Medieval castles have a domineering look to them, with their stone walls and jagged angles. But there was a lot more going on behind the facade that made these feats of architecture all the more intimidating. Features like arrowslits, moats, and drawbridges could make these structures a living nightmare for intruders, while more subtle details like taluses enhanced knights’ ability to protect the castle. From the characteristic teeth at the top of castle walls to the hidden passageways within, these defensive features showcase the brilliance of medieval architecture.
Arrowslits Enabled Defenders To Hide While They Fought
Those long, vertical slits in castle walls were one of the most vital features when it came to defense. Through these openings, archers could shoot out arrows without having to go out into the open and make themselves vulnerable to attacks.
It’s far easier to attack someone from behind these slits than to successfully peg someone who is hiding behind them. As a result, invaders would be at a major disadvantage as they were attacked from the very walls they were attempting to infiltrate.
Chemins De Rondes Enabled Soldiers To Move Under Protection
Chemins de ronde translates to “walkway,” which is precisely what it is. More specifically, these are walkways that went along the top of medieval castles. Battlements shielded the paths so that soldiers could run from place to place while still being protected.
The walkways also gave defenders a vantage point from which to attack the enemy from above. The bird’s eye view gave those in the chemins de rondes an advantage in that they could see far and wide and could use the height to drop things on the enemy.
Crenellations Provided Protection While Soldiers Attacked
One of the more recognizable features of a medieval castle is the row of teeth on top, called crenellations. The name comes from the gaps that the design creates, called crenels. The solid part is called a merlon.
The merlons protected soldiers as they walked along the chemins de rondes, and would sometimes be equipped with arrowslits. Soldiers could perch along the rooftop walkway and attack enemies down below through the slits or the crenels with minimal exposure.
Moats Prevented Intruders From Tunneling Their Way In
If there’s one thing many of us think of when it comes to medieval castles, its a moat. This famous feature consisted of a large ditch that surrounded a castle and was filled with water. Intruders would have a much more difficult time penetrating or climbing over castle walls with water down below.
Moats were perhaps most effective at preventing attackers from digging their way under castle walls. The tunneling technique was virtually impossible to do underwater, especially when sharp stakes were hidden below the surface.
Garderobes Deposited Human Waste Into Moats
While many medieval castle features still seem remarkably innovative, there was one aspect that is profoundly basic by today’s standards. Since the middle ages had yet to see the groundbreaking innovation that is indoor plumbing, they were left with garderobes.
These small rooms sat near castle walls or protruded from them so that a chute could eliminate the waste, often depositing it into the moat. Thus, enemies had even more of a reason to be wary of falling into a moat.
Drawbridges Limited Entrance Access
While moats provided an excellent way to keep out the enemy, they also presented a problem when it came to getting in and out of the castle. The solution was a bridge that could draw back, hence the name drawbridge.
The drawbridge would lead across the moat to the castle’s entrance. A pulley system consisting of hinges and ropes or chains would pull the bridge up and over the entrance, providing further protection while preventing enemies from crossing over the moat.
Machicolations Enabled Defenders To Drop Items On The Enemy
“Machicolations” is a fancy word for the holes that protrude from high up in the walls of medieval castles. Similar to arrow slits, these openings provided a way for defenders to attack while still under the castle’s cover.
Knights could drop heavy items through the holes, which were often near the very top of the castle. An oblivious intruder could get knocked out by the impact, and may not ever come back up. The simple technique made castles all the more threatening to enemies.
Gatehouses Were Designed To Stop Enemies At The Entrance
When someone is trying to break into a building, they don’t go ramming into walls; they go for the front door. That’s why gatehouses were so important. These structures protected one of the most vulnerable parts of the castle: the entrance.
The gatehouse was made to be as durable as possible so that enemies couldn’t force their way in. To top it off, machicolations would often be constructed around the top so that defenders could drop hot or heavy items on their enemies at the door.
Portcullis Gates Had Sharp Points To Attack Intruders
If a brave attacker did manage to make it into the front entrance of a medieval castle, they had the portcullis to worry about. These gates are characterized by their crisscross shape and the sharp points at the bottom.
Using a pulley system, defenders could drop the portcullis onto invaders, ending their life on the spot. Most intimidating of all was that gatehouses were often equipped with two portcullis gates. So, if an enemy did get past the first one, they could find themselves trapped between the two.
Bartizans Helped Soldiers Defend Castle Walls
Bartizans are towers built into castle walls. Their purpose was to provide defenders a place from which to attack enemies threatening to infiltrate or attack the walls. Since the bartizan protruded past the walls, soldiers had greater access to intruders while still being protected.
The structures would often include arrowslits and machicolations through which soldiers could attack and remain hidden. Bartizans could sit on a corner or on be built into flat stretches of wall so that defenders always had the advantage over someone attacking the castle.
Taluses Made Walls More Difficult To Knock Down And Climb
Taluses were medieval castle walls that were built at an angle so that the bottom was wider than the top. There were multiple benefits to the design, both as a form of protection and for attacking. The design made it harder to knock the walls down and more difficult to climb.
Furthermore, defenders could roll heavy items down the walls, causing them to bounce off and hit an intruder unexpectedly. These benefits gave taluses the nickname “batters.”
Bossed Stones Diffused The Power Of Fired Rocks
Bossed stones are those that were not smoothed out and finished, leaving a ragged look. Historians initially thought they may have been either a money-saver or a way to make the castle look stronger. Uncovered texts finally put an end to the mystery.
As it turns out, the bossed stone was yet another way to defend from attacks. When enemies would fire rocks at the castle with catapults, the jagged stone would dissipate some of the force. The building technique goes back to Roman times.
Secret Passages Provided A Way To Escape Enemies
Secret rooms and passages have been around for some time, but they were especially imperative when medieval castles were under attack. If an enemy somehow made it past all of the exterior threats, a secret passage could be a monarch’s last defense.
Some secrets rooms would have an access point that merely looked like a wall. Escaping into a passage would be more ideal than a room because you wouldn’t get stuck while seeking escape. But sometimes, waiting in a hidden room was the only option.
Spiral Staircases Went Clockwise For The Right-Handed
Spiral staircases are an attractive feature, but in medieval times they were a necessary design to adhere to the shape of towers. The problem was that knights could find it difficult to run with a sword in their hand next to a stone wall.
To solve this mishap, spiral staircases were often constructed so that they go clockwise when you ascend them. Since most people are right-handed, this enabled a soldier to hold their sword in their more comfortable hand while running up the staircase.
Bastions Provided Enhanced Protection From Cannons
During the middle ages, cannons were a new threat that architects met with the impenetrable bastion. These walls were extra enforced and designed so that defenders could attack from multiple angles.
The structure went around castle walls, typically at the corners, and were sometimes round. They reinforced the castle as a whole while also providing a place to store cannons that would shoot outwards. You can think of the bastions as the thick skin, protecting the more penetrable layers of the castle.
Hourdes Provided A Temporary Vantage Point During Attacks
Hourdes are wooden structures that were a temporary addition used if a castle came under attack. They were built with holes that fit with supporting poles, enabling defenders to put them up quickly if an attack ensued.
The structures would provide a vantage point from which soldiers could attack oncoming enemies. To make the wooden addition fireproof, knights would cover the hourdes in wet animal skins. Eventually, stone structures would replace the hourdes since they were permanent, stronger, and already fireproof.
Donjons Were The Safest Spot In The Castle
Donjons are tall towers that contain many of the medieval castle’s rooms. They were the heart of the structure, sitting in the middle of the property and acting as a safe place during attacks. Though the dreadful dungeon derived from the name donjon, the two have pretty much opposite meanings.
Contrary to the room where enemies were held captive, donjons were where monarchs would feast and partake in other pleasant activities. In essence, dungeons were where people were the least safe, and donjons were where they were the most protected.
Oubliettes Were Especially Notorious Dungeons
It’s no secret that dungeons were not a place you wanted to end up during the middle ages. But there was one kind of dungeon that you especially didn’t want to end up in: an oubliette. The name translates to a place that is forgotten, and that’s how they were designed.
The structure would be especially dark and damp, and the only access point would be a trap door in the room’s ceiling. The tiny spaces were once where prisoners would be left and, as the name implies, forgotten about.
The Bailey Was A Courtyard Between The Donjon And Walls
The donjon, where the monarch and others would reside, was as far from the protective castle walls as possible, leaving a courtyard called the bailey. In this space, other buildings for blacksmiths, gardeners, livestock, and more would be situated.
The bailey provided a place for the exchange of goods and services, making the castle all the more self-sufficient. If the castle did come under attack, those inside could survive for extended amounts of time without having to face the danger beyond.
Ravelins Were Castles’ First Line Of Defense
Protruding out from some castle walls were structures called ravelins. These triangular-shaped structures gave defenders access to the enemy from multiple angles before they even reached the main walls. The also acted as artillery absorbers, taking the first hits before attackers could penetrate the main building.
The ravelins were also built low to the ground so that if an enemy did knock them out, they would be met with attacks from high above with nothing to hide under.
Castles Were Packed With People
When most people think of castles, an image of a king or a lord might come to mind. However, they were greatly outnumbered by the other hundreds of people that lived within the confines of its walls.
Not only did the ruler of the castle typically live with their entire extended family, but the castle had to be manned by soldiers and maintained by countless servants. Basically, a castle held a small village. Not to mention that the lords of castles often had guests who brought plenty of their own people with them.
You Did Not Want To End Up In The Dungeon
Castles had banquet halls, chambers, throne rooms, and kitchens, and many also had dungeons. These served as prisons inside of the castle where those who had committed crimes against the lord were kept.
The dungeons were usually located in the darkest depths of a castle, and the conditions were deplorable. Moreover, if you weren’t rotting away in a cell, the dungeons often had torture rooms that those unfortunate enough would visit if the lord or lady believed it was necessary.
Rats Were A Normalcy
Because castles were such murky, dark, and damp environments, they were the perfect homes for rats and other vermin. Although today, finding a rat in your home may be horrifying, it was a way of life in medieval castles.
However, that didn’t mean that people living at that time were less afraid of them. Not only did people fear their physical presence as many do today, but they were also known to carry diseases that were rampant during the medieval era.
Bathing Was A Chore And An Open Spectacle
Unlike the commoners who lived outside of the castle walls, those living within bathed on a more regular basis than most. However, that doesn’t mean that bathing was easy by any means.
Not only was finding clean water difficult, but servants usually had to heat the water and transport a wooden tub to whichever room it was required in. This usually meant that people bathed in the same tub, and in full view of anyone in the same room. Not only was this entire process unsanitary, but it also lacked any privacy.
There Was No Sleeping In
With no electricity, a fire was the only source of light, which meant that the daytime was the best time to be the most productive. Because of this, everyone needed to take advantage of whatever sunlight was available, which meant waking up early.
Because most castles only had small windows, indoor work began at sunrise, and it was the same was for outdoor chores. Most individuals had to wake up well before the sun even rose to get fires going, cook food, and prepare themselves and their lord for the day.
Better Bundle Up!
While castles may have protected those living within from the elements, by no means were they a place of warmth. Castles were built using stone as a purpose to keep enemies out, not necessarily for comfort.
With the stone providing no insulation, castles kept the cold in, which was especially problematic in a region that is known to be cold and wet. In addition, the windows were so small that they let in minimal sunlight, and those were only located in certain parts of the castle. Many of the rooms in the castle had no windows at all and were more or less an icebox.
Say Goodbye To Privacy
Although castles may look like impenetrable fortresses on the outside, on the inside, they usually had an open floor plan, and there was little space for the privacy that we hold dear today.
While the lord and the lady of the castle would have private chambers to themselves, the majority of the servants and others dwelling within the walls were forced to spend their days and nights surrounded by one another. There were shared sleeping quarters, bathrooms, dining halls, and more. There was essentially no escape from human interaction.
Hosting Guests Was No Easy Task
If you think having a dinner party or hosting Thanksgiving is a pain, you couldn’t imagine what it was like to hold a feast, banquet, or any other occasion in a castle. Unfortunately for the servants, large gatherings and extravagant meals were the norm, and it took more work than most people think.
Numerous courses had to be prepared without the luxury of modern technologies, and they were expected to be suitable for all of the nobility in attendance. This meant that the food had to be harvested, processed, prepared, and served all at the perfect time. Don’t forget about the dishes!
There Was No Shortage Of Alcohol
Alcoholic beverages such as beer, mead, wine, and ale were the preferred drinks during meals during the medieval period. Just like today, those who produced the finest alcohol were held in high regard.
However, it’s worth noting that the lower class drank beer mostly because it was safer than drinking most of the water available. While royalty might have had access to anything they wanted at the time, the lower classes took whatever they could get their hands on.
There Was A Status Quo
Inside a castle, there was a banquet hall where a lot of the castle dwellers would eat together. However, much like high school, there was a structure to where people ate. Back in the medieval ages, people sat in halls according to their level of importance.
The lord and the lady sat at the head of the table, and their meals were served first (they were also the highest quality). It then went down the table according to rank until the lowliest people in the castle were served. Nevertheless, the last people served were still treated better than the serfs living in the fields.
The Floors Weren’t Exactly Pleasant
Keeping a castle clean was hard enough without having to deal with the floors. With so many people treading through on a day-to-day basis, bringing in all of the filth from the ground outside, it was almost impossible.
The flooring was typically lined with fresh reeds and herbs to help soak up everything that was tracked in from the outside. When the reeds, straw, or other material was removed, the floors would need to be deep cleaned before they were lined once again.
Kitchen Fires Weren’t Uncommon
In the Middle Ages, the kitchens were primarily built out of timber. With so many different cooking fires going consistently, it wasn’t unusual for fires to break out.
This would often result in a large-scale fire that usually ended with the entire kitchen burning down. Luckily, because castles were made of stone, the kitchens were often the only casualty of a fire. Eventually, the kitchens were built using stone as well, with hearths to keep the flames under control.
Going To The Bathroom Was Not A Pleasant Experience
Although today, many of us enjoy the luxury of doing our business behind closed doors and with running water, that wasn’t the case during the medieval era. Back then, going to the bathroom meant sitting on a long bench made of wood with a hole in it.
Very much like a modern-day Porta-Potty, the waste would drop into a cesspool, which would later be emptied into a castle’s moat (if there was one). If that wasn’t bad enough, there were no stalls, and most people did what they needed to do in the direct view of others.
Castles Smelled Incredibly Unpleasant
Due to the non-existence of plumbing and overall lack of hygiene, castles were not the healthiest or nicest-smelling places to be. Even though there were servants at the beck and call of the lords and ladies, it didn’t mean that they were able to keep the castle pristine.
With little fresh water to go around, castles weren’t cleaned to the standard of hygiene that many of us think of today. Because of this, sickness was rampant within the confines of a castle, and the stench was horrid.
Stairways Were Built Clockwise
In most medieval castles, almost all of the staircases were constructed clockwise. However, this was no coincidence, but as a form of defense. The reason for this is that if an enemy were to attack, those going up the stairs would have difficulty wielding their swords with their right hand, which the majority of people are.
On the other hand, those going down the stairs to defend the castle would have the advantage of the full swing of a weapon.
Attending Church Was A Must
On top of everything that most castles provided, one of the essential aspects of any such structure was an onsite chapel. However, this was typically reserved for the lord and his family to attend mass.
In some instances, the chapel was the only other room aside from the great hall that would be distinguishable from the rest of the castle. Although many people still attend religious services today, back then, it was so commonplace that people didn’t even have to leave their homes.
Other Than The Lord And Lady, People Were There To Serve
Maintaining a castle is a lot of work, which is why there were so many people living in them at one time. However, the work was very clearly divided. The majority of the people there were only there to serve the lord and lady of the castle, as well as their family members.
Their job was to make the lord and his family feel comfortable and handle any of the daily chores that needed to be done. On the other hand, the lord dealt with political matters and made decisions regarding his keep.
The Lord And Lady Lived In A ‘Solar’
Although the vast majority of those living in the castle had to be in a communal setting, that certainly wasn’t the case for the lord and lady.
Although they didn’t live there every second of their lives, when they were there, they resided in a place in the castle known as the solar. The solar was typically located at the top of one of the towers and was one of the few places that anyone could have privacy.
The Lords Of Castles Ate Like Kings
Although kings had their own castles, the lords who had their own also lived in extravagance, especially when it came to food. More often than not, meals were served in a series of courses with each containing what we would now consider rare meats such as peacock, porpoise, and swan.
Many also ate their food in what was known as a “trencher,” which was a hollowed-out piece of bread that was filled with the meats served. Nobles ate very few vegetables, which may have resulted in countless health problems in royal families.
They Kept Enough Guards As Needed
By definition, castles were pointless unless there were soldiers there to guard them. However, the number of guards housed at a castle greatly varied depending on the situation.
During a time of peace, maybe a few dozen knights were needed as a light defense to raise the portcullis and other simple duties. Yet, in a time of war, especially a siege, as many soldiers as possible were forced into the castle to hold the structure.