Western Warfare in the Age of the Crusades, 1000-1300

By John France | Go to book overview

Chapter Seven

The nature of the castle

Across Europe stand castles and the ruins of castles, enduring monuments to the place of war in medieval society and to the importance of the proprietorial imperative. Castles were many things at different times, but at heart they were the homes of the great and centres of their estate administration and government. The European elite had estates which, because they were acquired by death, inheritance, marriage, gift and conquest, were scattered. Rents were largely in kind and transport poor, so it was simpler for kings and lords to store renders in kind where they were collected, and to travel around eating them. In an age of insecurity, such residences needed to be fortified. It was these domestic needs that determined the location, and to a very large extent the form, of the castle: it was the stately home of its age. 1

Kings always recognized the threat to their authority implicit in private fortifications. Charles the Bald prohibited them by the Edict of Pîtres. But in 868 Egfrid was killed by Count Gerald, when his “strongly fortified house” was besieged and burned despite the efforts of Charles the Bald. Such things happened when Carolingian government was a going concern; as the Carolingian line failed in the late ninth century the conflicts of competing “princes” made the fortified house even more of a necessity for those with something to lose and offered possibilities for the ambitious with something to gain. The castle was necessary because of the limited competence of medieval government. It was effective because of the technical limitations of the means of war, which meant that men had to come face-to-face before they could fight. The defender of a modest earth and timber ringwork enjoyed a considerable advantage, especially if it was a wet day and his attacker had to struggle up a slippery surface burdened by the weight of his equipment. Moreover, a fortification was a secure base for attack and a garrison, especially if mounted, could threaten the country round about. In fact, it is a mistake to see the castle

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