle by assault. Starving out the inhabitants through a siege--or hoping for treachery from within--were the attackers' best hopes.
A castle looming over the valley made its own quiet statement, "Don't even think about it."
With the development of cannons in the late Middle Ages, however, castle walls could be breached. Many a castellan gave up on building for defense and instead started constructing an elegant palace with large windows--a fairy-tale château.
For more on life in the castle, click here.