The world of medieval castles

Despite that only the rich could afford the luxury of building castles, living in a castle seems rather miserable for today’s people due to the underdevelopment of the Middle Ages.  However, the interior spaces were more decorated; the rooms were less furnished and darker (especially in winter) than you would think today.

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Castle of Árva in a postcard sent in 1909 - Terleczky József, CC BY-NC-ND

The most popular castles of Europe were built on the top of high cliffs. Its advantage was that besides the wonderful view they could notice approaching enemies sooner, in addition, the rough terrain made their access harder to the enemy. As it was very expensive to build a stone castle, they usually used wood during the early middle ages. The underdevelopment of these early times in the field of heating and insulating is showed well by the fact that inhabitants of wooden castles built their living rooms above the sties, trying to utilise the little natural heat that animal bodies emitted.

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 Castle of Merano in a postcard published in 1911(Merano was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy) - Terleczky József, CC BY-NC-ND 

csgyk_fototar_pecs_barbakan_193x.jpgAlthough few written records survived about the 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 by stepping inside the wheel and walking continuously on the inner surface of it, forcing the wheel with their weight to turn. Thus, the turning wheel pulled the construction material, for example stones for a wall, with the aid of ropes and cogwheels. A crane operator was also needed to drive the tool. The crane meant a huge progress compared to earlier times, because three people could do the task of a dozen. But the construction of a castle remained a laboursome and cost-demanding task anyway: 

„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." – from Master builder Magistro Jacobo de Sancto Georgio’s letter written in connection with the construction of the Castle of Beaumaris in the 12th century

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Entrance of the Castle of Siklós in the 1920s - Csorba Győző Könyvtár - Pécs, PDM

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View of the Castle of Zsolnalitva (Trencsén County) part of the former Kingdom of Hungary, in a postcard issued in 1915  - Thúry György Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

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Castle of Csesznek in the Bakony Mountains  - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

Looking at today’s castle museums and ruins, you might think that the interior walls of medieval castles were not decorated too much, 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. 2013_1361_b.jpg

Besides oriental motifs, which were spread by the crusaders, plant motifs and flowery 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; it was utilised instead of wardrobes and sometimes as chairs too. Wardrobes were not spread generally until the end of the Middle Ages. Their utilisation increased when clothes did not have enough space anymore in the chests. In winter, it was difficult to heat thick walls, so they insulated some rooms better than others: they fixed a layer of wild-boar skin and covered it 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), to which they had to climb four large steps.

csgyk_fototar_siklos_a_var_kinzokamraja_1966.jpgAs hot air flies upwards, the bed always stood on a warmer place. There was at least one toilette 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. The 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 it was too expensive after its invention.

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A room of the Castle of Pécsvárad in 1963  - Csorba Győző Könyvtár - Pécs, CC BY-NC

However, it was a big progress, because it let in much more light than the earlier solutions did. It became fashionable only in the 15th-16th centuries, after that its producing was industrialised and became affordable for the lords of castles.

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Glass negative of the castle ruins of Rezi in 1908 - Balatoni Múzeum, CC BY-NC-ND

Besides different events, castle inhabitants organised feasts with guests, elegant masquerades, so called 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 practiced this profession for money. Researchers proved that, when they found records of monthly wages to the court dwarf and the court clown in the budget account of the Castle of Burghausen from 1477. On the feasts, noblemen of castles often ate the venison that they 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, because they reached Europe only 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 women’s task, but the amount sometimes proved to have been scarce. The account of the Castle of Burghausen from 1477 recorded the total cost of drinks: 1185 buckets of beer and twice as much wine purchased.

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Coloured photo of the castle complex of Rametz in Merano, postcard sent in 1915 - Terleczky József, CC BY-NC-ND

The favourite amusement of noblemen of castles was playing chess or backgammon, while their servants preferred playing draughts. However, life in a castle was not about bare amusement, because they were attacked from time to time. In fact it happened rarely – on average in every 75 years. In case of an attack, the strategic activities came into the limelight immediately. 

EK

Translated by Zita Aknai

Sources

  • Bier, S.; Trimbuch, S.; Allenbacher, P.: Burgen – Mythos und Wahrheit I. 2019, Köln
  • McNeill, Tom (1992), English Heritage Book of Castles, London: English Heritage and B. T. Batsford, ISBN 0713470259
  • Csorba Csaba: Regélő várak. Honismeret, (21). 5. (1993).

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