Life in a Medieval Castle

Life in a Medieval Castle
© Frances and Joseph Gies 1974
Harper & Row, NY
261 Pages

A few years ago while wandering aimlessly in a bookstore — a good way to spend one’s time, I might add — I happened upon a small book titled Life in Medieval City by Frances and Joseph Gies. I skimmed through it and found it to be of interest, and so bought it. The book turned into a favorite, and for while I’ve been intending to see if the two wrote anything else, and so they have. They’ve written an entire series of books about life in the medieval era, and as it happens I have access to a number of them. I’ll be reading them, and I begin with Life in a Medieval Castle.

While it was my intention to read Gies again, until recently I’d forgotten about them. Then while trying to find a book on the history of citadels, castles, and similar fortifications, I found this book and knew immediately I had to read it. The book isn’t terribly long, and was wholly interesting — at least for me. I like learning about how people have lived, so this book was of particular interest to me. In Life in a Medieval Castle, the authors use one main castle as their case study. They did the same in Life in a Medieval City, using the city of Troyes in France. In this book, Chepstow Castle features as the ‘case study’. If you click the preceding hyperlink, you’ll be taken to an information page about the castle. Be warned: the page has large-resolution pictures. I like the outline of a sword that is carved into the wall and which may have served a slot to fire arrows through. That particular part of the castle graces the cover of the version of the book I have. (Sword-shaped slots are in the second picture, as well as a few others.)

The book begins with a brief history of castles and like fortifications — quite brief, as is necessary for such a small book, and going into the basic architecture of castles. Beyond the obvious structures (the outer walls with turrets, the keep, the gatehouse), the authors mention elements I’d never heard of of. They say that many castles kept a large reservoir of water on their upper stories, and water would run down through pipes for the lord’s convenience. The next chapter, “The Lord of the Castle”, explains the political and economic systems (feudalism and manorialism) that European castles formed a part of. I’ve taken several classes dealing with the medieval period, and based on my own knowledge, they explained the two systems well.

The next chapter is titled “The Lady” and goes into the role of blue-blooded women in medieval society. This chapter did introduce new material:

Medieval ideas were far from the Victorian notion that nice women did not enjoy sex. Physiologically, men and women were considered sexual equals — in fact, as in William IXX’s verses, women were commonly credited with stronger sexual feelings than men. […] German scholar Albertus Magnus, widely circulated under the title On the Secrets of Women, asked the question, Was pleasure in intercourse greater in men than in women? The answer was no. In the first place, according to the sages, since matter desires to take on form, a woman, an imperfect human being, desires to come together with a man, because the imperfect naturally desires to be perfected. Therefore the greater pleasure of appetite belonged to the woman.

The authors quote liberally from various medieval documents. They mention one particular ditty where a lord tried to remember how many times he “tupped” women during a given feast. (The lord isn’t sure, but he maintains that he nearly “broke his equipment.”) Also, medieval people took pregnancy as a sign that the woman had enjoyed intercourse, and so rape cases were dismissed if she were to become pregnant. Other chapters cover the various ranks of servants who served the lord and lady of the castle, daily life in a castle, what castles were like during war, and so on. There are other chapters that deal with elements of medieval life for the blue-bloods that are not directly tied to the castle. For instance, chapter seven covers “Hunting as a Way of Life”. It describes the creation of royal forests, goes into how law enforcement positions were created to ensure that the forests of the king and the parks of his lords stayed free of poachers, describes the hunting process, and so on. There is a generous section on falconry in this chapter, where the authors quote from Frederick II (of the Holy Roman Empire, not Prussia — the Prussian Frederick lived during the time of Voltaire and Goethe. This one lived in the time of the crusades.)’s On the Art of Falconry.

The falconer’s first task was to have the [baby] bird prepared for training. The needle points of the talons were trimmed, the eyes usually “seeled” — temporarily sewn closed — and two jesses, strips of leather with rings at the end, were fastened around the legs. Small bells were tied to the feet to alert the falconer to the bird’s movements. She was then tied to a perch by a long leather strap called a leash.

Reading this, I am prompted to wonder: who decided that sewing a baby falcon’s eyes shut was to be part of training? One of the most interesting parts of the book for me was the chapter on the villagers. It describes village life under manorialism. In the feudal system, most people were serfs — servants who were bound to a manorial estate. Apparently, they weren’t just peasants who spent their days working, going to church, and dying of plague: they had government going on.

The village community met at intervals in an assembly called a bylaw, a term that applied to the body as well as to the rules it passed. At these bylaws, all matters were decided that were not automatically regulated by custom — the choice of herdsmen, problems of pasture and harvest, the repair of fences, and the clearing of ditches. It was decided who should be hired to glean and reap, when and how the harvesting should take place, in what order animals should be allowed to graze after the harvest. Every villager had a voice. Decisions were made not by vote but by consensus: everyone expressed his view, but once a general agreement emerged from the discussion, it became unanimous. No lengthy disagreement was tolerated, and the stubborn or rebellious were threatened with fines.

My view until this was that medieval peasants just did their work, collapsed at the end of the day, and then got up with the dawn the next morning to do it again — but clearly that’s simplistic. After this, the authors write on the decline of the castle. According to them, it was not gunpowder, but the growing centralization of power and the decline of feudalism, that lead to the castle’s own decline. They end with a brief summary of how castles have been used since the days of lords and peasants. Apparently, castles have been used in many European wars, even in the industrial age, as a shelter for troops — with anti-aircraft guns being installed in the castle walls during the Second World War instead of Roman-style ballistas.

The book ends with a listing of castles in Europe. The listings go like so:

Marksburg. On the Rhine. Built originally in the thirteenth century to collect tolls on the Rhine, enlarged in the thirteenth to the fifteenth centuries, restored by Kaiser Wilhelm II; square central tower, residential quarters, series of gatehouses guarding approach to upper castle.

A lengthy bibliography follows. I enjoyed the book. It was quite interesting, well written, and used a lot of primary sources. The sources were often mentioned in-text — in the case of the sections on Falconry, for instance. This book introduced a good bit of new material, and considering the reading I’ve done in to medieval life, that’s saying something. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in a brief introduction to feudal and manorial life and the warfare of the age.

About smellincoffee

Citizen, librarian, reader with a boundless wonder for the world and a curiosity about all the beings inside it.
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