Living in a medieval castle
Exploring interior architecture in the Middle Ages
Exploring interior architecture in the Middle Ages
Could you live in a medieval castle? Despite needing a lot of money to be able to afford the luxury of building a castle, living in a castle today may seem rather miserable due to how under-developed they were as buildings during the Middle Ages. No matter how the interior spaces were decorated, rooms were less furnished and darker (especially in winter) than we are used to today.
The most popular castles of Europe were built on the top of high cliffs. Besides the wonderful views, this had the advantage that approaching enemies could be seen sooner, as well as the rough terrain making their access harder to the enemy.
As it was very expensive to build stone castles, during the early Middle Ages, wood was usually used. In terms of heating and insulating, we can see how under-developed these early times were by the fact that inhabitants of wooden castles built their living rooms above the sties, trying to benefit from the natural heat that the animals' bodies emitted.
Although few written records survive about medieval architecture, it is certain that one of the most significant tools of constructions in the 13th century – and one of the most important architectural inventions – was the treadwheel crane.
It consisted of a large wheel that was driven by two people who stepped inside the wheel and walked continuously on the inner surface of it. Their weight forced the wheel to turn. Thus, the turning wheel pulled construction materials, for example stones for a wall, with the aid of ropes and cogwheels. A crane operator was also needed to drive the tool. This crane represented huge progress compared to earlier times, because three people could do tasks that previously needed a dozen. Nonetheless, building a castle remained a laboursome and cost-demanding task, as can be seen in this extract from a letter written by master builder Magistro Jacobo de Sancto Georgio about the construction of the castle of Beaumaris in the 12th century:
'In case you should wonder where so much money could go in a week, we would have you know that we have needed – and shall continue to need 400 masons, both cutters and layers, together with 2,000 less skilled workmen, 100 carts, 60 wagons and 30 boats bringing stone and sea coal; 200 quarrymen; 30 smiths; and carpenters for putting in the joists and floor boards and other necessary jobs. All this takes no account of the garrison... nor of purchases of material. Of which there will have to be a great quantity... The men's pay has been and still is very much in arrears, and we are having the greatest difficulty in keeping them because they have simply nothing to live on.'
Looking at today's castle museums and ruins, you might think that the interior walls of medieval castles were not decorated a lot, but it is not true.
White walls were covered with paints made out of powdered and boiled minerals mixed with egg white, resin or oil. Besides oriental motifs, which were spread by the crusaders, plant motifs and floral decoration elements were also rather popular.
According to 15th-century sources, castles were minimally furnished. In these castles, the chest was the most used furniture, used instead of wardrobes and sometimes as chairs too. Wardrobes were not spread generally until the end of the Middle Ages. Their use increased when clothes did not have enough space anymore in the chests.
In winter, it was difficult to heat thick walls, so some rooms were insulated better than others. A layer of wild-boar skin was fixed to the wall and covered with wooden panels. Besides panels, tapestry also appeared and came into fashion in the course of time, introducing instructive and entertaining stories. Inhabitants of castles slept in baldachin beds (curtained around), climbing up four large steps to go to bed.
As hot air rises upwards, the bed was always located at a warmer place. There was at least one toilet on each floor, which was placed in the closet built on the outer walls. It consisted of a stone tablet with a large hole in the middle.
Medieval rooms were rather dark, especially in winter. Before inventing the window-pane, windows were covered with wooden panels and parchment in order to insulate. Later, the appearance of leaded window-panes raised the comfort level of the castles significantly. They contained round-shaped glasses (quarries), but spread very slowly, because they were too expensive.
However, window panes were a big step forward, because they let in much more light than the earlier solutions did. They became fashionable only in the 15th-16th centuries - afterwards, their production was industrialised and they became affordable for the lords of castles.
Besides different events, castle inhabitants organised feasts with guests, elegant masquerades, known as bacchanals and banquets. The guests danced and listened to music, and their entertainment was ensured by the comedian of the period – a court clown – who practised this profession for money. Researchers have proven that by finding records of monthly wages to the court dwarf and the court clown in the budget accounts of the Castle of Burghausen from 1477.
At the feasts, noblemen of castles often ate venison which they had hunted. The main course was, for example, wild-boar, pheasant or quail, crane and swan. In the world of medieval castles, people did not know the tomato, the potato or the paprika - these only reached Europe at the end of the 15th century after the discovery of America. Instead of refrigerators, they used a 'fridge' hollowed into the wall to keep food fresh. Beer brewing was a task for women, but the amount sometimes proved to be scarce. The accounts of the Castle of Burghausen from 1477 recorded the total cost of drinks: 1185 buckets of beer and twice as much wine had been purchased.
The favourite amusement of noblemen of castles was playing chess or backgammon, while servants preferred playing draughts. However, life in a castle was not all about amusement, because they were attacked from time to time. Though, in fact this happened rarely – on average once in every 75 years. In case of an attack, the strategic activities came into the limelight immediately.
This blog was translated by Zita Aknai