Good Morning! This post comes from the lovely Casey Raye Hakenson who has been published in History is Now Magazine and has her own blog (which you can read about here: Rayeshistory)… She’s written this article about living in a medieval castle and it is a really enjoyable read, so I hope you all enjoy!
Life in a medieval castle was quite unlike what we are used to today and, because of glamorous movies and books, different from what you’re probably envisioning. Even the most important people, like the lords and ladies or kings and queens, maintained lives that nearly all of us would see as undesirable. (No running water, yeah, I’m good). From sieges to private bedrooms, fecal cesspits to backgammon, what was it actually like to live in a castle?
Food and Dining
Medieval kitchens were loud and filled with smoke, so they were generally kept away from the great hall and living quarters. Most food was prepared in boiling cauldrons, baked in ovens, or spit-roasted over an open flame. In giant castles, this took a large amount of staff, some of whom included butchers, bakers, cupbearers, brewers, servers, pantlers (who oversaw the pantry), and spit-boys.
Despite several hundred years between us, medieval people ate much of the same foods we’re used to today. Bread, beans, beef, pork, oysters, and fish were common. Other dishes, such as swan, peacock, lark, heron, rabbit, and deer, we’d probably be a bit more hesitant to eat. Castle dwellers typically ate whatever they could, especially in the winter when the risk of starvation was much higher.
Dessert usually consisted of cheese, pastries, and fruit, and cooks flavored food with honey or salt or, if the owner was very rich, spices. Wine and beer were served with almost every meal. (Medieval beer made questionable water safe to drink and had a very low alcohol percentage).
Meals were taken in the great hall, a rectangular room that was the largest and grandest in the castle. The lord or king, his household, and honored guests sat atop a raised dais at the high end of the hall to show off their status.
In nearly all palaces, the lord, lady, close family, and honored guests had their own rooms where they could get away from the noise and excitement (and stench) of the rest of the castle. These private apartments were often called solars and had their own bedrooms and living rooms. Some even had private bathrooms and chapels. Solars were the safest parts of the stronghold, and only trusted servants and honored guests were allowed in.
The lord held his private business here, and some castles even had a small hole that led from the lord’s solar to the great hall so that he could overhear the conversation. (A little creepy, but if the risk of being beheaded was that high…).
The solars were the most luxurious rooms of the palace. The beds were typically four-poster with a curtain for privacy. They also had windows that allowed fresh air to flow through the heavily fortified walls. (Windows didn’t have glass until after 1200). Solars were often on the top floors of the castle or, in some parts of France, in their own buildings or towers. The lady of the house was usually granted the room with the best view.
Servants slept and rested wherever they could find room, which usually meant the great hall or kitchen floor. The most trusted servants slept in the living room of the lord or lady’s solar or sometimes even on the floor next to their bed so they could always be near.
Medieval people had many ways of entertaining themselves. Surprisingly, a lot of them still live on today. Others (thankfully) fell out of favor.
Shows were often put on in the great hall, especially if guests were present. The most popular attractions were jugglers, jesters, acrobats, and storytellers. These would have been fascinating forms of entertainment in a time before television, but many jesters, also called fools, suffered from mental illness or physical disabilities. Medieval people found this funny, but, of course, today we would not.
During nice days, people, usually men, participated in sports. Jousts became common for knights after the 12th century, and most lords participated in hunting. In the 15th century, a game similar to modern football (or soccer if you’re American) became popular. Many, at the time, considered it lewd because it was played very rough, with fights frequently breaking out.
If the weather wasn’t good, chess and backgammon were favorite indoor games. Embroidery was women’s conventional choice of amusement with the added benefit of acting as a creative outlet.
Toilets and Personal Hygiene
For most, except for the privileged few, bathrooms were communal. The toilets were stone or wooden boards with holes underneath that hung over the outside wall or emptied directly into the moat. (In many castles, you can still see stains on the exterior wall under the toilet). It was the job of the ‘gong-farmer’ to empty the cesspools once they were too large. Toilet paper was made from moss, grass, or hay, and, if you were lucky, there would be herbs and flowers in the room to cut the smell.
Since toilets had to have a hole that led to the outside, they were considered risks to defense. They were placed on one of the upper levels to prevent this, but there was still a risk of attackers making their way inside. For example, Chateau Gaillard in France was captured when attackers climbed through the toilet. (Hope no one was in the middle of using it…).
Other personal hygiene wasn’t much better. Castles would have been smelly places because a lack of clean water meant baths were rare, especially for the lowlier servants.
Castle servants had few days off and little pay. They usually started work at about 5:30 am and were done by 7 pm. Yet, despite this, these jobs were sought after because servants were given food and clothes, and they were usually of better quality than what the average peasant had. Working in the fortification also protected you from an attack, and sometimes your whole family could be given shelter.
The servants in a castle were often from trusted families, and sometimes wealthy children came to work in the palace to learn good manners. Noblemen would train here until they were about 18 years old, then they would go through a religious ceremony and become knighted.
The number of servants depended on the size of the castle and the owners’ wealth. Countess Joan de Valence of Goodrich Castle had nearly 100 servants, but most had less than this.
Defense and War
Castles were fortresses as well as homes. Windows were kept small to keep out as much enemy fire as possible and to prevent attackers from climbing through them. Gatehouses often had arrow slits, murder holes (real witty name, guys…), and machicolations to fire missiles or drop hot oil on assailants. Entrances were sometimes very thin passages, called barbicans, to slow down intruders.
In times of peace, a castle could have a garrison as small as a dozen or fewer soldiers, which was just enough to operate the drawbridge and patrol the walls against robbers. During war, the fortress would hold as many soldiers and knights as they could. For example, at the great siege of Dover Castle in 1216, there were 140 knights and about 1000 fully-equipped soldiers packed into the castle.
Soldiers were controlled by the constable, who would also fill in for the king or lord when they were away, and they slept in the dormitory.
Some castles had castles within them in case the external walls fell. Warkworth Castle contained The Earls of Northumberland’s Great Tower which consisted of wine-cellars, kitchens, halls, bedrooms, and a chapel.
Most kings and lords avoided sieges if at all possible. The castle owner, or more commonly the constable, would negotiate with the attackers to prevent death and destruction. If a siege did occur, the most common way of getting a household to surrender was to keep them trapped inside, where they would eventually suffer from starvation. Palace occupants sometimes had to eat whatever they could find to keep themselves alive, which sometimes included things like horses, dogs, cats, rats, and leather belts. (On second thought, rabbit’s not looking so bad…). If the castle owner knew that a siege was imminent, they first tried to get the women and children out. It was nearly unheard of for women and children to be deliberately killed once a stronghold fell, but they risked starvation and were seen as a disadvantage since they had to eat but could not fight. The lord or king would also leave if they could because they would be the most likely to be executed if enemies defeated their house. Leaving also allowed them to garner more troops to defend their home, property, and family.