Medieval Castles Were Smelly, Damp, and Dark - Owlcation - Education
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Medieval Castles Were Smelly, Damp, and Dark

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A Hard Life For Serfs and Servants

Castles were built for defence not comfort. For the soldiers stationed within them, they were barracks rather than cosy homes. However, over the five hundred years of the Middle Ages, there were periods of relative peace. During such times, wealthy castle owners began to employ large numbers of servants rather than soldiers. They made the cold, dank castle rooms more comfortable by laying rushes on the floors, and hanging fabric tapestries on the walls.

Surprising as it seems today, the job of a household servant was considered to be a step up from working as a landless laborer (or serf) in a village. To get a feel of what fortress life was like, I recommend Life in a Medieval Castle. It brings the period to life with an emphasis on the experience of ordinary men and women.

A castle servant’s work was arduous and physically demanding, but at least these workers were fed and clothed, and they had a roof over their heads. The unreliability of harvests and the lack of clean water in the villages made subsistence farming with its disease and malnutrition, an uncomfortable and short life.

Who Lived in a Castle in the Middle Ages?

The Medieval era (or Middle Ages) in England is generally defined as the period between the end of Norman rule (11th century) and the start of the Tudor dynasty (15th century). Life at this time was governed by a feudal system. This was a rigid class system in which each layer of society owed allegiance to the layer above in return for military security. The nobility were given land and favors by the monarch in return for raising a militia in times of war. The tenant farmers grew crops on land they leased from the landowning lord in return for his defending their interests in case of invasion.

Members of the nobility had a retinue of servants who lived with the lord in his castle which doubled as a fort. There were also battalions of soldiers stationed within the fortification. Farmers and other villagers lived on land surrounding the castle but they could shelter inside its strong walls if the settlement was attacked.

Bodium Castle, Sussex was built as a fortress. It would have been cold and damp in winter.

Bodium Castle, Sussex was built as a fortress. It would have been cold and damp in winter.

Made from Local Stone and Timber

The main purpose of a medieval castle was defensive. It was a fort built strong enough to withstand military attack. Potential attacks could be from fire, gunshot, explosion or even tunneling beneath the castle walls. To minimize such risks, castles were built where it was possible to get a wide (360 degree) view of surrounding countryside.

Castles are at strategic vantage points to prevent enemies approaching unseen and catching residents by surprise. Transporting building materials was difficult and expensive so locally found resources were used in their construction. Any timber structures have long since rotted away and so the castles which remain today are those that were built from hard wearing local stone.

Most castles were built on the top of hills or overlooking natural harbors. Both of these locations tend to suffer from extremes of weather such as high winds and driving rain. The result is that castles are generally cold and damp.

Medieval builders didn't understand the benefit of inserting a damp proof course into walls and floors. Many castles are surrounded by moats or natural water courses for defense. So medieval castles suffered with both penetrating damp through the walls and rising damp through the earth floors.

No Glass in Their Windows and No Flushing Toilets

Castles were dark inside with little natural light. Glass was extremely expensive and was not produced in large quantities until the 17th century. Any gaps in the walls for light had to be small or they let in too much wind and draughty air. The defensive towers of a castle (sometimes referred to as turrets) have narrow slits instead of windows. These have the dual purpose of allowing archers to fire arrows at the enemy, as well as allowing light in. In fact, most castles were not lived in permanently.

There were also other problems with living in a medieval castle, the main one being that there were no sewers or flushing toilets. Often the moat surrounding the castle was used as a sewer. Both the moat and the castle quickly became smelly and dirty. It's said that the kings and queens of England never stayed longer than eight weeks in one of their castles because of the build-up of foul odors. The remaining ten months of the year their castles would remain vacant (apart from minimal security) for Mother Nature to naturally cleanse the building.

When the royals were in residence, however, thick tapestries were hung on the walls and floors. These made the place feel much warmer and absorbed a lot of the dampness from the air. With roaring fires and many people milling about, for a few short weeks, castles could be reasonably comfortable places to live.

Life Inside a Medieval Castle

Why Do Castles Have High Narrow Openings in Their Walls?

Medieval castles were built before glass was invented. Castle dwellers needed openings in walls to get natural light into their rooms. They used tallow candles for some illumination, but these were expensive to make and gave relatively little light.

Natural light is free and in summer it lasts almost all the waking hours. However, without glass, openings in walls are draughty and they also pose a security risk. By putting narrow openings high up in the walls, castle builders minimized security risks and maximized available daylight.

How Long Did it Take to Build a Castle in the Middle Ages?

Castles are huge buildings and take a long time to build. They could take anything from 5 years to hundreds of years to complete.

First, a site would be chosen and prepared for the intended structure. The ground may need levelling or trees and rocks cleared to make the site more suitable. Next, building materials such as stone and timber would be brought to the site. Castles are defensive structures and must be built with durable materials. Railways and electricity had not yet been invented, so everything had to be carried to the castle by hand or moved using horse-power. Obtaining sufficient building materials was a slow process.

Building operations were sometimes interrupted for political or military reasons. A country at war conscripted fit men into the army. Any castle-building would grind to a halt to be resumed in more peaceful times.

A castle kitchen was a busy workplace, providing food and warmth.

A castle kitchen was a busy workplace, providing food and warmth.

How Clean Were Medieval Castles?

Castles were very difficult to keep clean. There was no running water, so even simple washing tasks meant carrying a lot of bucketfuls of water from a well or stream. Few people had the luxury of being able to bathe regularly; the community was generally more tolerant of smells and dirt.

The floors were often covered in sweet-smelling straw and grass. This could be swept away and replaced when full of grime. It also had the advantage of masking other, more unpleasant odors. Walls were often covered with tapestries to cover the cold stonework and make rooms warmer and more homely.

How Did Castles Fight Mold?

The simple answer is, they didn't. Mold, insects, vermin, and disease were part of everyday life in medieval times. Fresh water was precious, and a reliable disinfectant was yet to be discovered.

Eating a little bit of mold on your food, or sleeping in rooms with moldy walls were minor problems compared to with actually finding enough food to eat, or fighting off hungry wild animals like wolves. People in Norman and Tudor England lived short lives; if you reached the age of 40 you were considered to be old.

How Long Does it Take to Build a Castle?

Castles come in many shapes and sizes, and building one is a major undertaking. The time taken to finish one depends on where it is sited, the urgency with which it is required, and the availability of labor. A castle may take 10 to 20 years to complete.

If a castle needs to be built quickly for defense, soldiers will be used to protect construction workers until it is completed. On the other hand, a peacetime castle can be erected in a more leisurely manner, and require fewer laborers.

Narrow arrow slit window at White Castle, Wales.

Narrow arrow slit window at White Castle, Wales.

Visit a Real Medieval Castle

There are many castles in the UK that are open to the public. They are owned by non-profit organizations and have reasonable entrance prices for family tickets as they want to encourage children to visit and explore history. They often have activity days where you can experience for yourself what life was like in medieval times

If you are visiting Britain check out the following websites for events in castles and other heritage buildings. There are subtle differences in architecture between those built in Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland, so it's worth travelling to all parts of UK to get a comprehensive idea of what life was like in a medieval castle.

Cadw (Wales)

English Heritage

Historic Scotland

Discover Northern Ireland

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.