Function and form of castles

At this point it is appropriate to comment briefly upon French castle architecture of the Middle Ages;111213 that is, over a period of some five hundred years, from about 1000 until the Renaissance. The castle has been aptly described as ‘the crystallization of developed feudalism’.14 Prior to 1000, strongholds in France were typically built of wood and earth. They often featured a high earthen mound (motte) upon which stood a tower structure, an adjacent court (bailey) and a high palisade. However, circa 1000, castles of stone (châteaux forts) began to appear. Their basic purpose was to provide a landowner (seigneur) with a defensible base and to indicate his power and prestige.15

In contrast to the Roman Limes, which had a horizontal and linear aspect, the surviving towers and keeps of these medieval castles usually emphasize verticality. Their upward thrust to the skies, like that of church steeples, has a certain otherworldliness and naturally impresses earthbound mortals. From this formidable base, the lord and his armed vassals could sally forth and protect his domain and, if circumstances were favourable, overwhelm weaker neighbours and acquire land. If under threat, they could retreat into the castle. In numerous instances, however, it was often treachery, bribery or starvation, rather than assault, that led to capitulation of a castle. The building of numerous castles was initially stimulated by rivalry between local warlords and then by the intermittent wars between the French and English kings.

Castle sieges were a recurring feature of warfare whereas pitched battles between armies were comparatively rare. The fighting elite were the knights, or armoured horsemen. Knights often owned estates but many were landless and hireable younger sons. Their military concerns were the maintenance of at least one trained warhorse (destrier), squires and equipage and the honing of personal skills in horsemanship and the handling of lance and sword, mace and dagger. However, by the turn of the twelfth century, many English and French knights were also in thrall to the more genteel ideals and practices that had been famously promoted by Queen Eleanor in the refined atmosphere of her court at Poitiers. It was here that codes of chivalry evolved, troubadours thrived and noble ladies dominated ‘courts of love’.

The ruling nobility of England and France were French-speaking, consequently the accepted nomenclature for castles used terms such as mâchicoulis, merlons, meurtrières, motte and the like. Young Lawrence obviously enjoyed deploying these archaic terms in his writings and would closely examine details of construction such as the disposition of loops or loopholes (archères), the location of latrines (garde-robes) and the strengthening of a keep (donjon). The massive keep was the heart of a castle and, in theory, long regarded as the place of last resort when an enemy had penetrated the surrounding walls. In developing the arguments for his thesis, Lawrence paid special attention to the design of keeps, regarding it as a revealing state-of-the-art indicator. (Today, the International Castle Research Society keeps this specialized interest alive.16 ) He carefully sketched the various forms of ground plan that he encountered. These would range from square keeps (Niort), rectangular keeps (Loches), cylindrical keeps (Coucy-le-Château), octagonal keeps (Gisors, Provins), cloverleaf keeps (Étampes) to keeps with a beak or prow (Châlucet, Bonaguil). Doubtless, on occasion, he must have wondered about the extent to which these medieval showpieces were valued and cared for.

In the nineteenth century, during the reign of Napoleon III, lacklustre nephew of Napoleon I, the Commission des Monuments Historiques was founded and charged with identifying and preserving renowned sites and monuments of French history. For instance, the site of ancient Alesia was at last positively established.17 Here, in 52 BC, Julius Caesar had triumphed over the Gauls under Vercingetorix by encircling their formidable hill-top fort (oppidum) with the famous two palisades of circumvallation and contravallation.18 Prosper Mérimée, who is mainly remembered for writing the novella ‘Carmen’, was Inspector-General of the Commission from 1834 to 1860.19 By the 1850s a small band of pioneer photographers, acting on behalf of the Commission, was producing superb images of ancient churches and chateaux.20 Lawrence was a keen photographer and would doubtless have been aware of their painstaking contributions.

  1. William Anderson, Castles of Europe: from Charlemagne to the Renaissance (London: Ferndale Editions, 1980) []
  2. Francois Gebelin, The Châteaux of France, translated from French by H. Eaton Hart (Ernest Benn, London; G.P.Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1964) []
  3. Jean-Pierre Panouillé, Les Châteaux Forts dans la France du Moyen Age
    (Rennes: Editions Ouest-France, 2003) []
  4. Joan Evans, Life in Medieval France (London, New York: Phaidon, 1969: third edition) 22. []
  5. Joseph & Frances Gies, Life in a Medieval Castle, (New York, London: Harper & Row, 1974) []
  6. Society of Medieval Castle Science, Exhibition French Donjons (Aachen: Bernhard Siepen, 2001), ISBN 3-00-007776-6: an authoritative source of information on numerous European castles. []
  7. The adjacent village of Alise-Ste. Reine is 15 km south-east of Montbard, Burgundy. []
  8. Tom Holland, Rubicon: the Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic (London: Abacus, 2004) 279-81. []
  9. Prosper Mérimée: Série de Connaissance de Arts, ed. by Société Française de Promotion Artistique, SFPA (Paris, 2003). []
  10. Archives Photographiques Paris: < > []