Living in a Castle – What was it Like?


Apart from being fortresses, apart from being places of safety for the commonfolk if their land was under attack, a castle was also a home. Castles built in more peaceful parts of Europe could actually be quite grand and magnificent; they were the mansions in rich neighbourhoods, of their day. But what was life actually like in a castle? Who lived there, what did they do, what was the food like and what happened on a daily basis? While many castles were indeed massive, being small cities in themselves, what were they like to live in?

Who Built and Primarily lived in Castles?

This is obvious. The king and queen, right? Well…yes and no. Certainly, the king or queen would have lived in a castle or a palace, and certainly one of great size and grandeur, but there are dozens, hundreds of castles all over Europe. Crowned heads of France, Germany, Poland, England and all the other countries in Europe, couldn’t possibly live in all of these, did they?

No, they didn’t. The truth is that the majority of castles were never built for a king or queen or any other reigning monarch. Most castles were in fact built for noblemen! In the days when it was still customary for a king to lead his troops into battle, charging on ahead with his standard, or remaining at the rear, directing his forces on the battlefield, the king rewarded especially brave or couragous soldiers or knights the best way that a king could back in those days. He gave the knight with the big balls a nice, fat chunk of land. As Gerald O’Hara says in ‘Gone with the Wind’, “Land’s the only thing worth fighting for, worth dying for! Because it’s the only thing that lasts!” Once a deserving warrior had been given his plot of land, he was allowed to do what he wanted with it. Less ambitious noblemen (since a knight was made an earl or a baron after his services to the king), might build a manor house. Those who desired to build a castle, however, had to get written, signed and sealed permission from the king. It was illegal to build a castle without the king’s permission. Once permission (and funds) had been granted, however, building could go ahead.

Since there were obviously more noblemen and knights than kings, it’s easy to see now, why the main occupants of a castle were not actually the members of a royal family, but more likely, the members of a noble family, comprising of the lord, his lady and any children or relations, along with servants and any close friends and colleagues.

What was it like living in a castle?

Even when it wasn’t under attack, living in a castle was hectic, noisy and they were often packed full of people. Despite what you might think, a castle was not the most comfortable of places to live, even in a castle that was built primarily as a home, instead of as a defensive structure. Castles were large, dark, draughty and cold. Windows were often small, with wooden shutters or (if the nobleman could afford it), leadlight glass-panes. Glass was expensive back in the medieval period, so most castles did without glass in their windows. Most rooms would have had massive fireplaces. Without central heating, this was the only way to warm up a room during winters where it could drop to several degrees below freezing.

Much of the furniture or decorations which one generally associates with castle chambers actually served double purposes. Tapestries were big, pretty cloth pictures which depicted famous events or people, but they were also there to keep the heat in and to stop it escaping through the walls, like a form of insulation. The enormous, four-poster beds which one associates with grand bedchambers didn’t have those hanging curtains and canopies around them just for decoration or privacy. When the sleeper went to bed at night, the curtains were closed to keep out draughts and keep in the heat.

What about answering calls of nature? Well, the usual callbox, the modern toilet, didn’t exist back in the 14th century. Instead, you either used a closed stool (which was a special seat with a bucket underneath it), or you used a privy, which is a seat with a hole in it. Waste going through the closed stool (which is where we get the term ‘stool’ to mean ‘feces’) was collected in the bucket, which was then removed, emptied, washed and replaced. Waste which passed through the seat of the privy (which was an early kind of toilet), ended up in one of two places. If the castle had a moat around it, the waste probably ended up in there. If it didn’t have a moat, or if the privy was located somewhere without access to the moat, bodily waste ended up in the cesspit at the very bottom of the castle. A cesspit is an early kind of septic tank.

Lighting in castles was either natural sunlight, or the light given off by candles or an open fire. As a result, castles were often very smokey. It took at least three or four candles to produce enough light to really read or sew or do anything else by. Any chandler who took up residence in the castle (a chandler is a candlemaker) was bound to make a pretty good living out of it.

What about washing up and bathing? This may come as a shock to most people, but regular bathing as we know it today, did not exist until the very late 19th century. Certainly in the 13, 14 and 1500s not many people bothered with it. Firstly, work was so hard and manual and labour-intensive that you would build up a sweat the moment you got out of the bath-tub, so bathing was seen as a waste of time. Secondly, the trouble of running a bath back then just didn’t make it worth it. There was no running water. If you wanted a bath, and especially a hot bath, you had to boil the water yourself, over a fire, you had to lug it upstairs to the bathtub, fill the bathtub, get the tempreature right, put the soap in (if you had any), stripped naked, got in, washed, got out, dried, put your clothes back on and then you’d have to bail out the entire bathtub by hand with a bucket! It took so long it just wasn’t worth it! And certainly people didn’t brush their teeth, either. Wealthier people had a type of tooth-powder which could be scrubbed and scraped around the gums and teeth, but it was not particularly effective.

Castle Residents.

Apart from lords, ladies, earls, barons, dukes, kings, queens, princes and princesses, who else might have lived in a castle? This isn’t everyone, just everyone I could remember:

The Priest.

Especially grand castles (such as Windsor), would have its own chapel. If the castle had a chapel, it was certainly obliged to have its own priest. Often, the priest was one of the few people who knew how to read and write.

Ladies in Waiting.

A Lady in Waiting was a lesser noblewoman, who waited (that is, served) the queen. They were her companions, assistants and confidants. Women’s clothing of the medieval period was often so elaborate that it was impossible for wealthy women to either dress or undress themselves.

Cooks.

People gotta eat. A castle, especially a royal one, could have dozens, even hundreds of cooks. There would be one or two head chefs, with up to 200 underlings who did everything from carting food, preparing ingredients, stirring pots or cleaning stuff up. The lowest person in a castle’s kitchen was a fellow known as the turnbroach, also known as a spitboy. These two titles pretty much sum up what his job was: To turn the spit. The spit was a long, metal pole with a crank-handle on the end. Meat (beef, chicken, pigs and any other meat that required cooking) was spiked onto the spit and put up on a rack above or next to the fire. The turnbroach’s job was to turn the spit and cook the meat. It was an incredibly boring and amazingly hot job. A castle kitchen could have nearly a dozen (or more!) fires, cooking stuff. They were incredibly noisy, smokey and VERY VERY hot.

Guards.

Can’t have a castle without guards! Guards and soldiers lived at the castle to protect it in times of danger. When the castle was safe, guards would patrol the walltops, keep a lookout, and control entry or exit to the castle by manning the gatehouse. Guards were on watch all day, and usually did their work in shifts.

Gaoler and Turnkey.

The goaler (sometimes called a dungeon-master) was the man who looked after the castle’s dungeon, or prison-cells, if the castle had any. The turnkey (usually there were more than just one), were regular dungeon-guards. As their title suggests, their main job was to…turn keys, to unlock and lock the cell doors.

Gong-Scourer.

The castle gong-scourer or gong-farmer was at the very bottom of the castle heirachy of residents and his job was quite literally, the pits. The cesspits, that is. The job of the gong-scourer was to shovel out the…ahem…contents, of the castle’s cesspits and remove it from the premises. This was a terrible job to do and gong-scourers would have smelt horribly, especially in the middle of summer.

Castle Food and Dining.

The kitchen was an important part of a castle, as it is the important part of any residence. Chefs and cooks had a lot of work to do. King Henry VIII’s court could number up to 1,000 people…and they ALL had to be fed. What was food in the medieval period like?

There were of course, the staples. Bread, cheese, meat, fish…but what kinds of bread, meat, cheese and fish, and where did it all come from?

Any meat served in the castle was likely to be duck, goose, chicken, beef or pork. If the lord of the castle went hunting and managed to shoot down a game-bird such as pheasant, that was eaten as well. Bread was just…bread. But it looks a bit different from what we’re used to. Medieval bakers didn’t have baking-tins, so their loaves of bread came out shaped like circles, instead of the long, rectangular loaves that we’re used to today. Bread was baked in massive, brick, open-fire ovens. Cows and chickens provided the castle with milk, butter, cream and eggs. Grains such as wheat or barley were crushed and ground up in massive water-powered grainmills and the resultant flour was stored in sacks or barrels in the basements.

What about drinks? Well, most people back then would have drunk either beer, ale or wine. Any water for drinking was usually drawn from wells inside the castle, but most people preferred to stick to alcohol. Why? Because don’t forget that the main source of water in a castle was from the moat (if it had one), and all kinds of nasty things such as human excretment went into the moats. You don’t drink out of your toilet. It was common-sense. Drinks like beer, wine and ale had no water in them, so they were considered safer to drink. Everyone back then drank beer or ale, even the children! In fact, some brewers brewed a special ‘children’s ale’ for kids to drink.

So, what was mealtime like? What was breakfast, lunch or dinner like?

Most meals would have been taken in the Great Hall, the main chamber of the castle. The royal or noble family usually sat up on a dais (a platform) at the far end of the room, which gave them some privacy, but also allowed the lord or king to watch over his subjects while he ate. Food was brought in by servants and when each dish was put down, it was customary for each servant to take a mouthful from his presented platter, to show that it was not poisoned. In royal courts, the royal food-taster would do this for them. The food-taster might have had a wonderful diet with all the great food he could nibble on, but he would have lived in constant fear that someone would try to kill the king or queen by poison in their food or drink.

Despite what you might think from movies or cartoons, in the medieval period, most people did not actually eat from plates with cutlery as we know it today. Instead, everyone was given a thick, wide slice of bread, called a trencher. The trencher was your plate. You dumped all your food on top of it and ate off of there. And table-manners should be observed, of course. In the Medieval Period, if you had to clear your throat for whatever reason, it was rude to spit into a cup or a bowl or even into a handkerchief. Instead, the expected thing was for you to hock it right out onto the floor!

If you ate food off of a slice of bread, did you use cutlery? Not really. Most people would have eaten with their hands, but you were also usually given an eating-knife and a spoon; forks had not yet come to the table in medieval Europe.

Grand feasts and parties are often associated with castles and mealtimes, and certainly when a king was on a progress (tour) of his kingdom, any castle he stopped at was expected to throw a grand banquet in his honour. Extra care was put into food-preparation; cakes and pies were moulded into special shapes. There were even special ‘presentation pieces’ which were there purely to be looked upon as works of art, and not to be eaten!

Of course, not everyone ate from bread trenchers. Wealthy people could afford plates and bowls made from gold, silver or pewter. As times went on, even the more common guests at banquets were eating out of plates made of wood, but the term ‘trencher’ still remained.

Condiments served with meals were usually pepper and salt. Salt in medieval Europe was so prized that only the wealthiest of people could afford to add it to their food. It wasn’t easy to get salt back in those days, which was what made it so expensive. It’s because of this rarity that we get the phrases “worth his salt” or “below the salt”.

At the end of a meal, once everything had been served and put away, you would pick up your trencher (that big slice of bread), which would now be covered with gravy and sauce and bits of meat and fish and other yummy things, and eat it! If the king or lord of the castle was feeling generous, as an act of charity, he would implore his guests and diners, not to eat their trenchers at the end of the feast. Instead, they would be gathered up and given as alms to hungry peasants and beggars who lived outside the castle in the village nearby.

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18 Comments

  1. Leslie Penalzoa said,

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  6. December 23, 2012 at 9:02 AM

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