Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph Gies

This was a good, if short, book about exactly what it advertises. Life in a Medieval Castle. It talks about the evolution of the castle, what life was like for the lord and lady of the castle, and what life was like for the employees of the castle. It focuses on one specific castle: Chepstow Castle on the Welsh border. It has 12 chapters starting from the rise of the castle and ending with the decline of the castle.

I have to admit, the prologue was the least interesting part of this book, and I nearly put it down. This is because it talks about one specific building, and doesn’t locate it in a larger context. Once you get through the prologue (or skip it), the book does get much better, so push through.

The actual book starts with a history of castles from the time of the Vikings. While their general stated purpose was to guard against invasion, it is no secret that they also worked to control the population. It traces their evolution from being built of wood to being built of stone masonry.

The second chapter talks about the lord of the castle. Feudalism and castles both appear in Britain in the 12th century. They argue that there was actually significant social mobility at the time, and William Marshal was a prime example of that. Barons might rise up and overthrow the lord if his demands became excessive (39). They also argue that in both civil and criminal cases, considerable care was taken to try to find the truth of the situation (41). The Lord did not have absolute control over his vassals, and if he wanted to accuse him of wrong doing, he had to accuse him in a court of law (45). A considerable amount of the lord’s time was taken up making sure his employees did not rob him (44). The book spends considerable time discussing what was owed to whom and how people got around these debts.

The next chapter is a physical description of the castle as a house. It claims that baths were regularly taken in a wooden tub, and hay served as toilet paper.

The third chapter talks about the lady of the house. It says that women could own, inherit, and sell property, but most of her life was spent under the guardianship of a man. They would be educated with an education that matched any brother’s education (77). Women were generally married at 12 and could be betrothed younger than 5 (77). Peasant women might get a choice in whom they married, but the upper classes were political marriages. When the lord was away, the lady took over all aspects of running the castle. The author argues that the ease with which they stepped into these positions shows that women played a large part in the day to day activities of the castle even when her husband was at home (80). The church condemned adultery in both sexes, but it was common for men to do it anyway. A woman could be killed for the same. Women who conceived were assumed to have enjoyed the activity that led to that, which meant that a rape case would be denied if the woman conceived (92).

There were two different types of employees of a castle: military and functional. The most important functional person was the steward, and there were often two. He was in charge of everything that took place in the castle. This person had to be good at reading, writing, and accounting. There were separate cooks, and stable staff. Then there were ladies in waiting, or personal servants to the lady of the house.

Children played with many toys that modern children would recognize, but also trained in archery and combat skills if they were boys. The most common vegetables were onion, garlic, peas, and beans. Meat was cured by either being salted, or simply being kept alive until it was needed. Etiquette books admonished against many things we would still consider rude today from putting one’s elbows on the table to belching. There was often entertainment during dinner.

Hunting was an event that often had a small army go after an animal. There were three types of dogs, decided by size, for chasing, finishing off the stag, or some capable of killing a deer by themselves. We then move into a long section about falconry and how to train a falcon. Forests belonged to the lord, and commoners were not allowed to use anything within them. The people who enforced this were largely hated (144).

We move to a chapter about the villagers who supported the castle. Villages could be large with popuations of several hundred (148). The villagers were not all subsistence farmers. The biggest division between people was based on whether they were free or not. However, given the choice between freedom or more land, everyone would choose more land (156). They talk about justice for crimes and civil cases.

The next chapter is about knights. There was a glorified code by which knights were expected to live. They were admonished to spare enemies who surrendered, assist women in distress, pray regularly, and not talk too much (a reference to their tendency to boast) (171). Knights made their money by ransoming prisoners. They then talk about tournaments and how dangerous they were.

The tenth chapter is about the castle at war. Although warfare was not as common as it used to be imagined by historians, it wasn’t uncommon either. The water supply was the most vulnerable place to attack a castle. By the 13th century, warriors knew where the vulnerable parts of a castle were.

The year of a castle is the focus of the next chapter. It revolved around church holidays. The lords were required to feast and gift their knights around Michaelmas, the beginning of the Christmas season. New Years and Christmas were times for more gifts.

The final chapter is about the decline of the castle, and it talks about how castles were still used as recently as World War II for their defensive capabilities. Important parts of the military like intelligence were hidden in castles. They continue to serve to today as museums and government functions.

The book contains plenty of primary source material and photographs of castles.

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