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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History for Fantasy Writers: Proprietorial Warfare in the Middle Ages

Mantova's high Middle Ages
Mantova’s high Middle Ages (Photo credit: Ostrosky Photos)

For my history & fantasy posts, my thoughts are to mix postings focused on a particular historical area (for instance, castles) with ones that are more collections of historical tidbits with some thoughts on  how to use them in fantasy novels. This post is a brief survey of the nature of rulership, culled from Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, by John France. This is a smallish book with full references, scholarly but quite readable and well-organized. The book covers military technology, tactics and leadership in Europe in the High Middle Ages (1000 to 1300 CE).

The High Middle Ages is, of course, Euro-centric and moreover, a fairly narrow slice of time. But it is commonly used as a starting point for fantasy novels, D&D games and computer role-playing games. It is even used as a stand in for other historical periods such as the 1981 movie, Excalibur whose castles and armor have much more in common with the 1200s than with sixth century Britain. Of course, your fantasy novel may hearken only a little or not at all to this place and time but having some ideas of what transpired in this period might help you craft much more exotic settings.

John France begins his book with a chapter on Proprietorial Warfare and this is a great place for the fantasy author to start as well because much of what we understand about the nature of rulership and warfare in this period is defined by, as France puts it on page 1:

  1. The dominance of land as a form of wealth;
  2. The limited competence of government;
  3. The state of technology, which, broadly, favored defense over attack;
  4. The geography and climate of the West.
Notre-Dame Cathedral – designed in the Gothic ...
Notre-Dame Cathedral – designed in the Gothic architectural style. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John France has a rather readable 30 pages on this topic for those interested in the details but to summarize, it was ownership of land that distinguished the ruling elites of this time and place. Moreover, with limited means of communications, authority was regional. Throughout this period, but certainly at the beginning, Kings did not have absolute authority in their realm; they were one of the pre-eminent lords in their realm, not always the most powerful. Government was also not very sophisticated with no regular means for raising cash throughout this period and poorly codified laws. Any person with a strong point, and for much of this period, this was not a stone castle but a wooden fort or fortified house, was difficult to dislodge and consequently held authority over his immediate environs. It was not uncommon for a warrior to seize a strong point and become the ruler of an area simply by virtue of the troops he could base from that castle.

For the fantasy author, the thing to remember is that the nature of feudal obligations (military service for land) and the stature of nobles of all levels is very much determined by these factors. In the absence of a money economy and with land the main source of wealth, the gift of land is the most valuable wealth to an underling and the return of military service the main thing that underling can provide in return. It didn’t do much good to provide tons of grain; there wasn’t much of a way to move it. Nor was there a way to turn the grain into something more portable like silver, there wasn’t much silver to be had. The wealth of the land, limited as it was, was turned into armed men used to maintain and extend a lord’s power: the feudal system.

You don’t see this sort of arrangement in places with better communication and stronger governmental systems, such as the Roman Republic or Empire. If your fantasy world has rapid communications via portals, palantiri, regular flying ship service, or the like, a feudal system of distributed power may not be appropriate to your setting. Or, if you really want the feudal system and the fast communication, you may need to add additional reasons for its existence: perhaps there are nearly impregnable defenses in your world that can be fairly rapidly constructed.

One other thing to remember about this time period, though we speak of England, France, Germany, etc., the very concept of states and nations was alien in the early period: recall those Norman, French speaking lords ruling England with their vast French holdings. It was only in the later High Middle Ages, and really during the late middle ages that the concept of nationhood took root. Specifically, in 1000 CE, townsfolk might find nothing unusual in being part of the holdings of a lord speaking a different language based far away. By the end of this period, there was loose loyalty to the concept of a nation but it wasn’t until the Hundred Years War that you might really find objection to a French town being held by an English King.

Finally, in this day and age where we can see images from around the world, drive on highways with overpasses that might span miles, see skyscrapers a significant fraction of a mile tall, it is hard to appreciate just how over-awing something as simple as a wooden fort might be, let alone, a stone castle or a cathedral. But for the medieval peasant raised in a village of huts and 1 or 2 story houses, a soaring castle or cathedral was as awe-inspiring as, well, it’s hard to say for modern sensibilities but it would have to be more awesome than anything we commonly see, so perhaps as awesome as a spaceship 10 miles long. In your writing, you can make use of this since, as a writer, you are free to convey your characters reactions: don’t be afraid to have the peasant wow’d by a castle, even if, to your readers sensibilities, that castle might not be that strange. It is to the character and your reader will get that through your character’s reactions.

Fantasy Worldbuilding: The Middle Ages

Medieval
MIddle Ages: one of the main fonts of fantasy (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn)

The European Medieval period serves as the inspiration of many books and movies, and of countless fantasy role-playing games. The connection is so strong that to say “fantasy” is to immediately connote Medieval castles and knights, along with the more fantastical tropes of elves and dragons. Although there are plenty of other time periods and regions that can provide equally fruitful inspiration (and with the additional virtue of being less familiar), there is nothing wrong with using the Middle Ages: it is a rich, multi-faceted period that connects to quite a few fantasy-loving hearts. However, for the fantasy writer, it is worth looking under the veneer of the Middle Ages to what really shaped it because to borrow from this period without care may cause you to build into your setting discordances that might cost you readers. Or more benign, but just as limiting, you might over look some treasure-troves of world-building and plot potential: if you bridge the gap between the historical Middle Ages and your fantasy world, you might create rich, memorable plot, characters and setting.

A (Very Brief) Historical Overview

The Wikipedia article on the Medieval period provides a good starting place for those not familiar with the period in detail. And there are, of course, countless books on the Middle Ages. One of my favorites is Barbara Tuchman‘s A Distant Mirror. While in this book she focuses only on the 14th century, it is an extraordinarily readable historical narrative that goes a long way towards giving the reader a real feel for what life was like in this period. Just keep in mind, this is towards the end of the Middle Ages.

Castle Durnstein (with YPaul)
The Icon of the MIddle Ages: a castle. Castle Durnstein (with YPaul) (Photo credit: muppetspanker)

The Middle Ages did not spring from nothing and disappear with a poof. It arose from the wreckage of the Roman Empire and it ended with both the “Rebirth” (Renaissance) of art and philosophy, but just as importantly, the birth of modern states.

At its dawn, the Early Middle Ages, circa 450 to 1000 CE, the Middle Ages saw the collapse of central authority, of strong government from a distant center. It was a time of dislocation, threats from invasions and migrations, a time when a peaceful countryside was overrun, when for protection locals had to turn to themselves and to the strong-men among them.

Despite the Medieval artist’s tendency to illustrate the past in the mode of their present or the modern anachronisms like the castles and armor of 1981 movie Excalibur, the Early Middle Ages was a time of very local government and simple castles (mostly wooden) and simple armor (chain mail for the rich, a metal cap for a typical foot soldier). This period is not very well-known in many ways, thus earning the epithet of the Dark Ages: not because the lights were dim but because historical sources are hard to come by. It was a time of lower population, high illiteracy, little excess production from the land. But it was also a time of constant warfare from fairly small bands of warriors. It also encompassed the Viking period which saw tiny bands of adventurers give way, even in the Nordic world, to centralized Kings. Overall, a very rich period for the fantasy writer to mine but not a time of large stone fortifications, plate mail or strong kings.

The High Middle Ages encompassed from about 1000 to 1300. For reasons not well understood, population boomed in Europe from about 35 million at the start to about 80 million at the end. It was this period that saw the rise of strong kings but not the extermination of powerful lords: it was the age of the strong regional barons against the central authorities. Similarly, it was an age which Kings battled the central religious authorities for power. At the start of the age, castles began to be commonly built of stone although the great concentric castles were in the second half of the period and wood never completely went out of fashion: castles were very expensive and a lord would only construct what was necessary to the circumstances.

The Late Middle Ages (1300-1450) saw the end of the Medieval mindset, swept away by the Renaissance which shucked the shackles of a rigid view of man’s role in the cosmos with respect to the earthly hierarchy as well as a pervasive God. It also saw the rise of nationalism and the end of a time when an English king could hold vast lands in France from the French King: no more was a person a vassal of a powerful lord, whatever language he happened to speak or wherever he happened to live, he was part of a nation and served lords of that nation.

The Middle Ages for the Fantasy Writer

A period of a thousand years with such change of temperament, population and technology can hardly be summarized in a blog. Tomes have been written on this period, both overviews and on specific items. For the fantasy writer, here are some salient points to keep in mind:

  • If you are hewing closely to a particularly place and period, study it carefully. For example, tournaments, heavy platemail, large stone castles: you would not find these in Arthur’s England or Beowulf’s Denmark.
  • The Middle Ages was a time of great changes, not the same rate as experienced in the 20th century but neither was it static. You have only to study the evolution of stone castles to see how quickly technology evolved from wooden structures to the first stone and thence to the elaborate concentric fortifications of later periods. Lords did not build the same type of stone castle for century after century. What they built changed fairly rapidly, evolving to meet changing offensive threats and evolving right out of existence (if you take a castle to mean a lord’s residence of the style of the 1200s) as effective gunpowder weapons came on the scene and the nature of government changed.
  • Much of what we take to be Medieval was shaped by the society and government of the times. John France in Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades spends his entire first chapter explaining the nature of Proprietorial Warfare: the strife of local lords under weak or non-existent central authority. Absent a strong king, lords could build armies, castles and fight each other for power. Add strong central control, as you saw for most of the Roman era, and you don’t get local lords, local castles, local armies.
  • As I touched on before, the Middle Ages came from something and in a fairly short period of time evolved into something else. It was not a static arrangement. Nor did it arise of itself with no antecedents: lords and castles did not spring from a hazy time of hunter-gathers. Historical forces caused it to arise (collapse of central authority under outside pressures) and to go away (a change in how people saw nations and their place in the world).
  • Homogeneity: much of what we take for the Middle Ages “feel” arose from Europeans interacting only with others who thought and fought exactly like they did. Throw in effective outside forces like the Mongols and the whole thing can come crashing down. Throw in surrounding kingdoms of elves, dwarves and orcs and you probably would not have a very Medieval looking little human kingdom in the middle.

For the writer, this can be bewildering and there is no right and wrong. Fantasy readers are a fairly forgiving bunch and things like big stone castles are well accepted. But it doesn’t hurt to try to get the details right, either the actual historical details if you are copying closely from a historical period, or the internal ‘consistency’ items if you are departing more heavily from historical precedent.

Take the issue of central authority. In general, communication lends itself to central authority and the lack of it gives you the fragmentation that gives rise to local lords with their own powerful castles. But it isn’t just communication of information (although that helps), it is the ability to project force. If all your lords can communicate instantaneously through Palantir but live on separate islands separated by sea-monster infested seas that prevent any ship travel you would not expect a central king: he would have no way of enforcing his authority. But if a king could get forces to distant places in a reasonable period of time, you could see central authority even without instantaneous communication as demonstrated for most earth history. Everyone knows about the Romans and their roads or the Mongols and their hordes. Less well-known or remembered are the Native American empires of south and central America or even the federations in the Eastern North America or the far-flung sea empires of Polynesia.

For the fantasy writer, this means caution can be necessary: if you want a very strong central king then it may not be appropriate for the king’s barons to have large armies and their own castles, especially if the king can send a large, professional army at the offending lord when needed. This army might be similar to a Roman legion, or it might be dragon-knights, or a mixed force of trolls and elephants. Whatever it is, if the king can smack down an upstart in his realm, he isn’t going to tolerate them having powerful castles and armies. That isn’t in the nature of kings.

That doesn’t mean you can’t mix Medieval tropes into your fantasy setting. For one thing, many successful writers simply ignore the discordances. Most readers won’t notice them. But addressing them isn’t just to placate a few armchair historians: it can lead to a richer world where much of your plot simply flows from a setting that hangs together: why does the king want to destroy the local spirits in a county? Because those spirits provide the power that the Count uses to defy his king, despite the King’s powerful armies.

That is, recognizing that strong kingly armies tend to squash strong barons doesn’t mean you can’t have the barons. It means you need to give the barons something to offset the king’s powers: local magic (like a protective spirit or local god), local allies (like giants or faeries), something to thwart the king’s forces. Do this and you now have added something colorful to your world around which you can spin whole novels and series. But don’t stop there, take it farther: maybe there are no kings, maybe wizards are so powerful in your setting that they hold all the power. But wizards are only as powerful (in your setting) as the range of their fireballs so rather than wizard-kings, you have a lot of scattered wizards and rather than armies (easily blown up by said wizards in this setting), you have the heroes and monsters that are the staples of so many RPGs and CRPGs. Nothing says you have to go this way of course; these are just examples of how solutions to historical “problems” can lead you to rich, exciting settings.

Lastly, while the Middle Ages can provide much inspiration for the fantasy writer, there are other periods and places that have much, perhaps more to offer. Consider the early Viking Age, a culture of ready violence with little central authority and no religious scruples about taking from your neighbors (or the very similar Greek Bronze Age and its “sackers of cities”). Or try out the Roman World, a very heterogenous time that adapted to different religions and methods of fighting, that spanned tropical deserts and Ultima Thule. These places might be both more exotic to your readers and more appropriate to your concept of a setting if you want heroes and small warbands (see Vikings) or sprawling empire of many peoples and cultures (see Romans). The Middles Ages would not really be a good starting place for either of those settings.

Because I love castles, I plan to spend a lot more time on them in upcoming posts. I’ll leave you with this question: what would castles look like in a world with flying mounts, either rare ones like the odd knight on a dragon, or common ones where a lord might have hundreds of griffin riders?

History as the Mother of Fantasy Literature

Česky: Obléhání Avignonu 1226
History and Fantasy: Česky: Obléhání Avignonu 1226 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My eternal fascination with fantasy fiction has at its root wonder: what would it really be like to live in a world of magic, dragons, and elves; a world of ancient secrets, of manifest gods and spirits. Perhaps curiously for some, my sense of wonder is very much founded in Earth history and lore, not because what has happened on Earth sets the limits of what can be but because from solid foundations soar our greatest wonders: cathedrals, skyscrapers, great endeavors like the moon-landings.

For that reason, I’d like to start a series on military history and related topics. My thoughts are to touch on a range of items of interest to world-builders and writers (and hopefully readers as well)- from specific items like siege weapons to economic questions (how much iron could an early European Middle Ages foundry produce) to crunchy military science questions of army composition, effectiveness of heavy cavalry and so on. I’ll confess this will be very Euro-centric, mostly because that aligns with my interests and reading but that’s not to say there aren’t other fascinating historical resources out there.

As some of you may recall from other posts, I am not a big fan of fantasy settings that are “Earth plus a little bit of magic”. So this series is absolutely not about understanding every last little bit of Earth military history so that we writers can faithfully and dutifully re-produce it in a fantasy story. Instead, this is about using the data we have (Earth history) to understand how things could be very different in a fantasy setting.

For example, some have described the early Middle Ages as a period very much defined by limited communication, limited central authority and marginal productivity. Understanding what affect this had on fortifications (i.e. manorial castles) and warfare can not just help a writer avoid some glaring discordances in their world but better yet, create a setting that really sings, something that is new and solid, something that appeals at the gut level to both the casual reader and the seasoned reader.

Put another way: if your fantasy setting has instant communication via magical communication and teleportation, than a setting based on 900s Europe where every lord is master of his own little pocket may not be very appropriate. And it might be inappropriate for every lord to have massive castles. Communication has always tended to centralize authority, which does not tolerate petty lords. That’s not to say you can’t mix them in your story. You can simply ignore the question, just as we fans of dragons sometimes ignore the physics of dragonflight.

BEnglish: illustration intended for the mid-nin...ut you can also turn the problem around: okay, in general instant communication causes centralization but in my story, I want fast communication and distributed authority, what else do I need to add to the world to make this happen? From these questions can come wonderful settings.

Knowing what questions to ask and where to look is what this series is about. History gives us lots of data. Some of these things we may just want to slot into a story for some verisimilitude. Or historical facts might serve as the launching point of fantastical flights that resonate precisely because the author knew what history she was flaunting.

One thing I do want to touch on early in the series is the suitability of the European Middle Ages as a model for fantasy worlds. It can work and has done so for decades but it can be useful to look at what made the Middle Ages as it was because there are many other historical models (think Seven Kingdoms China or the European Ancient world) that might be a more suitable starting point for many stories.