Medieval Gardens: Form and Function

Standing as stone skeletons on cliffs or hilltops, we know castles are really only a shadow of their former selves.  On a day to day basis, castles fulfilled purposes beyond the defence of the realm and were also administrative centres where a myriad of activities would have taken place but the evidence of which have been erased by time.  We know, for example, many castles would have possessed gardens.  Medieval gardens might have produced foods like a kitchen garden, but also would have also been the source of herbs that were used in medieval medicine.  Garden spaces were pointed out to us at least two of our Battle Castle sites.  Medieval gardens did embrace key ideas about form and function. At Conwy Castle the east side of the castle was dominated by a second barbican which provided access from the sea gate, meant to resupply the castle in case of siege.  This was the site of a garden overlooked by the royal apartments. Sometimes a flower garden, its function changed over the years and at one time even contained fruit trees. My theory is that a good garden space is anywhere you find people absorbing sunshine. Benjamin Michaudel, our castle architecture expert challenged us to imagine that this space in front of the Knights Hall at Crac des Chevaliers would have likely housed a garden.  With a healthy dose of imagination, the stone walls give way to rich textures of green.  Given that the knights who built the castle were of the Hospitaller Order and they provided medical services to pilgrims in the Holy Land, we can be sure that medicinal herbs...
Medieval Plumbing and Castle Crappers

Medieval Plumbing and Castle Crappers

Lots of assumptions have been made about the state of personal hygiene and the disposal of human waste in medieval times.  But unlike towns and cities where raw sewage was dumped in the streets well past the Middle Ages, we are able to draw on numerous examples from the castles we visited to demonstrate that castle builders seemed to have a clear understanding of the vulnerability created by human waste and went to great lengths to construct strategies to deal with it. Medieval plumbing was much more than buckets. The earliest adaption we found was the so called Toilet Tower at Crac des Chevaliers.  As you may recall, Crac was constructed by the Knights Hospitaller who provided medical care and refuge to pilgrims in the Holy Land.  As a result, their castles contained a hospital wing or ward.  Very wisely, when designing Crac, they located the bank of toilets very close to the ward where they would receive great use. One of the most famous toilet castle legends dates to the siege of Chateau Gaillard.  According to this story, after having taken the Outer Bailey, Philippe Augustus’ men probed the perimeter of the castle looking for a weakness by which they could enter the Inner Bailey.  Apparently, the only opening they found was a latrine chute.  The two intrepid soldiers climbed the chute and set fire to the Chapel.  In the resulting chaos, the French were able to gain access to the Inner Bailey.  Researchers have since argued that it was a window into the Chapel itself (installed by King John) that allowed the French to take their objective.  This...
Trebuchet Balls

Trebuchet Balls

Blame it on the movies, but when I imagined medieval warriors launching projectiles by trebuchet, I never imagined the were launching stone trebuchet balls.  Dead cows, maybe. Or pots of flaming oil but not stone.  That’s why it was such a treat to actually visit the castle locations.  On three of our visits, we found evidence for this medieval practice. Dan Snow gives a sample of the stone trebuchet balls we found at Crac des Chavaliers in this vlog: There were literally piles of them scattered throughout the castle like this: We were also luck enough to spot these stone projectiles sinking into the dirt at Harlech Castle in North Wales.  It looks like it might have been a mix of larger projectiles and then some smaller ones that might have been used in a perrier. On a medieval themed vacation that included a visit to Carcassone, we also made a side trip to visit Montségur, the site of the culminating battle of the Albigensian Crusades against the Cathars, which was a siege spanning eight months from 1243 to 1244. At the small museum in the town, they had this collection of stone trebuchet balls, complete with weight. Our best guess is that they were launched from this plateau just below the castle’s location on the hill top (or Pog as they refer to it). What was fascinating for me, was to learn that even the earliest form cannons shot stone projectiles.  It wasn’t until later than the cannonballs from popular culture were in use....
Damage at Crac des Chevaliers Revealed

Damage at Crac des Chevaliers Revealed

Film footage broadcast earlier this year shows the damage at Crac des Chevaliers castle near Homs, Syria.  The story broadcast by Channel 4 news revealed extensive damage to the loggia located to the side of the Knights’ Hall and adjacent to what was once the Chapel. Crac des Chevaliers was constructed by the Knights Hospitaller starting in the late eleventh century on the site of a Kurdish fort.  The castle is renowned for extraordinary limestone facing and meticulous workmanship. Having survived earthquakes and an attempted siege by the great Saladin, Crac des Chevaliers fell to the Mamluk Baybars in 1271.  During the recent Syrian civil war, Crac des Chevaliers was occupied by rebel forces who likely captured it for its strategic position and symbolic value.  Footage in the summer of 2013, showed the castle under attack from government forces, but it was not reoccupied by government troops until March of this year. Crac des Chevaliers was named a UNESCO Heritage Site in 2006.  The damage to the castle, the Umayyad Mosque in Aleppo and countless other sites in Syria highlight the archaeological cost of the civil war which began with protests in March of 2011 and has now claimed more than 160,000 lives and displaced nearly three million refugees.  Despite peace talks and a presidential election, there appears to be no end it sight. Well into the fourth year of this conflict, we’re reminded of the words once carved here in stone, wishing the occupants of the castle wealth, beauty and wisdom but warning them of pride, which could be their ruin.  ...
Filming Castle Defences: Machicolations

Filming Castle Defences: Machicolations

It was always very exciting to get on location and see the places and features that we had been reading about for months.  A great example of this were the stone machicolations at Crac des Chevaliers.  Machicolations were a major advance in castle defence.  Previously, these kinds of hoardings might have been made out of wood.  Machicolations were stone structures that would over hang the walls allowing castle defenders to drop stuff on attackers who had made it past the long range defences to base of the walls. The stonework provided good defence for those on the walls and would not have been subject to incendiary projectiles. We’ve always heard about defenders dropping boiling oil, but we’re now told that would have been too expensive.  Most likely they would have used quick lime which would have burnt the eyes, boiling water or even dropped stones. Filming the machicolations was a key objective while on location at Crac des Chevaliers.  In our scene, host Dan Snow and expert Benjamin Michaudel discuss and then demonstrate the use of the machicolations.  Here’s our Director of Photography Sean White setting up the shot: Here Director Ian Herring films Sean as he balances on the wall filming Dan and Ben. To be honest, as all of this was happening, I couldn’t even watch.  It was a long way to the...

Castle Defences: Return to Medieval Monday

Castle defences are the first concern of every castle builder. So even when timber doors and draws bars rot away, the stone still bears evidence of these features are clear to the trained eye. This week we return to Crac des Chevaliers in Syria and join Dan Snow as he reveals evidence of medieval defences in one of the gatehouses at the castle. We’re celebrating Medieval Mondays again.  Each week we’ll reach into our Battle Castle archive and share some of the best behind-the-scenes moments with our cast and crew.    ...