The Medieval Fortress: Castle Encyclopedia for Writers

Cover of "The Medieval Fortress : Castles...
Cover via Amazon: The Medieval Fortress

Want a book that explains the parts of a fortress with copious line drawings, provides a very wide range of castle pictures and floor-plans, and perhaps most importantly for the writer, lots of info on the scale, purpose and history of different castles? The Medieval Fortress: Castles, Forts and Walled Cities of the Middle Ages by the J. E. Kaufmann and H. W. Kaufmann may be the book for you.

There are many fine books on castles and depending on what you are looking for, this may or may not be your best choice. Osprey’s gorgeously illustrated Norman Stone Castles (1) The British Isles 1066-1216, for instance, is a lot more readable albeit focused on a particular time and place. Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph and France Gies is a wonderfully readable introduction to castles with attention to the people who really made such a place function (cooks, stable-hands, and so on). There are many full color books with better photographs and floor-plans.

But for a survey of castles in all their myriad forms, for floor-plans of the famous and obscure, for a sense of the scale of castles, not just the outer dimensions you can read from any floor-plan but thickness of walls, arrangements of battlements, gatehouses and drawbridges, this book is hard to beat. I’m not really sure who the authors. I suspect they are “just amateur” historians with a love for castles. I put that in quotes because there is nothing wrong with dedicated amateur historians. They typically write better books than the professionals who get too hung up on impressing other academics at the expense of dreadfully dull prose and historical interpretations that are feeble and caveat’d to uselessness.

The illustrations are all black & white, which is fine for the line art (very nicely done), and not so fine for the castle photographs. The book is divided into an overview of castles and their components followed by a survey of historical castles by region. Even as a history nut with a special thing for the middle ages and a love of castles, this book showed me castles I never knew of, castle features I never considered, and provided dimensions I was eager to have. Where it really shines are the drawings and explanatory text of castle components, from the 5 different wells and cisterns, to the four diagrams of various machicouli (machicolations) that clearly show size and how they work, the eight different ways to make a drawbridge, to more arrow-loop styles than you could imagine. Looking for an architectural flourish or wondering what that odd bit of a castle is for? Then this encyclopedic book is for you.

But it isn’t for everyone. The text is a bit on the dry side and the descriptions of the castles are cursory. I checked the Amazon reviews expecting to find they were mediocre, prepared to plug a book that while not perfect has its merits. Instead, I found almost all 5 star reviews. Curiously, the edition listed there was published in 2004 and my copy is 2001 with, from what I can tell, identical text but a different cover. I have a suspicion that most of the reviews are ‘plants’ by friends of the authors. So, don’t expect a 5-star book, but buy it or check it out of the library if you want to understand castles and all their shapes and pieces.

Here are a few tidbits from the book that might be of interest if you are crafting your own castle. Measurements in the book are in meters but I’ve converted back to English.

Walls

A section of Rome's Servian Wall at Termini ra...

One thing that usually irritates me in these books is a lack of generally useful dimensions. How tall and thick was the average wall? This book gives you both generalities and specifics. The typical Roman wall was 4 times as tall as it was wide and normally at least 9 feet tall. Thus a 40 foot high wall might be 10 feet thick, with walls tending to get thicker in the late Middle Ages (probably as a reaction to better siege weapons including cannons). Some specific wall dimensions: Rome’s Servian walls were 13 feet thick and 21 feet tall (stubbier than typical but perhaps to provide a road atop the wall around the city). Actual wall thickness varied with need (thinner where the fortification was less vulnerable, for instance). Also, unless very thin, they were general faced in cut stone with rubble fill, not cut stone all the way through.

Keeps

Keeps varied a bit in size, with a typical one 65 to 100 feet tall. Exceptional ones were as high as 120 feet with walls usually 5 to 7 feet thick but as much as 13 feet thick or even thicker. Moats could be 65 across and 35 feet deep: we’re not talking about a little ol’ ditch here. In many cases, the moats were stone faced and where possible, served as the quarry for the castle.

Towers

As an example of the treatment you can expect from this book, the discussion of towers not only shows illustrations of a range of towers, square, circular, half circle, octagon and more, it explains why the different forms evolved (mostly has to do with protection against sapping and fields of fire). Ever wonder what an architect did if he was concerned about the enemy seizing a tower and using it against the defenders? This book shows you with diagrams of open-backed towers that provided no protection towards the inside of the keep.

Roofs

Ever wonder how the towers and keeps were capped? In modern fanciful reconstructions, you see soaring, conical peaks, were those really used? Yes (as you can also tell from Medieval illustrations like the books of hours) but this book will give you several cross-sections, of not just the roof but the stone-vaulted intermediate floors.

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3 thoughts on “The Medieval Fortress: Castle Encyclopedia for Writers

  1. You’ve linked to my post where I discuss the same book, so you probably know already how I was even more critical toward it. But I’ll give you that the data on measurements is useful. By the way, the 2004 edition (which I have) is just a reprint from a different publisher, the former being out of business, as far as I could tell.

  2. I was very surprised to see it so well rated on Amazon. Kind of suspicious, really. But the diagrams on castle-parts are very useful, especially if you do floor-plans or model castles.

  3. (Why don’t your posts show up in my WP Reader? I am following you already. Hmmm, I will investigate…)

    Anyway, thanks for the numbers! While writing my story, those would have been helpful. I ended up finding this site: http://www.monestirs.cat/monst/monestir.htm. While it doesn’t have those much needed dimensions, it had tons of pictures that allowed me to guesstimate the sizes of things.

    Sounds like this book would be good to check out of the library and copy the pertinent pages for one’s research.

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