Castles in Medieval Society: Fortresses in England, France, and Ireland in the Central Middle Ages

Castles in Medieval Society: Fortresses in England, France, and Ireland in the Central Middle Ages

Castles in Medieval Society: Fortresses in England, France, and Ireland in the Central Middle Ages

Castles in Medieval Society: Fortresses in England, France, and Ireland in the Central Middle Ages

Synopsis

In this challenging new book Charles Coulson overturns many of the traditional assumptions about the nature and purpose of castle-building in the middle ages. Going back to the original sources, he proposes a new and more subtle understanding of the function and symbolism of castles as well as vivid insights into the lives of the people who inhabited them.

Excerpt

Castles are not an obscure subject. Of all the monuments of medieval European civilization they are probably the most familiar, rivalled only by the parish churches and great cathedrals. They may well be the most popular form of amateur history. How they are perceived has coloured ideas of medieval society, aristocratic culture, faith, and strife, permeating them all with images of dungeons, battering-rams, and boiling oil. There ought to be an extensive literature, authoritative as well as accessible, to serve (and to guide) this interest; but the historical context in Britain has not achieved popular recognition. This neglect (less marked in France or Germany) is largely due to the prevailing modernist culture legitimated by the amateur and professional military strategist in numerous guises. Documentary historians have, in the past, compliantly tended to regard 'fortification' as an arcane technology relevant mainly to warfare. Archaeologists have been somewhat less prone to military determinism, with their triple rationale of warfare, society, and religion ('cult objects'). Art history, in Britain, has begun to move towards a more holistic schema of development which no longer conceives of an evolution dependent upon tactical 'improvements'. Conversely, the gap between what is now the accepted academic view and the public perception is constantly widened by the pastiche medievalism of the visual media (in all shades from 'Robin Hood' to fantasy of the Tolkien variety), nourished like the popular literature by a blood-and-guts view as alien to the mature society of the middle ages as it is to its architecture. The picturesque is an authentic original element and must be accommodated, but not in the form of sado-romanticism. Idealism has not been imposed by historians and moralists. Humane values, though prone to exaggeration, do properly belong. Their importance is seen in the neglected medieval laws and customs governing the tenure and building of castles, to look no further.

Much of what has gone wrong is both due to and expressed by the crushing imbalance in published writings, academic almost as much as popular, between emphasis on the brutal technology and the space given to social, aesthetic, and cultural aspects. Fortresses were only occasionally caught up in war, but

For what follows see Coulson, 'Cultural Realities and Reappraisals in English Castle-study', with
bibliography; also Introduction, Liddiard (ed.), Anglo Norman Castles. My thanks are due to Dr
Liddiard for allowing sight of this prior to publication.

Cf. M. Prestwich, 'English Castles in the Reign of Edward II', 159–78.

e.g. Heslop, 'Orford Castle, Nostalgia and Sophisticated Living', 36–58. Fernie, Architecture of
Norman England
—'there were very few purely military buildings in Norman England' (p. 49).

Surveyed in Coulson, 'Rendability and Castellation in Medieval France', 59–67.

But see e.g. Platt, The Castle in Medieval England and Wales, esp. chs. 7, 8, 'castles of chivalry'.

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