Schematic View of a 14th Century Castle. Such a castle was characterized by height and verticality. (1) Ditch (possibly filled with water) creating an inaccessible zone around the fortress. (2) Gatehouse with portcullis (a large iron or wooden grating used to block the passage when released vertically) and drawbridge (provided with a raising-and-lowering mechanism to hinder or enable passage). (3) Tower, projecting combat emplacement also used as lodging and storage place. (4) Wall, also called “curtain.” (5) Wallwalk protected by a crenelated breastwork on top of the wall. (6) Hoarding, also called “brattice”, a wooden balcony fitted with apertures through which the defenders could throw down missiles on enemies. (7) Postern, or sallyport, a secondary access. (8) Pepperpot turret, a small watchtower or lookout post. (9) Bailey, the open courtyard with chapel, well, stables, and other lodging and service buildings. (10) Dungeon, or keep, the most powerful tower of the castle and the dwelling place of the lord.
In theory the whole feudal pyramid of loyalty culminated in the king. But as the kings— until the 12th century — were rather weak powerless rulers, political power was based almost entirely on force of arms. Anyone prestigious enough to gain followers, able to build a castle, and rich enough to garrison it could create his independent state and concentrate in his own hands military, political, juridical, and economic power within his tiny kingdom. Moreover, the holder of a court of justice gained both authority and income as fines paid by offenders went into his coffer. The working unit of government became thus the castellany — the land near enough to a castle that it could be protected, policed, and administrated by the lord of the castle. In the 10th century, most castles were motte-and-baily fortresses. Based on a Viking/Norman design these were made by digging a ditch and piling the dirt into an artificial motte or mound. The edge of the ditch and the top of the mound were fortified with wooden palisades. On the summit of the mound inside the stockade stood a wooden tower which was the residence of the lord and his household. At the foot of the motte there were shallower and narrower ditches and stockades enclosing a bailey, an area which was a small village with houses and workshops for the lord’s servants as well as stables and other outbuildings. In case of danger the baily served as a place of refuge for the lord’s subjects from the neighborhood: the peasants, their families, and stock.
Siege warfare was then quite primitive. The besiegers could make a blockade all around the castle and wait until the hungry and discouraged assieged would surrender. But if attrition did not work, the attacking party would assault the place. The ditches could be crossed, the palisades scaled. After having conquered the bailey, the aggressors would attack the tower on the motte, breaking the palisade with a battering ram, setting the tower on fire, and launching an assault.
Very few people could read, and as the only artificial light available was from smoky torches, the lord was likely to go to bed right after darkness set in. In peacetime, the feudal lord at home got up at dawn, heard mass in his chapel, and got the daily business done with his officials. Some rich lords might hold many estates a considerable distance apart. If so, they might live in different houses at different times, traveling from manor to manor to ensure that their lordship was recognized and respected; they might also grant a manor with estate in fief to loyal sub vassals.
A king, a duke, a count, or any mighty lord would have a household, a court, and various officials to assist him in ruling. The same men who ministered to the domestic needs of the household conducted the business of the fief and participated in warfare. The provost superintended the demesne and collected taxes and dues. In England the Anglo-Saxons kings appointed a shire-reeve or sheriff, a removable agent in each county. The chaplain heard confession and said mass in the chapel. Since the chaplain was a clerk, he did not fight, and, as he was often literate, he held the lord’s written records. In time he was called chancellor and had other clerks under him who served as chaplains and secretaries. The chamberlain looked after the bed chamber, watched over the lord’s valuables, jewels, and clothes as well as archives and charters, and he generally controlled access to the lord. The constable and the marshal were military officers that commanded the soldiers, were responsible for armor and weapons, and saw to the horses and, as such, had a high status in the feudal demesnes showing the importance of horses. The steward was the head of the administration; he was also responsible for the provisioning of the household. The steward was assisted by the butler, who procured the wine, and the dispenser, who supervised the issuance of wine.
Entertainment included solid meals and drinking and possibly more refined shows with minstrels displaying varied talents, storytellers with magnificent tales, tumblers, and dancing bears. Hunting and hawking were the feudal ruler caste’s main pleasure, and the hunting grounds were guarded with jealousy against the depredations of poachers. Penalties for catching reserved animals— such as a deer — were severe and included flaying, mutilation, and even hanging. Hunting was regarded as a sign of great courage and an opportunity to exercise healthiness, knightly qualities, and a display of skill besides providing a valuable addition to the medieval diet. The chasse-a-courre consisted of pursuing on horseback stags, wild boars, deer, and wild cats with the help of a pack of hounddogs. Animals were put to death with spears or swords. Troublesome animals were also hunted — as much for pleasure as for the necessary extermination — including wolves, bears, lynx, elk, aurochs, and bison, which terrorized peasants, ruined their crops, and decimated their cattle. Wild animals could be hunted with bows and arrows. Game birds were hunted by hawking with a trained falcon. It developed into a great art, falconry. Hawks and falcons were valuable and sometimes given as prestigious gifts.
Needless to say the feudal ruler of the 10th, 11th, and early 12th centuries were no model of refinement and gentleness. There was little or no legal restraint on their personal behavior. Castle could be full of mistresses and prostitutes, heavy drinking and rough conduct were common, and servants— and even wives and children —could be beaten, sometimes with savagery. The feudal caste was quite religious though. They accepted without question the basic teaching of the Church, followed the observance, heard mass, and gave alms and donations. However, repentance and atonement were far easier than virtue. Some rich counts or dukes founded religious houses and abbeys; many went on long pilgrimages; some departed to the crusade in the Holy Land. But — on the whole — faith did not seem to interfere with personal conduct. Along with fair rulers, noble gentlemen, and generous lords, there were bad knights, blood-thirsty perverts, and wicked men who terrorized helpless peasants, dishonored ladies, and even desecrated churches. There were countless robber barons, ruthless freebooters, and unscrupulous mercenaries who brought knighthood and nobility into disrepute.