The Medieval Castle

Castles are the symbol of the Middle Ages in Europe. They bring to mind pictures of brave knights and beautiful maidens, of heroic fights and love and romance. The reality was much more prosaic, though. Castles served many different purposes: Often they were the home of one, or much more likely, of several families, where they lived with their servants and often also many different kinds of animals. Other castles were built to protect and defend certain parts of the land, especially the borders and trade routes. Along trade routes they also often were built to collect customs duties.

Only very rich people could afford to own a castle, as building one required a lot of effort. No machinery was available at that time. Everything had to be done by hand. Every single stone had to be carved into its required form by a stonemason. All material had to be carried by men or animals, often over long distances. In many cases the construction work took centuries, extending and fortifying the castle complex further and further. No castle was started with a definitive plan that was followed from the beginning to the end. It usually started with one building or tower, then another one, then a wall for better protection, then another tower, more walls, extension of the first house, maybe a second, stables for horses and cattle, higher and thicker walls and so on. A castle can be imagined as a permanent construction site.

Although the effort to build a castle was immense, there had been built more than 10,000 castles in the 14th century alone in Germany. Other estimates go up to more than 25,000 castles. Most of them were destroyed over time in wars, but sometimes also just to get material for other buildings in later centuries, when the castle did not serve a useful purpose anymore. Early castles were built of wood. None of them survived over time. Most castles that are still standing today, were built from the 12th to the 16th century. Their main structure was made from different kinds of stone, depending on which kinds were available in the area of the castle as long-distance transport of stones would have been too much effort with medieval measures. Ceilings were mostly still made of wood, so fire was a permanent danger to all castles.

In the 15th century cannons were invented. These significantly reduced the protection that a castle could provide. Therefore, some castles were transformed into fortresses to resist the new weapons. Others were redesigned to provide a more comfortable life or serve as a representative residence. Some were just abandoned and left to decay. As a result, there are only a very few castles left that give a good impression of what a medieval castle looked like. Some of them are portrayed in this book. These have not been significantly changed after the Middle Ages, except for the outer parts of the castles of which are usually only some remains are left.

Life in the Middle Ages, even in a castle was far from luxurious by today’s standards. There were no water pipes and of course no warm water, unless it was heated up on the fire. Every drop of water had to be carried from a well. Many castles did not have toilettes, and if they did, they basically were just holes in the outside walls. There were no bathrooms. People washed themselves over a bowl with cold water, and, if available, a piece of soap. Clothes had to be washed by hand, usually in a river or creek close by. In most castles there was just one room besides the kitchen that was heated in the winter. Most parts of the castles were freezing cold in the winter. Windows were a luxury that only very few castles had. Often the holes in the outside walls were only covered by a piece of fabric. For sleeping most people in a castle shared a bedroom. Beds were only available for the owner’s family. Servants had to sleep on the floor, if they were lucky on some straw. Fresh food was only available, when there was some in the garden. Most of the year the people lived on preserved food. The only way to keep things a bit cooler during the summer was to store them in the basement, but there mice, rats and insects were waiting to eat them.

The castles that are portrayed in this book, give a good impression of what a medieval castle looked like, although of course not every detail has survived for hundreds of years. Some of the castles are only shown from the outside, but the pictures of the inside of the other castles gives a good impression of what castles looked like in the Middle Ages, although the interiors of the castles often have been altered much more than the outsides. The outer parts of some castles exist only as remnants.

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