The narrow definition of what life was like during medieval times that comes from the entertainment industry is short sighted because it does not account for the fact that the middle ages was an extremely lengthy period in the history of civilization. From the fall of Rome to the birth of the Renaissance period spans some 700-800 years and the changes in culture and what civilization looked like during those centuries was dramatic.
One of the cultural icons that we associate with the medieval period of history is the castle. But the classic image of a medieval castle with the round turrets, the drawbridge and the moat was one that developed over my centuries as the materials that were used to make castles became more sophisticated and the job of castles changed with the times.
The purpose of a medieval castle as a means of defense of its occupants was always paramount in design. Early defensive castle structures were called Motte and Bailey. But they were not the elaborate stone structures we still see scattered around Europe today. These early medieval castles were wood stockade fences that were put on top of a manufactured “hill” of dirt. The western image of a fort was more in keeping with what a 10th century castle looked like.
The reason the Motte and Bailey design for castles was popular was that kingdoms were small during the later part of “the dark ages” and resources for castles were hard to come by. These defensive structures could be made with materials that were easy to find locally and inexpensive to utilize in large quantities.
It was the 10th and 11th centuries that brought tremendous change to Europe as the Catholic Church began to establish order to society and the union of Church with the system of Kings and Kingdoms lead to the crusades. From a castle building point of view, this was a time when we saw the rise of the conventional castle that we think of begin to take shape. The reasons for the changes came out of what was happening in the evolution of civilization at large.
One influence The Crusades brought to all aspects of design was the influence of Greek and Turkish design ideas that came back with the armies that went off on the crusades. Along with the military mission of these campaigns, there was a tremendous amount of cultural influences that happened when the armies went off to fight battles in far away lands. Much of what we know as European castle design show influences from Turkey and the east because of those campaigns.
But along with those changes, it was during the 10th-12th century that more powerful Lord and Kings began to consolidate their Kingdoms into what we now think of as “countries.” This consolation meant that the King has more resources to use to build more elaborate castles as well. And because of the potential of larger, better equipped armies who could potentially come and assault the castle, more effort was made to make the castles impervious to such attacks.
Before long, the large stone fortresses that we now think of as castles began to be built all over Europe. It was in these centuries and the one that followed immediately that the elaborate and ornate castles that still stand today as tourist attractions were built. Round towers were hallmarks of these expansive castles and this too was an evolution of necessity as designers discovered that square towers had blind spots and that they were vulnerable to battering rams than round towers were.
The use of castles as defensive structures tapered off with the rise of artillery and gunpowder. A huge stone castle could take as much as ten years to build. So when it became possible to destroy such towers in a matter of days with artillery, military planners abandoned the castle as part of their defensive strategy.
The influence of the castle on culture did not fade away. Royal families and wealthy and influential persons in society took over the design. That is when the castle design evolved once again into what we now think of as a palace. And since medieval castles were so well made, many are still standing today that we can tour to get a feel for what life was like in medieval times for those who called medieval castles their homes.