Story of the Middle Ages - S. B. Harding

Life of the Castle

Before we consider what the influences were which brought the Middle Ages to a close, we must see more clearly what the life of that period was like. We will first read about the life of the castle, where lordly knights and gentle ladies dwelt. Then we will see what was the manner of life of the peasants who dwelt in the villages, and the merchants and craftsmen who dwelt in the cities and towns. Finally we will visit the monasteries, and see what was the life of the monks and nuns, who gave their lives to the service and praise of God.

If you visit France, Germany, and other European countries to-day, you will find everywhere the ruins of massive stone castles, rearing their tall towers on the hilltops, and commanding the passage of roads and rivers. At the present time these are mostly tumbled down, and overgrown with moss and ivy, and nobody cares to live within their dark walls.

Medieval Castle


In the Middle Ages it was not so. Then they were the safest places in which to live; so in spite of their cold and gloom, they became the centers of the life of the time. It was from the castles that the feudal barons ruled their lands. It was there that the people found refuge from the attacks of the Northmen and Hungarians. It was from the castles that the Crusaders set out for the Holy Land. In them chivalry was born and flourished; at their gates tournaments, jousts, and other knightly festivals took place; and in their halls the wandering singers, who were building up a new literature, found the readiest welcome and the most eager and appreciative listeners.

Let us fancy ourselves back in the eleventh or twelfth century, and examine a castle. We shall find the country very different, we may be sure, from what it is to-day. Great thick forests stand where now there are flourishing towns; and everything has a wilder, more unsettled look.

Here is a castle, in France, that will suit our purpose. It was built by one of the vassals of William the Conqueror, and has been the scene of many sieges and battles. See how everything is arranged so as to make easy its defence. It is built on the top of a steep hill; and around its walls a deep ditch or moat is dug. At the outer edge of the moat we see a strong fence or palisade of heavy stakes set in the ground. Just inside this is a path, along which the sentries march in time of war. The gate, too, is doubly and triply guarded. In front of it is a drawbridge across the moat—indeed, there are two; and the space between is guarded by a protecting wall. In later days these drawbridges were made stronger and more complicated, and heavy towers with walls of masonry were built, the better to protect the entrance.

When we have passed these outer works, we come to a heavy wooden door between two tall towers which mark the entrance to the walls. We pass through this, and find ourselves within the gateway. But we are still far from being in the castle. In the narrow vaulted passage-way before us, we see suspended a heavy iron grating, called the portcullis, which may come rattling down at any moment to bar our passage. And beyond this is another door; and beyond this another portcullis. The entrance to the castle is indeed well guarded; and the porter who keeps watch at the gate, and has to open and shut all these barriers, is at times a busy man.

At last we are past the gateway and find ourselves in an open courtyard. The thick walls of the castle surround us on all sides, and at their top we see the battlements and loopholes through which arrows may be shot at the enemy. Here and there the wall is protected by stone towers, in which are stairways leading to the battlements above. In the first courtyard we find the stables, where the lord of the castle keeps his horses. Here, too, is space for the shelter of the villagers in time of war; and here, perhaps, is the great brick oven in which bread is baked to feed the lord and all his followers.

Going on we come to a wall or palisade, which separates the courtyard we are in from one lying beyond it. In later times this wall, too, was made much stronger than we find it here. Passing through a gateway, we come into the second courtyard. Here again we find a number of buildings, used for different purposes. In one are the storerooms and cellars, where provisions are kept to enable the dwellers in the castle to stand a siege. Next to this is a building shaped like a great jug, with a large chimney at the top, and smaller ones in a circle round about. This is the kitchen, in which the food is cooked for the lord of the castle and his household. The cooking, we may be sure, is usually simple,—most of the meats being roasted on spits over open fires, and elaborate dishes, with sauces and spices, being unknown. Most castles have, in addition, a small church or chapel in this courtyard, in which the inhabitants may worship.

The most important building of all is still to be described. There at the end of the courtyard we see the tall "keep" of the castle, which the French called "donjon," and in whose basement there are "dungeons" indeed, for traitors and captured enemies. This is the true stronghold of the baron, and it is a secure retreat. Think of all the hard fighting there must be before the enemy can even reach it. The drawbridges must be crossed, the gates must be battered down, and the portcullises pried up; the first courtyard must be cleared; the dividing wall must be carried; the second courtyard also must be cleared of its defenders. And when the enemy, bruised and worn, at last arrive at the keep, their work is just begun. There the lord and his followers will make their last stand, and the fighting will be fiercer than ever.

The walls of the keep are of stone, eight to ten feet thick; and from the loopholes in its frowning sides peer skilled archers and crossbowmen, ready to let fly their bolts and arrows at all in sight. A long, long siege will be necessary, to starve out its defenders. If this is not done, movable towers must be erected, battering rams placed, stone-hurling machines brought up, blazing arrows shot at the roof and windows, and tunnels dug to undermine the walls. In this way the castle may be burned, or an entrance at last be gained. But even then there will be fierce fighting in the narrow passageways, in the dimly-lighted halls, and on the winding stairways which lead from story to story. It will be long, indeed, before our lord's banner is torn from the summit of the tower, and his enemy's is placed in its stead! And even when all is lost, there still remain hidden stairways in the castle walls, underground passages opening into the moat, and the gate in the rear, through which the lord and his garrison may yet escape to the woods and open fields; and so continue the battle another day.

In later days, stronger and more complicated castles were erected, especially after Western lords had begun to go on the Crusades, adn had seen teh great fortresses of the Eastern Empire. The picture on the following page shows such a castle, erected in Normandy by Richard the Lion-Hearted, and called by him the "Saucy Castle" (Chateau Gaillard) because of its defiance of the French King. The picture also shows hurling engines set for attack, and a movable tower being brought to scale its walls.

Castle in Normandy


But let us inquire rather concerning the life of the castle in time of peace. Where and how does the lord and his household live? How are his children educated? And with what do they amuse themselves in the long days when there is no enemy to attack their walls, and no distant expedition in which to engage?

Sometimes the lord and his family live in the upper stories of the huge donjon, where arms and supplies are always stored. But this is so gloomy, with its thick walls and narrow windows, that many lords build more comfortable "halls" in their courtyards, and prefer to live in these.

Let us look in upon such a "hall," whether it is in the donjon, or in a separate building. There we find a great wide room, large enough to hold all the inhabitants of the castle, when the lord wishes to gather them about him. This is the real center of the life of the castle. Here the lord eats and sleeps; here the great banquets are given; here he receives his vassals to do homage; here he plays chess and backgammon with his companions; and here in the evening the inmates gather, perchance to listen to the songs and tales of wandering minstrels.

Within the castle are many people, occupying themselves in many ways. In the courtyards are servants and dependents caring for the horses, cooking in the kitchen, and busily engaged in other occupations. Elsewhere are those whose duty it is to guard the castle—the porter at the gate, the watchman on the tower, and the men-at-arms to defend the walls in case of attack. Besides these we see many boys and young men who are evidently of too noble birth to be servants, and yet are too young to be warriors. Who can they be?

These are the sons of the lord of the castle, and of other lords, who are learning to be knights. Their training is long and careful. Until he is seven years old, the little noble is left to the care of his mother and the women of the castle. At the age of seven his knightly education begins. Usually the boy is sent away from home to the castle of his father's lord, or some famous knight, there to be brought up and trained for knighthood.

From the age of seven till he reaches the age of fourteen, the boy is called a page or "varlet," which means "little vassal." There he waits upon the lord and lady of the castle. He serves them at table, and he attends to them when they ride forth to the chase. From them he learns lessons of honor and bravery, of love and chivalry. Above all, he learns how to ride and handle a horse.

When the young noble has become a well-grown lad of fourteen or fifteen, he is made a "squire." Now it is his duty to look after his lord's horses and arms. The horses must be carefully groomed every morning, and the squire must see that their shoes are all right. He must also see that his lord's arms and armor are kept bright and free from rust. When the lord goes forth to war, his squire accompanies him, riding on a big strong horse, and carrying his lord's shield and lance. When the lord goes into battle, his squire must stay near, leading a spare steed and ready to hand his master fresh weapons at any moment. After several years of this service, the squire may himself be allowed to use weapons and fight at his lord's side; and sometimes he may even be allowed to ride forth alone in search of adventures.

[Illustration] from The Story of the Middle Ages by S. B. Harding


In this manner the squire learns the business of a knight, which is fighting. But he also learns his amusements and accomplishments.

Let us approach a group of squires in the castle hall, when their work is done, and they are tired of chess and backgammon. They are discussing, perhaps, as to which is the more interesting, hunting or falconry; and we may hear a delicate featured squire hold forth in this way:

"What can be prettier than a bright-eyed, well- trained falcon hawk? And what can be pleasanter than the sport of flying it at the birds? Take some fine September morning, when the sky is blue and the air is fresh, and our lord and lady ride forth with their attendants. Each carries his falcon on his gloved left hand, and we hurry forward in pursuit of cranes, herons, ducks, and other birds. When one is sighted, a falcon is unhooded, and let fly at it. The falcon's bells tinkle merrily as it rises. Soon it is in the air above the game, and swift as an arrow it darts upon the prey, plunging its talons into it, and crouching over it until the hunter gallops up to recover both falcon and prey. This is the finest hunting. And what skill is necessary, too, in rearing and training the birds! Ah, falconry is the sport for me!"

But this does not seem to be the opinion of most of the group. Their views are expressed by a tall, strongly-built squire, who says:

"Falconry is all right for women and boys, but it is not the sport for men. What are your falcons to my hounds and harriers! The education of one good boar-hound, I can tell you, requires as much care as all your falcons; and when you are done the dog loves you, and that is more than you can say for your hawks. And the chase itself is far more exciting. The hounds are uncoupled, and set yelping upon the scent, and away we dash after them, plunging through the woods, leaping glades and streams in our haste. At last we reach the spot where the game has turned at bay, and find an enormous boar, defending himself stoutly and fiercely against the hounds. Right and left he rolls the dogs. With his back bristling with rage, he charges straight for the huntsmen. Look out, now; for his sharp tusks cut like a knife! But the huntsmen are skilled, and the dogs play well their part. Before the beast can reach man or horse, he is pierced by a dozen spears, and is nailed to the ground, dead! Isn't this a nobler sport than hawking?"

Arming the Knight


So, we may be sure, most of the knights and squires will agree. But the ladies, and many of the squires and knights, will still love best the sport of falconry.

In this way the squire spends his days until he reaches the age of twenty or twenty-one. He has now proved both his courage and his skill, and at last his lord says that he has "earned his spurs."

So the squire is to be made a knight; and this is the occasion for great festivities. In company with other squires who are candidates for knighthood, he must go through a careful preparation. First comes the bath, which is the mark of purification. Then he puts on garments of red, white, and black. The red means the blood he is willing to shed in defence of the Church and of the oppressed; the white means that his mind is pure and clean; and the black is to remind him of death, which comes to all.

Twelfth century feast


Next comes the "watching of the arms." All night the squires keep watch, fasting and praying, before the altar in the church on which their arms have been placed; and though they may stand or kneel, they must on no account sit or lie down. At the break of day the priest comes. After they have each confessed their sins to him, they hear mass and take the holy sacrament. Perhaps, too, the priest preaches a sermon on the proud duties of a knight, and the obligations which they owe to God and the Church.

At last the squires assemble in the courtyard of the castle, or in some open place outside the walls. There they find great numbers of knights and ladies who have come to grace the occasion of their knighting. Each squire in turn now takes his place on a carpet which is spread on the ground, and his friends and relatives assist in girding on his armor and his sword. Then comes the most trying moment of all. His father or his lord advances and gives him what is called the "accolade." At first this was a heavy blow with the fist, given upon the squire's neck; but later it was with the flat of a sword upon his shoulder. At the same time the person who gives the accolade cries out:

"In the name of God, and St. Michael, and St. George, I dub thee knight! Be brave and loyal!"

The squire is now a knight, but the festival is not yet over. The new-made knights must first give an exhibition of their skill in riding and handling their horses, and in striking with their lances marks which are set up for them to ride at. Then comes fencing with their swords on horseback. Perhaps this is followed by a regular "tournament," in which knights, both old and new, ride against one another in mimic warfare. With closed helmets and lowered lances, the knights charge at one another, each seeking to unhorse his opponent. Lances are shattered, armor battered, adn sometimes serious wounds are received in this rough sport; while bright-eyed ladies sit beside the "lists," to inspire their knights to brave deeds in their honor. Then the day is wound up with a great feast, and music and the distribution of presents.

At last, the guests depart; and the new-made knights go off to bed, to dream of Saracens to be fought in the Holy Land, and dragons to be slain, and wicked knights to be encountered,—and above all, of beautiful maidens to be rescued and served with loyalty and love.

So they dream the dreams of chivalry. And when they awaken, the better ones among them—but not all, alas!—will seek to put their dreams into action.