The Writer’s Guide to Castle Myths

Over the last five weeks, I’ve been providing information to give you a basic understanding of castles. Today, we are tackling the most common myths. Since castles are popular, they are depicted a lot in movies, TV shows, video games, and books. But there are several things that are often shown incorrectly.

As always, magic is the exception to the rules. Because magic.

Cold and Drafty

Castles are commonly depicted as being cold, drafty, and dark. This is often blamed on the fact they are constructed of cold stone with small windows. However, as I’ve already explained in my previous articles, castles weren’t always made of stone; many were made from timber or brick. For the sake of argument, I’m going to focus on stone castles.

In cold climates, stone can be cooling since it responds to the ambient air temperature. During the second half of the Middle Ages, the world experienced the Little Ice Age. The average temperatures dropped, and the ice pack grew. Most scientists agree that it extended from the 16th to the 19th century although others argue that it lasted from 1300 to 1850. [1] [2]

There were several ways, however, to ward off the chill in a stone castle. Thick tapestries of wool were hung on the walls to provide insulation. Rushes were used on the floors, although we don’t know if they were strewn loose or woven into mats. Canopies and curtains on beds helped to keep in the heat. Many rooms were kept small to hold in heat. Early castles had a large open hearth in the great hall and braziers in the other rooms. With the introduction of chimneys in the 12th century, fireplaces began replacing open hearths and braziers, becoming common by the 16th century. [3] [4] The people living in castles also dressed in layers to ward off the cold.

A medieval painting of an interior. Note the bed curtains, rugs, and woven rushes.
Photo source.
A castle fireplace. Photo source.

Grey and Colorless

When we look at existing castles today, they are grey and colorless. But they didn’t start off that way. As I covered in my previous article, there is good evidence that the exteriors of castles were covered by a layer of white plaster.

The interiors were not neglected either. Our medieval ancestors loved color. Walls that weren’t covered with insulating tapestries were often rendered with plaster and painted, as were ceilings. [5]

A colorful medieval interior. Photo source.

Use of Space

A lot of video games, especially, show castles with large rooms. Usually, there is due more to the game giving the player room to maneuver than to actual castle architecture. Excluding the Great Hall, most of the rooms in a castle were quite small. This was done to limit the waste of space and as I mentioned before, to keep rooms warm.

Stone Ceilings and Other Overuse of Stone

Another mistake that a lot of video games make, is showing that everything in a castle is made of stone. Floors and roofs were commonly made of timber beams and planks. It would be hard to make a floor out of stone (unless it was the ground floor) because the weight would require a tremendous amount of support. The exterior walls of a tower would be made of stone, but the internal floors would be timber. Ceilings or the tops of towers could be made of stone, but it would have to be buttressed to support the weight. Staircases could be made of stone or timber.

A buttressed stone ceiling. Photo source.

I hope this was helpful. Let me know if you have any questions or suggestions by using the Contact Me form on my website or writing a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

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Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Mann, Michael (2003). "Little Ice Age" (PDF). In Michael C MacCracken; John S Perry (eds.). Encyclopedia of Global Environmental Change, Volume 1, The Earth System: Physical and Chemical Dimensions of Global Environmental Change. John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved 17 November 2012.
[2] Grove, J.M., Little Ice Ages: Ancient and Modern, Routledge, London (2 volumes) 2004.
[3] James Burke, Connections (Little, Brown and Co.) 1978/1995, ISBN 0-316-11672-6, p. 159
[4] Sparrow, Walter Shaw. The English house: how to judge its periods and styles. London: Eveleigh Nash, 1908. 85-86.

2 Comments on “The Writer’s Guide to Castle Myths”

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