Book Update

I am excited to announce that the third and final round of self editing on my up-coming novel is complete! I have already sent the first two chapters to my beta readers and after the New Year will begin the search for a professional editor.

Please stay tuned for more updates!

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.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways please sign up for my email list here.

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.
[5] https://www.quora.com/If-medieval-castles-were-whitewashed-especially-on-the-inside-what-designs-would-you-find-painted-on-the-walls

The Writer’s Guide to Siege Engines

Besieging a castle or a city inherently has a great amount of built-in tension that a writer can use to fantastic effect. If you want to read besieging a castle, I recommend my last article, The Writer’s Guide to Besieging a Castle. Today, we are focusing on siege engines, a general term that includes catapults, trebuchets, and battering rams. My focus will be medieval Europe since I have limited knowledge of siege engines outside of this location and period.

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

Siege Tower

The earliest type of siege engine is the siege tower, also known as a belfry. [1] This might seem strange at first because it is a passive piece of equipment. However, siege towers were highly effective against walls and other fortifications. They were enclosed towers on wheels that were maneuvered into place against a wall. Then a gangplank was lowered, bridging the way to the top of the wall, and allowing soldiers to rush across. They could also have archers on the top. The benefit of siege towers was that it protected the soldiers inside from arrows and other projectiles and were sometimes covered in fresh animal hides to prevent it from being set on fire. [1] It allowed many of them to gain the battlements at one time.

The oldest siege towers were used in the 9th century by the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Romans used them to great effect, such as at the siege of Masada in 73-74 CE. [2] The Greeks and ancient Chinese also used them.

A siege tower in use during the Siege of Lisbon. Photo source.

Battering Ram

The battering ram is well known in history and fiction. It comes in several forms, the simplest being a large tree trunk or log cleaned of branches that is carried by a group of people and slammed against a gate or other barrier (think “Beauty and Beast”). Later, the battering ram would be suspended from a wheeled frame by ropes or chains. It would be pulled back then allowed to swing forward. Eventually, a roof was added to the frame to protect the wielders from arrows, rocks, or whatever other nasty surprises a besieged fortress could muster.

There is some evidence that battering rams date back to Bronze Age Egypt. [3] Many cultures used them throughout history including the Carthaginians, Assyrians, ancient Greeks including Alexander the Great, the Romans, and most countries in Europe during the Middle Ages.

The battering ram from “Beauty and the Beast.”
Photo source.
A battering ram with a protective roof.
Photo source.

Catapult

The catapult is the first missile thrower on our list. It consists of an arm ending in a bucket, into which the missile is placed. A bundle of twisted ropes, sinew or other materials was at the base of the arm. As the arm was pulled back, it twisted this bundle further, leading to a build up of torque and energy since the twisted ropes were trying to straighten. When the arm is released, the ropes fling it forward at speed, propelling the missile in the bucket. However, this type of torsion system can only produce a certain amount of throwing power. It wasn’t enough to be effective against stone walls and was mainly used against personnel.

The earliest catapults are from 4th century China, but they were also used by the ancient Greeks and Romans. [4]

A Roman torsion catapult. Photo source.

Ballista

The ballista is basically a giant crossbow and operates on the same principle. Tension is created by pulling back on the string, usually with a winch and rachet system, and flexing the bow arms. When the string is released, the missile is propelled forward. Usually, either giant crossbow bolts or stones were used. As a result of the bigger size, everything about a ballista was scaled up from its smaller cousin. Generally, it was used as an anti-personnel weapon.

The earliest ballistae were developed by the ancient Greeks although the Romans used it as inspiration for the smaller scorpion.

A ballista being cranked back and loaded. Photo source.

Trebuchet

The trebuchet was the pinnacle of siege engine technology and could dish out an incredible amount of energy and destruction. It wouldn’t be until the advent of artillery that it’s destructive power would be surpassed. The trebuchet has a long throwing arm with a sling attached to it. The throwing power was achieved either with a counterweight or traction. A counterweight trebuchet has a large bucket on the opposite end of the throwing arm that is weighed down, commonly with rocks. The arm was pulled down, either with brute form or a winch. When it was released, the counterweight dropped, swinging the arm, and attached sling up. The traction trebuchet relied on a large group of people hauling together on ropes to provide the energy to swing the arm. Please be aware that “counterweight trebuchet” and “traction trebuchet” are modern terms and we have no evidence they were used in history. [5]

Trebuchets were also incredibly versatile, and we have records of them being used to attack and defend fortifications as well as on ships. It was the first siege engine that could successfully take down castle walls. They could also fire a variety of missiles including stones or even bombs of lime and sulfur such as were fired during the Battle of Caishi in 1161. [6]

The traction trebuchet is thought to have originated in China as early as the 4th century. [7] However, it’s believed that the biggest trebuchet in history was Warwolf, which was built on the order of King Edward I of England to fight the Scots. It could reportedly throw rocks weighing up to 298 pounds (135 kg) a distance of 660 feet (200 m). [8]

A replica of Warwolf. 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.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways please sign up for my email list here.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Castle: Stephen Biesty's Cross-Sections. Dorling Kindersley Pub (T); 1st American edition (September 1994). Siege towers were invented in 300 BC. ISBN 978-1-56458-467-0.
[2] Duncan B. Campbell, "Capturing a desert fortress: Flavius Silva and the siege of Masada", Ancient Warfare Vol. IV, no. 2 (Spring 2010), pp. 28–35. The dating is explained on pp. 29 and 32.
[3] "Siege warfare in ancient Egypt". Tour Egypt. Retrieved 23 May 2020. ...we find a pair of Middle Kingdom soldiers advancing towards a fortress under the protection of a mobile roofed structure. They carry a long pole that was perhaps an early battering ram.
[4] Chevedden, Paul E.; et al. (July 1995). "The Trebuchet". Scientific American: 66–71. Original version.
[5] Purton, Peter (2009), A History of the Early Medieval Siege c.450-1200, The Boydell Press
[6] Needham, Joseph (1987). Science and Civilisation in China: Military technology: The Gunpowder Epic, Volume 5, Part 7. Cambridge University Press. p. 166. ISBN 978-0-521-30358-3.
[7] Chevedden, Paul E.; et al. (July 1995). "The Trebuchet". Scientific American: 66–71. Original version.
[8] "The largest trebuchet ever built: Warwolf in the Siege of Stirling Castle / thefactsource.com". Retrieved 2020-03-25.

The Writer’s Guide to Besieging a Castle

Even though castles could be easily avoided by an invading force, it was often a bad idea. Attacks could be launched from them, with the soldiers retreating to their safety. During much of medieval Europe, if you wanted to take territory you had to deal with the castle of its king or lord. This usually involved a siege. Sieges are popular in books, movies, TV shows, and video games since they are full of drama and tension. Examples include the sieges of Winterfell and King’s Landing in “Game of Thrones,” the siege of Adamant in the game Dragon Age: Inquisition and the siege of Silasta in Sam Hawke’s “City of Lies.”

Today I will be covering the tactics used during a siege. Next week’s article will cover siege engines.

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

Fire

Since early castles were made of wood, setting fire to them was an effective means of neutralizing them. Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of documentation of this method. The most prominent example is a section of the Bayeaux Tapestry in which two men with torches are attempting to set fire to Chateau de Dinan. [1] However, from the artwork of the period, it appears that most timber castles were not bare wood but had a layer of plaster applied to them.

Soldiers attempting to set the wooden castle, Chateau de Dinan, on fire. Photo source.

Assault

The most direct route of taking a castle was to assault the gates and/or walls. This is where siege engines were used. Some, such as the siege tower, were designed to get soldiers onto the tops of the walls. From there, they could fight down to the gates and open them for the rest of the army. Others, such as battering rams, catapults, and trebuchets were designed to go through a castle’s defenses.

A direct assault was usually the quickest way of taking a castle or for that matter, a fortified city or town. [3] But it was also the riskiest and the most likely to result in high casualties. Because of the defensive features of castles, a small garrison could hold out for a long time. For example, in 1403, thirty-seven archers defended Caernarfon Castle against two assaults by allies of Owain Glyndŵr. [2]

Assaulting a castle. Photo source.

Sapping or Mining

Sapping involved tunneling under the walls. People who performed these tasks were known as sappers. Either the miners would tunnel under the walls completely, coming up instead them, or they would collapse the walls. To do that, a void would be dug underneath them, stabilized by props and/or beams. Once complete, the beams would be removed, collapsing the void and the walls above it. [5] The easiest way to remove the supports was to set a fire in the void. There were some accounts that pigs were also trapped in the void before it was set on fire. It was thought that the pig fat helped the fire to burn hotter and faster.

If the defenders realized a tunnel was being dug, they could dig one of their own and try to intercept the sappers. Sapping was so feared that some castles surrendered as soon as they learned the sappers were at work, such as the castle of Margat in 1285. [6]

Once gunpowder became available, explosive charges were used to collapse the walls and gates. One example is the Siege of Godesberg in 1583. [4] A literary example is the battle of Helm’s Deep in “The Two Towers.”

Writer’s Tip: Sappers are rarely used in novels. I would love to see a siege in a book that was ended using sappers.

Sappers digging under the outer wall. Photo source.
The use of an explosive to destroy a section of wall during the battle of Helm’s Deep. Photo source.

Starving Out

The safest way to take a castle or fortified city or town, was to cut them off from being resupplied and starve them out. However, this was the most time-consuming method. There are accounts of besieged castles lasting weeks, months, and in a few cases, years, if they were well supplied. Some besieging armies tried to speed up the process by using siege engines to fling corpses over the walls, hoping they would spread disease.

The danger to the besieging force was that they were stuck in one place for an extended length of time, leaving them vulnerable to attack by another enemy force.

Betrayal

Betrayal rarely makes the list of besieging methods, but it ended several sieges during the Middle Ages. A person inside the castle would open the gates to the attackers. They could either be someone who had been convinced to betray the castle or a member of the enemy force that infiltrated it.


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.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways please sign up for my email list here.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Allen Brown, Reginald (1976) [1954]. Allen Brown's English Castles. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press. ISBN 1-84383-069-8.
[2] Friar, Stephen (2003). The Sutton Companion to Castles. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7509-3994-2.
[3] Friar, Stephen (2003). The Sutton Companion to Castles. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7509-3994-2.
[4] (in German) Ernst Weyden. Godesberg, das Siebengebirge, und ihre Umgebung. Bonn: T. Habicht Verlag, 1864, p. 43.
[5] Friar, Stephen (2003). The Sutton Companion to Castles. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7509-3994-2.
[6] Allen Brown, Reginald (1976) [1954]. Allen Brown's English Castles. Woodbridge, UK: The Boydell Press. ISBN 1-84383-069-8.

The Writer’s Guide to Castle Construction

If you’ve read my previous posts, The Writer’s Guide to Castles and The Writer’s Guide to Castle Defenses, you have probably realized that there were many types of castles throughout European history. As a result, the cost and time involved in castle construction varied widely.

If you are planning to have a castle under construction in your novel, I recommend you first decide on the type of castle, the location, and the budget of the builder.

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

Materials

Wood and earth were the cheapest materials for building castles. They were also plentiful and easy to transport. Most people did not need specialized training to work with them, meaning that a lord could call up his unskilled vassals and serfs to build his castle.

Stone was more expensive and harder to transport. It was also not as available as timber and earth. The blocks had to be cut out from a quarry then moved to the site. Some castles, such as Chinon, Château de Coucy, and Château Gaillard were constructed from stone quarried on the site. [1]

As a result of the high cost and difficulty of using stone, many castles throughout medieval Europe were made of a hybrid of the two. [2] It was also common for a country to have a mixture of timber, stone, and hybrid castles.

Another building material that is often forgotten is brick. [3] A brick castle is almost as strong as a stone one and there are castles that appeared to have been deliberately made of brick even when stone was available, such as Tattershall Castle in Lincolnshire, England.

It appears that both timber and stone (and possibly brick) castles were coated with a layer of plaster. This coating would protect them from the weather and make it difficult for attackers to know what they are up against. If you want to learn more, I recommend this video by Shadiversity.

A brick castle. Castle of the Teutonic Order in Malbork, Poland. It was the largest brick castle in the world when it was completed in 1406. Photo source.

Cost

Most of the surviving records of the cost of building castles are for royal castles, which were quite a bit more expensive than a country lord’s castle. [4] However, we do have some figures. For example, a small tower at Peveril Castle in Derbyshire, England would have cost around $137 USD. Château Gaillard in France, which was built between 1196 and 1198, cost between $20,600 and $27,500 USD. Much of the money went to paying for labor, especially skilled craftsmen, and materials. Master James of Saint George, who oversaw the construction of Beaumaris in Wales, explained it this way:

“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.” [5]

Château Gaillard in Normandy, France. Photo source.

Time

The early castles could be constructed in a relatively short amount of time. It’s estimated an average-sized motte would have taken fifty people about 40 days to construct. However, it was common for stone castles to take a decade or more to complete. For example, Tattershall Castle took 20 years (1430 and 1450) and Beaumaris Castle was constructed between 1295 and 1330, 35 years. [6]

An aerial view of Beaumaris Castle. Photo source.

Construction Techniques

Timber and earth castles required only simple tools and techniques to build. However, more advanced techniques were needed as castles became more complex and stones was increasingly used. Scaffolding was employed and improved from it’s use by the Greeks and Romans. [7] The treadwheel crane was vital for raising and lowering large loads. I recommend this video of a reproduction treadwheel crane lifting a car.

A 19th century depiction of scaffolding used in the construction of Coucy Castle. Photo source.
A treadwheel crane in use on a 13th century construction site. Photo source.

Upkeep

Castles were not only expensive to build but also to maintain. Since the timber used in their construction was unseasoned, it often needed to be replaced. To give you an idea of the cost, Exeter and Gloucester Castles recorded repair cost of $27 and $68 USD annually in the 12th century. [8]


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.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways please sign up for my email list here.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Erlande-Brandenburg, Alain (1995). The Cathedral Builders of the Middle Ages. Découvertes Gallimard ("New Horizons") series. London, UK: Thames & Hudson Ltd. ISBN 978-0-500-30052-7.
[2] Higham, Robert; Barker, Philip (1992). Timber Castles. London, UK: B.T. Batsford. ISBN 0-7134-2189-4.
[3] Cathcart King, David James (1988). The Castle in England and Wales: An interpretative history. London, UK: Croom Helm. ISBN 0-918400-08-2.
[4] McNeill, Tom (1992). English Heritage Book of Castles. London, UK: English Heritage [via] B.T. Batsford. ISBN 0-7134-7025-9.
[5] McNeill, Tom (1992). English Heritage Book of Castles. London, UK: English Heritage [via] B.T. Batsford. ISBN 0-7134-7025-9.
[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beaumaris_Castle
[7] Erlande-Brandenburg, Alain (1995). The Cathedral Builders of the Middle Ages. Découvertes Gallimard ("New Horizons") series. London, UK: Thames & Hudson Ltd. ISBN 978-0-500-30052-7.
[8] McNeill, Tom (1992). English Heritage Book of Castles. London, UK: English Heritage [via] B.T. Batsford. ISBN 0-7134-7025-9.

The Writer’s Guide to Castle Defenses

Castles have been romanticized for centuries, to the point where we forget their use. First, they were a home. Second, they were a series of carefully designed kill zones.

Today I will cover the features most seen in castles and their purpose. I will limit this article to medieval Europe since that is when and where most castles are located and because that is where most of my knowledge lies.

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

Castle Features

Keep – A keep was a fortified tower or building. It was in the most defensible part of the castle. It was as a home for the residing lord, his family, and household. [1] In most early castles, the keep consisted of only a few rooms. Sometimes only a screen would separate the Great Hall from the lord’s bedroom. [2] However, as castles became bigger and more complex, the keep became larger. Later castles had buildings ringed around a central courtyard or enceinte instead of a single keep. [3] In motte-and-bailey castles, the keep is set on top of a motte, an earthen mound.

Within the keep was located the Great Hall, a large room used for greeting guests, feasting, social gatherings and meetings, and legal trials.

Bailey or Ward – The bailey or ward is an open space enclosed by a curtain wall. All castles have at least one. Its primary function was to leave invaders exposed to attack from the keep and battlements. Baileys often contained buildings such as barracks, stables, kitchens, storerooms, chapels, and workshops. The well was also in the bailey. As castles became more complex, they used a series of baileys for protection. The central bailey was called the inner bailey, the further out, the outer bailey. A bailey off to one side was called a nether bailey.

Curtain Walls – Curtain walls surrounded the baileys. A typical curtain wall was 10 feet thick (3 m) and 39 feet tall (12 m). They had to be tall enough that it was difficult to scale them with ladders and thick enough to withstand bombardment from siege engines. Besides going over or through, curtain walls were vulnerable to tunneling, known as sapping. The sappers would either tunnel under the walls, coming up inside the bailey, or create a void under the wall, causing it to collapse.

Gatehouse – A gatehouse was a fortified entrance. Because of the vulnerability of the gate, they often had flanking towers that stuck out further than the gatehouse, allowing the defenders to fire upon attackers. [4] The gates opened outward, so that anyone trying to force them in would work against the hinges. Most gatehouses had at least two sets of gates. Heavily fortified gatehouses were known as barbicans.

Portcullises were heavily latticed gates that were opened by being raised vertically. Their chief advantage was that they could be closed quickly by a single person. They were often set inside the gatehouse, behind the outer set of gates. They could trap attackers inside the gatehouse.

Moat – Moats became a popular way to protect curtain walls. They could be dry or filled with water. Moats were crossed either by a flying bridge or a drawbridge. [5] Moats were not limited to the outside of a castle. Some castles have moats inside the curtain walls, protecting the keep, for example.

Postern – A postern gate or door was a small, hidden door in the curtain wall that allowed people to sneak in and out of a castle. During a siege, messengers or soldiers could leave and enter without the knowledge of the attackers.

Castle features. Photo source.

Battlements

Battlements are defensive architecture built into curtain walls and towers. The most familiar type of battlements are crenelations, the tooth-like structures of alternating spaces. The upright part is called a merlon with the space called a crenel. Merlons were the height of a person and provided cover from incoming fire. Crenels allowed archers to fire back.

Machicolations were battlements that extended beyond the top of a curtain wall or tower, creating an opening through which stones, hot sand, and other nasty surprises could be dropped on people at the base of the walls. [6]

Crenellations made up of merlons and crenels. Photo source.
Machicolations on Lewes Castle. Photo source.
Defenders dropping stones through machicolations. Photo source.

Arrow Slits

Arrow slits, also known as loopholes, were vertical openings in outer walls that archers and crossbowmen used to fire on attackers. The walls were angled on either side of the opening, providing a wide field of fire. [7] Plus, the narrow slit was a small target, protecting the archer inside.

An arrow slit or loop. Photo source.

Murder Holes

Murder holes were similar in function to machicolations, except they were in the ceilings of gatehouses or buildings. Boiling water, hot sand, or stones could be dropped onto invaders.

Murder holes in the ceiling of Bodiam Castle. 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 write a comment. I post every Friday and would be grateful if you would share my content.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox, every month along with exclusive content and giveaways, please sign up for my email list here.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Cathcart King, David James (1988). The Castle in England and Wales: An interpretative history. London, UK: Croom Helm. ISBN 0-918400-08-2.
[2] Barthélemy, Dominique (1988). “Civilizing the fortress: Eleventh to fourteenth century”. In Duby, Georges (ed.). A History of Private Life: Volume II · Revelations of the Medieval World. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University [via] Belknap Press. pp. 397–423. ISBN 978-0-674-40001-6.
[3] Friar, Stephen (2003). The Sutton Companion to Castles. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7509-3994-2.
[4] Friar, Stephen (2003). The Sutton Companion to Castles. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7509-3994-2.
[5] Cathcart King, David James (1988). The Castle in England and Wales: An interpretative history. London, UK: Croom Helm. ISBN 0-918400-08-2.
[6] Jaccarini, C. J. (2002). “Il-Muxrabija: Wirt l-Izlam fil-Gzejjer Maltin” (PDF). L-Imnara (in Maltese). Ghaqda Maltija tal-Folklor. 7 (1): 17–22.
[7] Friar, Stephen (2003). The Sutton Companion to Castles. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7509-3994-2.

The Writer’s Guide to Castles

From the Red Keep to Cair Paravel to Skyhold, castles have loomed large in fantasy and are a familiar part of the landscape of movies, TV shows, video games, and books. They are a favorite among writers and often grab the imagination of readers and viewers. However, unless you live in Europe, most writers don’t have the opportunity to visit a real castle. These fortresses were built with an intentional purpose, clever engineering, and impressive technology. The fact that so many of them are still standing today is a testament to the quality of their construction.

Today I will be diving into the basics of castles.

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

Definition

The term “castle” gets tossed around quite a bit but what is a castle? What makes it different from a palace or fortress? Historians usually define a castle as a private fortified residence. [1] They were commonly held individually by members of the nobility or the royal family since land ownership and a lot of money for construction and upkeep were required. [2] The main way to acquire land in medieval Europe was to be gifted it by the monarch, usually as a reward for loyal service. There was also the expectation of continued military service from the lord and his vassals. [3] Ownership was hereditary, usually passing to the oldest son. This type of inheritance is known as patrilineal.

An example of an early fortified residence. Photo source.

Purpose

The castle served multiple purposes. First, it was a residence, housing the owner, their family, and household. Second, it was an administrative center from which to oversee the owner’s lands. Third, it was a military base from which soldiers could attack and retreat to. [4]

Evolution

Walled fortifications are incredibly old and were built in the Indus Valley, Egypt, and China. There is some debate regarding when the first castles were built. The ancestors of castles were likely the fortified homes of lords. The most common defenses were walls and earthworks. The first castles were often made of wood.

Château de Dinan from the Bayeux Tapestry, one of the earliest depictions of a castle.
Notice it is made of wood and the attackers are trying to set it on fire. Photo source.

The first type of castle is a motte-and-bailey castle. A motte is an earthen mound, usually flattened at the top. It could be natural or manmade. [5] They ranged in height from 10 to 100 feet (3-30 m) and in diameter from 100 to 300 feet (30-90 m) [6] On top of the motte, was built a keep, which housed the lord, his family, and household. The early keeps were constructed of wood, which made them susceptible to fire. Over time, stone became the more common building material. The motte and keep were surrounded by a wall or palisade that enclosed the bailey. It was an open space that keep attackers at a distance and housed various buildings such as the stables, forge, workshops, storehouses, barracks, and kitchen. [7] Motte-and-bailey castles were first built in northern Europe in the 10th century, spreading to southern Europe throughout the following century. The Normans introduced them to England when they invaded, and they were adopted through Britain and Ireland during the 12th and 13th centuries. The design was surpassed by others by the end of the 13th century.

A motte-and-bailey castle. Photo source.

Castles continued to evolve from the motte-and-bailey. The biggest advance was replacing wood with stone. This happened slowly and unevenly across Europe since stone was harder to move and lift. There was often a mixing of the two. For example, a keep could be stone, but the wall would be made of wood.

Over time, castle design became more sophisticated. Walls were added, creating more baileys. Gatehouses and barbicans protected the passages through these walls. The entrance to the keep was moved to the second floor for security. Crenellations were added to the walls to protect the defenders. I will be covering the defensive features and parts of castles in my next article.

The Alcázar of Segovia, a 12th century Spanish castle. 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.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways please sign up for my email list here.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Coulson, Charles (2003). Castles in Medieval Society: Fortresses in England, France, and Ireland in the Central Middle Ages. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-927363-4.
[2] Liddiard, Robert (2005). Castles in Context: Power, symbolism and landscape, 1066 to 1500. Macclesfield, UK: Windgather Press Ltd. ISBN 0-9545575-2-2.
[3] Herlihy, David (1970). The History of Feudalism. London, UK: Humanities Press. ISBN 0-391-00901-X.
[4] Friar, Stephen (2003). The Sutton Companion to Castles. Stroud, UK: Sutton Publishing. ISBN 978-0-7509-3994-2.
[5] Toy, p.52; Brown (1962), p.24.
[6] Toy, p.52.
[7] Meulemeester, p.105; Cooper, p.18; Butler, p.13.

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The Writer’s Guide to Shields

Today I will be covering some of the most common misconceptions of shields that I see in movies, TV shows, and books. Again, my focus is on medieval Europe since that is where most of my expertise is.

If you want a guide to types of medieval shields, please visit my previous post here.

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

Use in Battle

There were two main uses of the shield: personal protection and group formations.

Personal protection is exactly what it sounds like: an individual using a shield to protect himself. Group formations, such as the shield wall or the Roman testudo, were used on the battlefield. They were especially effective against cavalry charges or volleys of arrows.

However, the shield wasn’t only used for defense. It could also be used as a weapon. The shield bash has become a staple in video games, movies, TV shows, and books. However, we have limited information regarding how often it was actually used during the medieval period.

Shield bash. Photo source.

Tactics

For individual use, there are multiple tactics. A combatant can use their shield as moving protection, meaning that they can rotate it, opening it like a door, to provide opportunities to strike. Since it is usually held out in front, it provides almost complete coverage. The pointed bottom of the Norman kite shield can be angled toward an opponent, keeping them at even further distance than other types of shields.

Multiple types of weapons can be used in the main hand including swords, axes, spears, knives, and batons.

Writer’s Tip: Swords and axes have commonly been paired with shields. I would love to see other weapons, especially the spear, which is incredibly effective when paired with a shield because of the longer reach.

The most familiar group tactic is the shield wall. It was also the most used in history, likely because it was effective and didn’t require a lot of training. Often strapped shields were used because this method put the shield off center and allowed it to overlap with the one on the bearer’s right. This interlinking made the shield wall stronger. The shield wall could also be formed into V and slanted half V shapes. A V pointed at the enemy is an enfilade while one pointed away is a defilade. [1] There is also the tortoise or testudo formation that was developed by the Romans. Another tactic was the hedgehog, a circular formation that could also incorporate archers and polearms.

A shield wall used against a cavalry charge from the Bayeux Tapestry. Photo source.

Effectiveness

Just like armor, a shield was not perfect protection against an incoming strike. The effectiveness was heavily dependent on the type of attack and the construction of the shield. Shields were at their most effective when they were used to deflect incoming attacks, dissipating the energy rather than completely absorbing it. [2]

I recommend this video about the effectiveness of shields against arrows.

Construction

The construction of shields varied greatly depending on period and location. Early shields were usually just planks of wood held together by slats on the back. Later, they were covered with leather or canvas and could have a leather or metal rim. Further into the Middle Ages, shields were made completely of metal. Shields from other parts of the world were made of hide or wicker.

The construction of a round shield. 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.

If you want my blog delivered straight to your inbox every month along with exclusive content and giveaways please sign up for my email list here.

Let’s get writing!

Copyright © 2021 Rebecca Shedd. All rights reserved.

[1] Marine Rifle Squad. United States Marine Corps. 2007-03-01. p. 2.10. ISBN 978-1-60206-063-0.
[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1LScbpp9vM&t=179s