The Ways of Castles (Part Two of a Medieval Warfare Reader)
This second installment of my Medieval Warfare Reader has long been in the making; more so than the first part, in fact, for I wanted to increase my understanding of castles, and from that my ability to imagine and describe them, before learning about armies and soldiering in ages past. I find few fortresses in Fantasy as interestingly unique as the Hornburg at Helm’s Deep in The Lord of the Rings. Given that my project of Fantasy has an overt inclination toward martial matters, I try to hold myself to a similar standard. I mean that only as a reference, of course. I’ll be damned if I ever quit looking up to the master of Fantasy.
Medieval castles, and by extension the town fortifications that followed the same design principles, are nothing less than war machines. Very efficient war machines. Every little detail in these crafty works had a purpose that may be lost in the greater scheme of things, especially as we today often consider first these buildings as residential palaces. This attitude is somewhat disrespectful to history, for the geopolitical functions of castles have dominated until well into the 15th century. In this context, I believe that a little acquaintance with basic military architecture is a helpful guide to any writer’s imagination.
To what end? Obviously, a reader needs not to know the difference between a crenel and a merlon, nor why the lack of postern gates is a defensive liability. But sieges are so much more than just walls, ladders and swords. Not only is there always greater verisimilitude to be found in a careful work of imagination, but for every defensive rationale behind a fortification design choice there is a new way in which a story may unfold. In other words, the more you know about why castles and fortifications are designed the way they are, the more you can find ways around them in order to challenge your characters that inhabit them.
This touches upon the prime objective of my Medieval Warfare Reader series. There is just no better way of feeding the imagination than knowing what are you talking about.
With this in mind, I will review below three books on the topic of castles and fortifications. Their publication spans over three centuries, as incredible as it may sound: 1860, 1939 and 2004. Given the amount of overlapping content between these books, I believe them to be more than enough, taken together, for the researching writer. Click on the book covers for Amazon links.
An Essay on the Military Architecture of the Middle Ages
This is the original title given to the English translation of Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-Le-Duc‘s classic Essai sur l’architecture militaire au Moyen-âge. The original 1860 edition of this translation has been reprinted more than once under a variety of titles, including the following, which I bought together before knowing they were in fact the same work: Castles and Warfare in the Middle Ages (Dover Publications, 2005) and Military Architecture of the Middle Ages (University Press of the Pacific, 2003).
Despite the fact that Viollet-Le-Duc’s restoration of Middle Ages architecture (most notably Carcassone and Notre-Dame de Paris) is apparently questionable on historical grounds, I believe his written material is still invaluable to Fantasy writers. His analysis of military architecture design principles, supplemented with 151 hand-drawn illustrations, cross-sections and plans, seems to me extremely sound, especially in the light of further reading.
The book begins with the Romans, Visigoths and Celts of the Late Antiquity. The early Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties are then a bit glossed over in favour of the later Normans. The reader is then taken from the feudal period and the age of Crusades to the end of the Middle Ages with the Hundred Years War and the dawn of artillery. As a military revolution was in the making at this point of Europe’s history, the author concludes briefly with the further developments that led to Machiavelli’s and even Vauban’s systems of defence.
Although the text broadly follows through a historical timeline, the execution is not as straightforward. The subtopics are many, including:
- examples of defensive design in castles or fortifications (the analysis of Carcassone is very thorough and one of the highlights of the book);
- descriptions of architectural features such as drawbridges, loopholes and shutters;
- techniques of siege warfare;
- tales of famous sieges or battles like Carcassone, Paris, Crécy and Aiguillon;
- some incidental information about weapons;
- an analysis of Richard I Lionheart’s character as both a warrior and an engineer;
- the relationship between the decentralization of feudal society and the emergence of castles.
However, these subjects are scattered all over the book. There are no topical subsections or other forms of logical organization of content. In fact, the text is but one long and continuous discussion, though scholarly, with very little blanks and no titles other than page headers. Your only guides are the table of contents (which refers to specific locations in the text, never an independent section) and the short index that doubles as a lexicon at the end.
Without a doubt, this owes to the original date of publication. The writing is expectedly archaic and rather dry. Be that as it may, once you accept these benign oddities from the point of view of the modern reader, this book remains one of the most useful introduction to the topic, for want of being neither complete nor up-to-date. Writers who entertain a visual style will find plenty of inspiration here; those who favour detailed descriptions will significantly upgrade their toolbox, although I personally do not lean toward this unless the narrative commands it. Indeed if, like I do, you would rather just find new ways with which to challenge your characters living an age of castles, then read this book. There is no other way around it.
Another accessible Dover reprint, this book written by one Sydney Toy was first published in London in 1939 under the title Castles: A Short History of Fortifications from 1600 B.C. to A.D. 1600. It clearly follows in Viollet-Le-Duc’s footsteps, though this time there is a clear emphasis on British castles, despite the larger time frame, as the original title should indicate.
The author first considers ancient fortresses of Mesopotamia, Asia Minor and Greece before looking at Rome and Byzantium. These topics cover the first five chapters. The next thirteen do not stray from Western Europe, with the exception of Chapter 8 on Byzantine and Saracen fortifications in the 12th Century, and overall they span from early feudalism to 16th Century artillery.
Toy’s essay is basically chronological. However, as you read further, the chapters increasingly emphasize architectural features themselves, such as the configuration of keeps, bridges, towers and gatehouses, instead of following the cultural categorization of the beginning. In fact, for the most part, this book is more description than analysis. The military aspect is almost totally lacking and sometimes it reads more like a catalogue. On the flip side, there is a much greater diversity of structures being covered and this is well supported by the 199 illustrations. Many of them are not drawings, but photographs taken by the author himself (in the 1930s, at that; they are historical documents in themselves). Illustrated typologies such as variations in drawbridges, windows and loopholes are also a useful feature. In light of all this, the benefits of reading this book should never be in doubt, although it is better treated as a complement to Viollet-Le-Duc rather than further research.
I have to give here special consideration to Chapter 13, dedicated to the Edwardian castles of the late 13th Century, especially those in Wales such as Caernarvon, Caerphilly, Harlech, Conway and Beaumaris. One is bound to marvel at these magnificent works of stone craft, possibly the most advanced castles ever built. You may judge for yourself with the following images and links from Wikipedia, but as far as I am concerned, I know where my next trip to Europe is going to be.
The Medieval Fortress. Castles, Forts and Walled Cities of the Middle Ages
This book is a 2004 Da Capo Press re-edition of a 2001 publication by a different house (Combined Publishing, which seems to be out of business today). Excluding introduction and appendices, it has five chapters, three of which cover its subject in a chronological manner (chapters 2 to 4). Somewhat disconnected from this historical account are Chapter 1, describing the basic vocabulary of fortifications, and Chapter 5, an interesting world tour of castles from Iberia to Ukraine, and from Scandinavia to North Africa.
I bought this book because I thought it would provide me with a modern (and new) take on a very old subject. Alas, it did not. It is unclear whether the authors, J.E. & H.W. Kaufmann, are either spouses or siblings, but in any case they seem to have written several books together on fortifications around the world, especially South America. One of them is also behind Site O, an international research and discussion group on the subject. This background information tells me they are genuine and care about what they are doing. Unfortunately, this book cruelly betrays their amateur credentials.
That the text is laid out in double columns, as a kind of magazine, is a dubious choice that can be overlooked. However, the remaining typos, the frequent misuse of commas in the later chapters, the unrestrained abuse of the same typographical flourish on every page and the lack of cross-referencing, which results in some annoying duplication of content, all exhibit a level of quality below that which is expected of professionals.
But there is more to this than just editorial blunders. I will only mention the two issues that bothered me the most.
Firstly, all the drawings anonymously credited to Greenhill Books are in fact Viollet-Le-Duc’s. You will even find those reproduced here above in this blog. Furthermore, most technical plans are an exact reproduction of Toy’s. And yet, both original authors are merely cited in the bibliography and never explicitly given credit for. I do not believe that the authors have acted in bad faith. They just seemed not to think that acknowledging their predecessors mattered.
Secondly, this book shows an excessive faith in the historical sources, though which ones in particular cannot be ascertained, given the lack of referencing (small and incident quotes notwithstanding). Many estimates of army size that the authors throw around naively range from ludicrous to absurd. Not so just because wide estimates like 200,000–600,000 already imply that we do not really know anything anyway; nor because medieval texts always show the number 60,000 as another way of meaning “a lot”, a clear indication that counting was not fashionable at the time (see Matthew Bennett’s paper Wace and Warfare, in the book Anglo-Norman Warfare that I reviewed previously). This just feels a like a complete disregard of any reasonable suspicion of being likely wrong. I found that lack of nuance somewhat depressing. I can only think of the following passage in response. It was written by R.C. Smail in Crusading Warfare which, as a matter of fact, I am quite eager to review in another post:
The trustworthiness of the available text; the relationship in time and space of the narrator to the events which he describes; his knowledge and experience of warfare; the extent to which he regards the description of military events as an opportunity for displaying his literary powers and his knowledge of classical models, are all factors which should be considered in determining the importance to be attached to any particular source, as is obvious. (p. 5)
This pointedly white-glove approach is in fact obvious only to the trained scholar. And this is my whole point.
Not all is lost, however. I have decided to review this book despite these flaws for two most excellent reasons: Chapters 1 and 5. This is where the result of a diligent and dedicated work of data-gathering and journeying around the world truly shines.
The first chapter is a thorough classification of all the components of castles and fortifications, down to their minute details. Almost every odd page of this chapter displays a unique series of drawings representing all the attested variations of a given architectural element, from towers and keeps to walls, shutters, windows, drawbridges, gates, bretèches, crenels, hoardings, and so forth. The chapter itself opens with two gorgeous full-page drawings, one of a fortified city and the other of a full castle. They summarize, with the help of a legend, all the content to come in the following pages. This is both a reference and a wonderful resource for the creative mind.
The fifth and last chapter is a description of more than sixty castles from all over the world, including many in Eastern Europe, a refreshing change to say the least. Bear in mind that this number actually excludes the thirty or so castles already described or explained in the other chapters. This diversity beats Toy by a good margin. It was nice to read about the two castles that I have myself ever visited. Though they feel minor when compared with the great British castles mentioned earlier, Quéribus still was the last Cathar stronghold and Chillon remains Switzerland’s most famous castle. This welcome inclusiveness is a testament to how amateurs can sometimes show more commitment and passion than academics.
The book concludes with an interesting list of medieval builders and architects, a list of important sieges, a lexicon, a short history of artillery, a decent bibliography and an incomplete index. I have to repeat that the historical chapters are not very useful. Less of a guide on sieges than Viollet-Le-Duc, less of a guide on architectural evolution than Toy, they merely contextualize the other chapters, the first and the fifth. Fortunately, these two make the book worthwhile all by themselves. This is why my final judgement, though guarded about much in both content and form, remains good overall as far as the Fantasy writer and his library are concerned.
Next up in my Medieval Warfare Reader series: three influential books of original research; the cream of the crop.
- Is Wales the castle capital of the world? (visitwales.co.uk)
- Castles in the Vale of Glamorgan (visitwales.co.uk)