Myths and reality: the truth about life in a medieval castle

Let's consider the myths and reality regarding life in a medieval castle, such as slush, cold, eternal dirt and unsanitary conditions Мифы и реальность: правда о жизни в средневековом замке

Today we will look at the myths and reality regarding life in a medieval castle.

Over the centuries, medieval castles were used for a variety of purposes, including local defense, land administration, and, of course, as a residence for the feudal lord and his family. But were castles as bad and uncomfortable as is commonly believed in modern popular culture?

Darkness, cold and stench in a medieval castle

Since many castles were built for the purpose of protecting the feudal lord, appearance and exteriors were often of secondary importance. That is why small windows were installed in locks. The logic is that it is much more difficult for projectiles and people to penetrate the castle and cause damage through small windows.

Although the outer walls of a castle were often designed with this fact in mind, many castles had many lines of defense that had to be overcome before the location (usually the keep) where the castle’s lord resided could be reached. The courtyards of castles are the safest places, as they are completely protected from enemies by walls. Many castles also had open courtyards that were quite spacious and fully lit during the day.

At the same time, we can say that at night the castle was, of course, darker than an ordinary residential building, but even here fireplaces and torches saved the day. In large castles there was even a position that consisted of lighting torches at sunset.

Now let’s answer the question: were medieval castles dark? Compared to modern standards, they may be considered dimly lit, but in most cases there was enough light for the inhabitants of the castles and none of them complained. Still, security is more expensive than bright rooms.

Was it cold in medieval castles?

Before answering this question, you need to understand that the Middle Ages lasted more than 1000 years and during this era, technologies and construction materials changed greatly.

Therefore, castles were built from different materials: some from wood, others from stone or brick. The materials had a significant impact on the comfort and overall temperature in the castle premises.

At the same time, various parts of the castle could be warmer or colder than others. For example, the castle kitchen served as a place for preparing food for servants, soldiers and the feudal lord, and cooking continued throughout the day. There was a fire burning most of the time and it was quite warm. At the same time, some castles were built of wood, which made the castle kitchen a particularly fire-hazardous place.

It should also be noted that the owners of the castle and their family had fireplaces in every room where they lived. And this was enough to keep these rooms warm, even in the coldest winter months. In turn, the soldiers often slept in the barracks, which were also quite warm. The presence of fireplaces and large crowds of people made it possible to maintain a fairly comfortable temperature.

The servants’ quarters were the poorest in a medieval castle. But these servants, compared to ordinary peasants, lived quite well. Their rooms often had at least one fireplace, and if there was no fireplace, the heat was generated by the large number of people living in the room.

Did medieval castles have unpleasant odors?

Again, compared to modern standards, the castle smelled very different from what we would experience in a modern home. But here castles had several advantages over modern houses. Castle rooms were never as insulated as modern houses, and their construction was not always airtight, which meant that air could pass through rooms and structures more easily. This meant that castles were well ventilated, and odors that might linger in a modern house would quickly dissipate in a medieval castle.

Of course, there were rooms in the castle where the smell was stronger than in other places – for example, in the toilets. Human waste and sewage were often dumped into a cesspool. The cesspool would, of course, be quite smelly, but there were servants whose job it was to remove the waste from the pit and take it outside the castle, which also had a beneficial effect on the odors.

It is important to note that hygiene was an important part of medieval life, and castle dwellers were well aware that the accumulation of waste contributed to the creation of uncomfortable living conditions and disease. Therefore, castle dwellers were very conscientious when it came to dealing with sources of noxious odors. So the truth is that some parts of the medieval castle were indeed quite smelly, but most parts of the castle were very fresh.

Мифы и реальность: правда о жизни в средневековом замке
Eilean Donan Castle, UK, 13th century

Was there no drinking water in the castles?

This is a big misconception. Water was the basis of the life of the castle, so its availability and quality were taken care of first and foremost. Castles could not be built in places without access to water for a number of reasons. And the main one is that if a medieval castle is ever besieged, then the people locked in it will need water just to survive the unfavorable time. After all, not all feudal lords were able to store clean water for a long time.

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The water supply problem was solved in different ways. Some castles were built near rivers or bodies of water, while others used wells dug deep into the ground to allow water to be drawn when needed.

A common misconception is that people used alcohol instead of drinking water. This is not actually the case, although a caveat needs to be made here. Yes, the availability of clean water was one of the main concerns of the castle builders before choosing a site for construction. But having access to clean water did not mean that medieval people drank water often.

Beer and mead were quite often consumed during meals, since people in those days, as now, loved to eat tasty and fun food. In addition, having access to clean water did not necessarily guarantee that there would be plenty of it and enough for all daily and household needs. Water was used quite sparingly in the Middle Ages, since it was a fairly valuable and limited resource.

Medieval people were also quite smart: they knew that heat purifies water, so they could drink safe boiled water if necessary.

Did the castle’s inhabitants lack personal hygiene?

This is probably the biggest misconception about medieval life. Movies and books often depict mud-stained people who stink up the entire area.

Yes, some professions in the Middle Ages were completely disgusting, and the people who chose them had an unpresentable appearance and smell. There were cesspool cleaners and night watchmen (who fined people for throwing away feces and cleaned up whatever they found), as well as a whole range of other unpleasant and dirty professions.

But this does not mean that people did not wash themselves. In fact, peasant houses often had a bucket of water at the door, which was used daily for washing and bathing. Cities had larger houses, some even had baths (though they were smaller than the ones we use today), and baths were a very popular place for washing and socializing throughout Europe.

Even peasants knew the importance of regular hand washing and there is ample evidence that even commoners washed their hands and face daily. We must remember that in those days people cared more about their food, and eating with dirty hands was a sure way to get sick.

Soap making played a significant role in medieval industry, and there were various forms and types of soap. And those who were too poor to afford soap used fire ashes, which when rinsed with water had a cleansing effect.

Like modern people, medieval inhabitants had an excellent sense of smell and turned up their nose when near a bad-smelling person.

Did medieval people have bad teeth?

Tooth decay is largely caused by sugar, and its consumption was not common in the medieval diet. Additionally, medieval people cleaned their teeth using wooden tools similar to toothbrushes and used herbs such as cloves, mint as toothpaste.

Medieval inhabitants also cared about the appearance of their teeth, as many teeth whitening formulations were developed. If their teeth deteriorated, they visited a local barber (they did not have dentists), who removed all the problem teeth.

Although tooth decay was not a serious problem, people experienced high levels of tooth wear in medieval times. This is due to the fact that bread baking and food processing were not sufficiently developed, and the cereals from which bread was baked often contained small pieces of stone, which harmed the teeth of medieval residents.

Now you know what the myths were and what the reality of life in a medieval castle was. Our ancestors were far from fools, so they created favorable conditions for their lives and took care of their body and health.

Additionally, through this link, you can find a wealth of fascinating information about the Middle Ages and medieval castles.