Military historian Richard Holmes says castles were households as well as fortresses.
Life in a Castle
Professor Richard Holmes, a British military historian featured in the NOVA film "Medieval Siege," talks here about everyday life in a medieval English castle, giving a sense of how lords and ladies, archers and engineers, cooks and carpenters lived their lives behind castle walls.
NOVA: When we think of life inside a medieval castle, what usually comes to mind are lords, ladies, and maybe knights. But it actually was a much more diverse group than this, wasn't it?
Holmes: That's true. The thing to remember is that a castle was a residence as well as a private fortress. Most of the time the castle operated as a small, large, or medium-sized household.
Now, the number varied hugely depending on the size of the castle. During the civil wars of King John's reign, Odiham was defended by a garrison of three knights and ten men-at-arms. And that's about as small as a garrison would get. However, Rochester Castle at the same time was held against King John by a garrison of a hundred knights and men-at-arms and a whole variety of lesser men. So we're looking at garrisons that went from a dozen or so to several hundred, though several hundred would have been exceptional.
Some of the people in the garrison were paid, such as the crossbowmen. Medieval society was a sort of interlocking network of relationships between people based on feudal obligations and on money and very often a bit of both. People who did jobs in the castle were often paid. They might have been local people with a long-standing personal or family relationship with the lord and his family as well.
Knights had more status than many others in a castle's hierarchy.
NOVA: What was the hierarchy inside the castle?
Holmes: The lord and lady were at the top of the tree. However, the single most important figure in the daily life of a castle was the constable. His job was to look after the castle, because the lord was not usually at home. In England, during the period we're talking about, many castles were royal castles. Clearly, the king could only be at any one place at any one time. And medieval English kings were always on the move. They moved from place to place. I live not far from Winchester Castle, where the king routinely appeared for Christmas.
So the constable was the person whose job it was to look after the castle in the lord's absence. He had a number of people who worked beneath him. There was the garrison, whose members vary in status, including knights, men-at-arms, archers, and engineers. You also had grooms, watchmen, porters, cooks, and scullions, who did all the washing up in the kitchen.
NOVA: Speaking of washing, what was the level of cleanliness in a typical castle?
Holmes: Well, by our standards, cleanliness in the Middle Ages was pretty poor. Clearly, a castle was slightly better maintained than a peasant hovel, but we would still find the place pretty shocking. We'd have found it very smoky, for example. Very often in the great hall there was a central fire. Later on there were proper fireplaces, but a central fire with a hole in the roof was standard. Perhaps some carpets hung on the walls, but on the floors were rushes with dogs rolling around with scraps of meat and bones and such. So it was a pretty primitive atmosphere.
NOVA: Did personal hygiene habits match the overall cleanliness level?
Holmes: Well, toilets, or garderobes as they were called, usually were situated so that they opened over the moat. If you look at a medieval castle, you can very often see little stone extensions built out from the walls. The waste matter fell into the moat below. Even some several hundred years after they were last used, you still can see castle walls stained with the results.
And medieval men didn't really bathe terribly often. People might have wiped their hands and faces from time to time. Clean water, remember, was hard to come by. So cleanliness was pretty primitive. But clearly lords and ladies would have been slightly cleaner and sweeter-smelling than most of their subordinates.
Castle walls provided good protection from enemies - and the elements.
NOVA: Was a castle assignment a plum one for medieval men or women?
Holmes: Given the ups and downs of medieval life, it probably was. What you wanted if you were a medieval man was protection.
It's not unlike the Mafia today. You wanted a job, yes, you wanted money, yes, you wanted someplace to live. But you also wanted protection from a great man. And if you were working for the great man or one of his family—and the idea of family was very important in medieval England—it helped.
So you were well up the pecking order if you were working for the great man in the great man's castle. The closer you were to one of the real movers and shakers, the better the protection you had. And the nearer you were to a store of food, the less liable you were to die during one of the endemic famines. And a stone building means you were probably warmer and drier.
NOVA: What were sleeping arrangements like for all these people? Did families in the castle have private rooms?
Holmes: If you were a lord or lady, if you were the constable or the constable's lady, then you would have had a private room. You would have had a nice suite of private rooms. But for most other people, life was pretty communal. An awful lot of life in a castle went on in the great hall. There was a fire and shelter in the hall. People ate and slept in the great hall. Very often, certainly in smaller castles, before sophisticated domestic arrangements evolved, you would have found the lord and lady sleeping at one end of the great hall in a sort of screened-off area. So medieval men and women didn't have much privacy.