Home is Where Too Many Hearts Were (Medieval Mondays #3b)

Remnants of Peveril Castle's keep: the basement as viewed from the upper level

Remnants of Peveril Castle’s keep: the basement as viewed from the upper level

Peveril Castle, located in Derbyshire, England – the site where much of my novel-in-progress takes place – had one of the smallest examples of a castle keep in England.

As shown in the artist’s rendition to the right, it contained only two rooms – a principal chamber and a basement underneath that was likely used for storage and accessed via a spiral staircase.

The keep also had a latrine, a wall cupboard, and a large window looking out over the rest of the castle and the surrounding Hope Valley, but it didn’t have a fireplace, any food service rooms, or even a well.

It’s obvious from the lack of basic facilities that the inhabitants of Peveril Castle didn’t live in the keep, but instead one or more outbuildings in the castle’s inner bailey, as discussed in my previous post on the exterior layout of castles.  Neither would the household members have lasted long in the keep during a siege.

Most 13th century keeps, however, were constructed not only with a mind to long-term survival during a siege, but also for day-to-day livability.

According to Margaret Wade Labarge, author of Mistress, Maids and Men: Baronial Life in the Thirteenth Century,

Inside the great keep of the castle was the required minimum of living-space: a great hall, provision in the basement for supplies, a private chamber, and perhaps a solar, for the lord and lady, a chapel, a well, and privies. (p. 24).

Artist's rendition of the interior of Peveril Castle's keep

Artist’s rendition of the interior of Peveril Castle’s keep (source: English Heritage on-site signage)

The most important of these room – the great hall – often occupied the entire main floor, serving as the center for all social activity in the castle, including meals, court, important meetings, and celebrations.

A long, rectangular room, most 13th century halls contained the following:

  • A dais (elevated platform) at one end where the lord and lady sat
  • A fireplace (a marked heating improvement from the less efficient open hearth of centuries past)
  • Next to no permanent furniture (trestle tables and benches were carried in and out each day for meals but otherwise, folk did a lot of standing around in the hall)
  • A gallery (balcony) above where musicians would perform for the sound to better carry, and
  • Floors that were covered in rushes occasionally sprinkled with fragrant herbs like lavender, daisies, or fennel (and more than occasionally concealimg food scraps, spittle, and vermin that lie beneath).

The interior ornamentation of castles was often a simple whitewash, although it could also be plastered, panelled, hung with painted wool or linen (the forerunner to the great tapestries of the 14th century), or painted in various designs.

Lighting came from, in order of least to most expensive and effective, rushlights (bulrushes dipped in tallow), cresset lamps (a standing or suspended bowl of oil or melted tallow with several cotton wicks), and candles (impaled on heavy tripod candlesticks, on wall brackets, or within candelabra).

Moving up and moving around

Upstairs from the hall was the bedchamber where the lord and lady slept, which, when situated on an upper floor was also referred to as a solar. (In larger castles that boasted a greater number of rooms, the lord and lady might each keep separate rooms and not share a bed every night.)

Like the great hall, bedchambers were equally sparse in terms of furnishings.  The medieval way of life was highly peripatetic, with noble households regularly moving from one to another of their lord’s castles so he could administer to his local interests or obtain additional food and supplies as those at the current locale became exhausted.

For this reason, household belongings tended to be only what was strictly necessary and what could be easily transported within a long string of carts and pack-horses.

According to Joseph and Frances Gies, authors of Life in a Medieval Castle,

The principal item of furniture was a great bed [which] could be dismantled and taken along on the frequent trips a great lord made to his other castles and manors. (p.68)

The bed had curtains around it that could be drawn at night for extra warmth and privacy.

Beyond the bed, the remaining bedroom furniture included chests where clothing or other valuables were kept, a few wooden pegs (perches) to hang clothing or serve as resting places for domesticated birds (hawks, falcons, or magpies), a stool or two, and a standing candlestick.

The keep might also contain a wardrobe, which wasn’t a clothes closet but rather a storage room where expensive spices, cloth, jewels, and plate (silver-plated implements) were stored in locked chests.  It was also the place where all the household tailoring took place (which perhaps explains for our modern understanding of the word).

Remnants of a garderobe at Peveril Castle

Remnants of a garderobe at Peveril Castle

The chapel found inside most keeps is fairly self-explanatory.   The well was accessible from a central drawing point on every floor.  Nearby might also be a laver (a basin built into the wall) for hand washing with water from a filled tank above.

Finally, the privy – more commonly referred to as the garderobe – often occurred in a tier, one atop the each on each level of the keep.

Garderobes might be built directly into the thickness of a wall or corbelled out to hang over the moat or a river, which would’ve certainly increased the risk of infection if the water below was stagnant. (Another way of building garderobes involved a long shaft that nearly reached the ground, although this design encouraged odours and could also prove a vulnerable during a siege.)

Hay often served as toilet paper.

Other people everywhere

All these various  rooms and facilities, however, are just the parts.  When it comes to envisioning the living conditions of a 13th century keep as a whole, three key interrelated facts should be considered:

1) There was no undesignated or “overflow” space

A very long and likely historically inaccurate castle corridor from the movie Robin Hood (2010), which takes place around the year 1215.

A very long and perhaps historically inaccurate castle corridor from the movie Robin Hood (2010), which takes place around the year 1215.

Contrary to what we’re used to in contemporary interior design, and also the way castles are portrayed in pop culture, according to the Gies,

[T]he domestic quarters of medieval castles contained no internal corridors.  Rooms opened into each other, or were joined by spiral staircases which required minimal space and could serve pairs of rooms on several floors. (pp. 70-71).

This seemingly would have made it challenging to conduct private business, have clandestine meetings, or to enjoy some time alone, for whatever room one happened to be in, someone else (likely several someones else) would probably be there too.  Which leads into point #2:

2) Privacy was a foreign concept

Our modern concept of privacy and “me time” would’ve been completely foreign in the 13th century.  It wasn’t so much that castles were overly-crowded – although they could be; at Dover Castle, important defensive outpost that it was, Labarge refers to an “atmosphere of bustle, noise, and close-packed humanity” (p. 32).

More so, though, castles just weren’t designed to provide great comfort for anyone other than the noble family, and even then only to a certain extent.  Nowhere is this fact more evident than in the sleeping arrangements for the remainder of the household.

For important guests and servants, every night was something of a slumber party, with them sleeping in the same chamber as the lord and lady on either a trundle bed, a straw pallet, or on a bench. Even when the lord and lady engaged in marital relations, their room-mates would likely still be there, with only the curtains on the bed to offer the illusion of isolation.

(Everyone else, meanwhile – lesser servants, administrative personnel, soldiers – slept wherever they could find a spot: on a bench or the floor in the hall, in a tower, in the basement, in the stables, near one’s assigned post, or just burrowed in the straw outside.  Females, naturally, were separated from the men and supervised by either the lady or an older woman.)

3) Castle life was best lived beyond four walls

Despite the various efforts to make castles comfortable with fireplaces and screens to block drafts, castles were fairly damp, dark, gloomy, and often teeming inside, particularly during winter.

A feast or visiting minstrel offered some temporary enjoyment.  However, due to the high cost of candles and the inefficiency of rushlights, most people retired soon after nightfall to sleep and dream of warm spring days and sunlight, riding, roughhousing outside, and of course hunting, which was an all-consuming passion at all levels of the social scale and a subject for a future Medieval Mondays post.

Read all Medieval Mondays posts

(Images: J.G. Noelle)

6 thoughts on “Home is Where Too Many Hearts Were (Medieval Mondays #3b)

  1. How far along in your story were you when you visited England? Now that you’ve completed the first pass and been mentally immersed for so long, it would probably be a powerful experience to be there again.


    • I had the first book done (originally – and currently – written as fantasy), but by that point hadn’t written for five years. I’d just decided to start up again and re-cast the entire story as historical fiction and more or less made the trip in support of that latter goal. I went looking for Peveril Castle, without even knowing beforehand that it and its surrounding geography that is so necessary to my story even existed . Finding it was kind of a magical experience. I’m not saying it was meant to be … but it was totally meant to be!

      I would love to go back to England, especially Yorkshire, for I didn’t make it there last time yet part of the story takes place there as well.


  2. Great insight Janna, you really make the past come alive. Makes one understand that if people aspired to live in a castle how lousy life must have been elsewhere in a hut or hovel. The good old days eh?


    • Thanks, Roy. Indeed, from our modern perspective, the reality of pretty much all medieval living conditions would have been dreadful! Thankfully, the people of the time didn’t know any better, which allows me to continue romanticizing the past in my mind and my fiction as viewed from their point of view.

      Liked by 1 person

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