This second blog post is centered around educating you, the public, on something we have been learning in class. Since I really like castles, this post will be a bit of background on what life was actually like in these centers of power and luxury as well as some information about the structure and defenses of castles in general.
The popular perception of life in a medieval castle was one of luxury and riches. While this is true, we must remember that life in castles was luxurious compared to the majority of people at that time. So, by modern standards, medieval life in a castle was harsh, which makes me wonder just how bad life was for the rest of the population.
In the medieval era, the civilization of the ancient pagan world disappeared. Not only did libraries and schools go away, but “luxuries such as running water, central heating, public baths, public lavatories, and sophisticated lighting” (Castle Life) went away as well. Christians claimed they did not need baths and that God had intended for them to use dark corners as lavatories. If you ask me, I’m not sure this is much of an improvement. It seems like the Christian domination brought their religion on the people while setting them back in terms of health and hygiene.
Castles were centers of administration for the area, so they were consequently centers of activity within as well. The lord was in charge of the administrative functions of the feudal economy while his lady was in charge of household affairs. The castle would also employ many officers and servants to run the place. The “focus of domestic life…would have been the Great Hall” (Exploring Castles), the central room of the castle where the main fire was kept and where everyone gathered to eat and be entertained.
Even through all this administrative and household activity, the castle always had to be ready for an attack. Standard defenses included thick stone walls as a starting point with many additional fortifications, such as towers, gates, and a moat to make a siege more challenging. Archers fired arrows down at the invaders from tiny windows called arrow slits, which allowed them room to shoot but did not allow many enemy arrows to come back through the windows at the defenders. The moat often had sharpened spikes at the bottom, as well as being the place where the latrines let out, making for a hostile and deadly crossing. If enemies made it across the moat and through the gate, secondary gates closed, trapping the intruders in the entryway. The ceilings of these entryways had holes through which defenders could pour boiling oil or other things.
Castles are amazing. They have stood the test of time (mostly) and mark the landscape with their authority and majesty. Unfortunately, they were still functional during a time of disease and horrible ideas about hygiene and no concept of privacy. Even through their luxury, inhabited castles were crowded, cold, dark, and smelly. Though the standards of the time held them up as aristocratic and the height of luxury, I still prefer to see them hundreds of years after occupation when the sights and smells of medieval life have dissipated into history.