As well as being a fortress, a castle is also a home for the common people if their land is attacked, in addition to being a safe place to stay. As children, we read many fairy tales, most of which had to do with castles, where the prince rescues the princess from the darkness of an old castle, through thick and thin, and the two live happily together.
But did the people who actually lived in castles in medieval (5th to 15th century AD) European countries live a very different life to ours? What was it like to live in a castle?
Who built and mainly lived in the castle?
This is obvious. Kings and queens, right? Well …… yes and no. Of course a king or queen would live in a castle or palace, a grand, magnificent castle of course, but there were dozens or hundreds of castles throughout Europe. The crowned heads of France, Germany, Poland, England and all the other European countries couldn’t have lived in all of them, could they?
No, they weren’t. The truth is that most castles were never built for kings or queens or any other reigning monarchs. Most castles were actually built for the nobility! In the days when it was customary for kings to lead their armies into battle, to lead them forward, or to stay behind and command the battlefield, kings gave the best rewards to particularly brave soldiers or knights. In those days a king could come back in style. He gave the knight with the big ball a big, fat piece of land. Once a worthy warrior had acquired his land, he could do what he wanted with it. Less ambitious nobles (for knights were made earls or barons after serving the king) might build a manor house. However, those who wanted to build a castle had to get written, signed and sealed permission from the king. It was illegal to build a castle without the king’s permission. However, once permission (and funding) had been obtained, construction could proceed.
So the main occupants of the castle were not actually members of the royal family, but more likely members of the noble family, including the lord, his wife and any children or relatives, as well as servants and any close friends and associates.
What is it like to live in a castle?
Life in a medieval castle: cold, dark and very smelly! Don’t try to over-romanticise the unpleasant realities of life in a medieval castle. By our modern standards of living, most medieval castles would have been very cold, cramped, completely lacking in privacy and would have smelled disgustingly bad (and probably been home to a fair number of rats!) .
Incredibly, the fireplace was not invented until the mid-medieval period. Up until this time, all fires were open fires, which did not spread heat as efficiently (and produced a lot of smoke!) .
The invention of the fireplace made the room warmer as it heated the stones and the room itself. This made life in a medieval castle much more bearable.
However, when it came to hygiene, things were always really disgusting. The link between sewers and disease was not established until the 18th century, and medieval people were still ignorant of the health consequences of poor toilet hygiene.
As a result, most toilets (or garderobes) were little more than small antechambers where you would find a bench with a hole in it. Ergo, the contents of the toilet fall down – usually from a great height! – into the cesspool, or even into the moat. As the moat is usually stagnant, this means that the stench is unbearable – especially in summer.
As well as the lack of hygiene in the wardrobe, there was also a serious lack of privacy. Medieval society didn’t really value privacy as much as we do, so most garderobes were long rows of benches with nothing to separate you from your neighbours while they were doing their business.
But I guess that meant you always had someone to talk to while you were on the toilet!
Having said that, do you have any feelings about life at the castle? You can leave your comments. From time to time we will update you on the culture of the medieval castle period. We hope you enjoy them.
Perhaps you would be interested in the following castle MOCs