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Medieval Castles

tower of london
Tower of London (about 1100 AD)

Rich Romans didn't live in castles. They lived in villas. But Roman soldiers lived in military forts called castra, and that is where we get the word castle.

castle at vincennes
Chateau de Vincennes
(Paris, about 1340 AD)

After the collapse of the Roman Empire in Europe, there was a lot of trouble with pirates and bandits and invasions. Rich people began to build their villas more like forts, for safety, or they moved into old Roman forts. These were called castles.

At first, most castles had just one central tower, called the keep. A keep usually had two or three floors, with one big room on each floor. There was one big chimney running up the side, so each room had one giant fireplace to heat it. The castle of the kings of France at Vincennes is a good example of this kind of castle. Other examples are the Tower of London, or the Conciergerie in Paris.

To make it easier to defend these castles, they had only very small slits for windows, and very thick walls. Around the keep there was often a deep, wide moat full of water, and you could only cross the moat by going over a drawbridge. To see a good example of an early castle with a moat, check out William the Conqueror's castle at Caen.

Later on, the countryside got safer. The kings were stronger and could control the bandits better. So rich people began to be less worried about safety and more interested in comfort in their houses. They started to add on rooms around the keep, and to make bigger windows with glass in them, and they put permanent stone bridges over the moats instead of drawbridges. Both Carcassonne and the Tower of London have later additions like this. Then in the 1200s, people in Europe learned about gunpowder from China, and by the 1400s they built cannons that could blow up even thick castle walls, so castles became pointless. By the end of the Middle Ages, people weren't really living in castles anymore.

Learn by doing: a castle project
More about castles

Bibliography and further reading about medieval castles:

The castle of William the Conqueror
The Tower of London
The Conciergerie
More about Medieval Architecture
More about the Middle Ages home

Professor Carr

Karen Eva Carr, PhD.
Assoc. Professor Emerita, History
Portland State University

Professor Carr holds a B.A. with high honors from Cornell University in classics and archaeology, and her M.A. and PhD. from the University of Michigan in Classical Art and Archaeology. She has excavated in Scotland, Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and Tunisia, and she has been teaching history to university students for a very long time.

Professor Carr's PSU page

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