The period of history known as the
the middle ages
lasted about one thousand years,
from 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D.
It began as the Dark Ages, the stormy period of time that marked
the disintegration of the great Roman Empire. The same Roman
Empire which once spread law, order and language to the civilized
Western world, by the fifth century could no longer defend, control
and maintain the territories it had conquered in its golden past.
The barbarians from the North picked and plundered their way across
Great Britain and Europe with cunning savagery, ending the classical
period of Roman culture and beginning an age of turmoil. From
this dark time of turmoil, the men and women of the Middle Ages,
possessed with great instincts for survival and justice, laid the
foundations for the magnificent ages that were to follow.
In these pages you will learn about the people who lived in the
Middle Ages, their social interactions, their heroes, their food
and dress almost everything that made this such a unique period
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Life in a
Towering high above the landscape, European castles still look
commanding today. Imagine, if you can, how powerful a castle
looked 600 years ago, when it was new. Bright flags flapped from
the towers. Sunlight glinted off the armor of soldiers patrolling
the walls. Castles were built to impress all who beheld them.
As the fortified home of a powerful warlord, a castle provided sanctuary
and a stronghold from which to rule the surrounding land. In peacetime,
a castle might be an office, an administrative center, a home, a
storehouse - even a market. But in wartime, the castle threw
off these peaceful disguises. It became a fortress, in control
all the warlord's vast holdings.
The castle of Sir Richard Dragon Tamer (our imaginary castle
in our imaginary barony) dates from 1239, but castle building
began in the 10th century. The
first kind of castle in Europe (before about 1000 AD) was a low
tower, usually two stories high, with the living hall above the
storerooms. When people had to build quickly, as the Normans
did after they conquered England, they sometimes built castles of
wood. They often used a motte and bailey castle. As
the illustration shows, the "motte" is a mound. The "bailey"
is a fenced off place that holds up invaders - a sort of wooden
fort. Sometimes stone castles were later constructed on the
exact same site as these early wooden structures.
The crusaders learned a lot about castle building from the great
castles they found on their journey abroad. An example of
these great foreign castles is the famous Krak des Chevaliers, in
this, many castles were built with several circles of walls (concentric
circles) and other improvements, like towers, commonly known as
mural towers, along the walls. Castles grew a little differently
in each place. For example in mountainous parts of Italy,
a castle might be just a tower built on a rocky peak. In France,
many castles became luxurious homes for noblemen. Castles
built by the Teutonic Knights of Germany had chapels within their
walls. And each castle, in each country, has its own special
and individual history.
OF A CASTLE
There was no standard size, shape or structure for a castle.
Castle builders designed to suit the site, the budget and the military
dangers of the area; taking into account the wishes of the nobleman
who was to occupy the keep (provided, of course, he lived so long).
High walls and solid towers were
the castle's main defense. They kept out attacking soldiers.
The thickness of the walls made them very strong. Most were
more than 8 feet (2.5 ml) through, and the walls of the towers were
even thicker. The parapets (the walls' jagged tops) provided the
defenders with a safe view over the surrounding land. Towers enabled
the defenders an even higher vantage point from which to fire at
any enemy approaching the castle with arrows or siege engines. Every
castle also made maximum use of the natural features of its site.
By building the castle on a high point, the defenders had gravity
on their side. Attacking warriors had to struggle up a steep
slope or scale a cliff to reach the stronghold while facing a devastating
shower of arrows from the defenders on the walls.
The first point of attack was usually the main entrance.
A water filled ditch, known as a moat, often enclosed the
castle on the sides not protected by cliffs. A drawbridge or turning
bridge spanned the moat. The drawbridge dropped into a deep
pit as it opened. In its normal position the bridge closed
off the pit and allowed entrance to and egress from the castle.
This pit frequently made a useful cell for dissuading socially unacceptable
behavior. But when danger threatened, the castle guards raised
the bridge. A few drawbridges were booby trapped; releasing
a trapdoor to pitch unwanted visitors into the pit. A strong
oak grille called a portcullis was lowered behind the raised bridge
to further protect the castle gates against attack. A layer
of beaten iron covered the portcullis as a fire protection.
A sturdy gatehouse protected the way in to the castle.
Stout oak beams called draw bars reinforced the gatehouse doors
when they were closed. The draw bars slid across behind the
door, and when out of use they were stored in slots built into the
gatehouse wall. Fiendishly clever traps awaited the intruder
who managed to enter here.
High walls enclosed several courtyards, each called a bailey.
In war, animals and villagers sheltered here; in peacetime, these
areas housed workshops for carpenters, candle makers, weavers, and
the like. A water supply was vital, especially if the castle
was surrounded. Wells were dug into the rock, within the bailey,
providing water for drinking and washing.
A nobleman and his family, together with a company including knights,
men-at-arms, servants and friends lived at the heart of the castle
- in the keep. In the upper rooms of the keep women
might sew, weave or embroider. The noble household often passed
their time listening to the songs and poems of troubadours.
Sometimes a friar (or priest) read to them the latest teachings
on philosophy and science. In a castle under siege, however,
defenders retreated to the keep and fought to the death.
Castles that protected a town often had a second entrance,
much like the back door to a house. This "town gate" was a
convenient way in and out of the castle for the residents and town's
Travel Book of
KNIGHTS and CASTLES
Illustrated by Toni Goffe,
Designed by John Jamieson
Published by Usborne Publishing Ltd
20 Garrick Street London WC2E9BJ, England © 1976
Used with permission of the publisher *
published in the United States
by Dorling Kinderslye Publishing, Inc.
95 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016 © 1994
click a link to see the drawings