The term medieval castles conjures up a vision of grand living by a noble or royal family within the protective confines of defensive walls. But that is only part of the picture, albeit the part where we imagine ourselves as members of that favored family.
Imagine instead a humming village inside those walls, a maze of kitchens, workshops, gardens, stables and at least one chapel. For most of the village inhabitants, communal sleeping quarters were the norm, places where one’s personal space was defined by a straw mat.
In the hierarchy of castle servitude, the head cook occupied a most prestigious position. Every day the Great Hall was a scene of fine dining. Guests had to be properly entertained. Feasts were gourmand affairs. Food was stored underground or at ground level, where the temperatures were always cooler. Of course, all forms of vermin flourished in these dark optimum temperatures. Castles were designed to withstand a siege, so there were plentiful stores of grain, vegetables and herbs, a most inviting habitat for rats and mice.
To put English castles in a historical context, their great age began over 1,000 years ago, when the Normans (from what is now western France) introduced the first proper castles (mostly wooden) following their famous victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The average construction time was 10 years. The cost of maintaining royal castles amounted to around 40% of a king’s annual income. In short, castles were a budgetary extravagance.
Back to the Great Hall, which boasted a large open hearth to provide heat and light. Wall tapestries insulated the sizeable room from excessive cold. An added benefit was that the tapestries were often beautiful works of art.
Bed chambers were the province of the castle owner’s family. The canopy bed, easily associated with power and wealth, was also very practical. The top captured droppings of all kinds from the ceiling. The curtains provided extra warmth and some privacy, since servants slept on floor mats in the same chamber.
All major rooms and chambers had straw scattered on the wooden or stone floors. Herbs were sprinkled among the straw so that a pleasant odor would be released when people walked on them.
The castle keep was the most important part of the overall structure. The keep was a fortified tower, the place of last resort in case of a siege or attack. Stairs in this tower were constructed in a tight clockwise spiral. They were purposefully built this way to make combat more difficult for right-handed invaders, who had to ascend the stairs while wielding weapons.
A description of castle living would not be complete without a mention of the garderobe, derived from the French term garde de robes, meaning a clothing protector. In this context, the garderobe refers to a tiny cubicle that was built out from the bed chamber wall, directly over a pit or the castle moat. Thus the castle toilet was born. “ ‘Just like home’ exclaims Jerrard,” the Aureus protagonist who, living as a fugitive, is delighted to enjoy the comfort of a garderobe while a guest at the French court. “He has not had his own garderobe for over three years.” See page 200.