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What life was like in medieval castles

by Shanell Mouland

Don’t be fooled by all the films that portray medieval castle life as an embarrassment of riches. Living in medieval castles wasn’t just about indulging in non-stop feasts, being entertained by jesters, and watching flamboyant jousts. Castle life, even for the upper class, would not have been all that glamorous. Dark and gloomy rooms, lit and heated by suffocatingly smoky fires, were par for the course.

While the upper class did indulge in some of the finer food and drink of the Middle Ages and were afforded a little more privacy than the serving class, there were still certainly very few creature comforts in medieval castle living. However, with such cramped and cold quarters, some castle dwellers did find comfort through chaste-as-heck medieval sex. Life during medieval times was no treat. 

Castles smelled really, really bad

Maybe it’s because of the bench toilets, or the general lack of hygiene among the lower classes, but castles smelled really awful. And it certainly didn’t help that the toilets offered no privacy and that there was really no where to dispose of waste besides a cesspool beneath the toilets. 

It wasn’t always easy to clean yourself, as fresh water and a bath tub were often harder to come by for the serving classes. Furthermore, sickness was prevalent among the lower classes, and while the wealthy could easily afford the best medical care, the average castle dweller would have to rely on herbal medicines, if anything at all. 

Toilet were often just a bench with a hole in it

In medieval times, you had to go do your business on a long bench with many holes for many bums. Your waste fell down below to a literal cesspool, and that was the end of it. Again, there were no partitions and no privacy, so you would likely be in full view of all your friends and neighbors while you were doing your thing.

Maybe it was nice to have someone to talk to while you used the bathroom, and maybe people even socialized at the ol’ cesspool. Still, ew. It’s hard to say exactly how people felt about the process, because today’s standards for privacy and hygiene just didn’t apply back then. 

There was little to no privacy

Castles might appear to be fortresses from the outside, but the large and open floor plans on the inside left little room for privacy, especially if you were a servant. The lord and lady of the home would almost certainly have private chambers in which to dress and bathe, but all others who dwelled within the castle walls were forced to spend their days and nights in the constant company of each other. 

It was so dark and dingy in most areas of the castle that it might have been nice to have others close by for body warmth. Or perhaps they found other ways to stay warm; however, during the Middle Ages you could get it on with your spouse only for the purpose of procreation.

This meant even having inapproriate thoughts of your own partner was considered a sin.

A typical castle could house over 100 people

If you aren’t a people-person, then maybe living in a castle wouldn’t have been for you, not that anyone really had a choice. There were many servants needed to tend to castle chores, as well as generations worth of the lord and lady’s families living in any given castle.

It took that many people to tend to the daily running of a castle. This made for cramped quarters – all the servants and extended family meant a total lack of privacy.

Prisoners went to dungeons and were often tortured

Prisoners were often kept in the deepest, darkest depths of a medieval castle – and the conditions were often deplorable, as there were certainly no prisoner rights advocates in the Middle Ages. Prisoners were often held for political reasons and should the lord or lady of the castle deem it fit, the prisoner could be tortured.

Trigger warning: The next part is rather disturbing. There were a number of ways medieval people tortured their prisoners, but one that stands out was the act of inserting a rat into the person’s body, allowing it to eat through a victim’s intestines in order to make it’s way out of the body.

One German researcher found that the torture method was not only meant to torment, but to also purify the soul. Many believed that the only way to purify the body of its sins was through pain.

So, you might want to think twice before you break the law in a medieval town. Unless you’re into that pain for purification kind of thing.

You shared your home with rats

Dark, damp, and cold environments are the perfect breeding ground for more than a few horrible things – and rats are one of them. Thus, if you lived in a castle, you by default lived with rats. 

While castle dwellers might have gotten used to sharing their home with rats – as they were rather ubiquitous in medieval times – they were still typically afraid of them. The beady eyed little rodents always struck fear into the hearts of their unwilling roommates; plus rats were one of the cheapest and most effective forms of medieval torture. 

Can you imagine befriending a furry little critter, only to find out later that he’ll be front and center for your demise? Nah, it was best to just hate the dirty little buggers.

Booze was readily available, and always preferred

Alcoholic beverages (whether wine, beer, or ale) were the preferred drinks of choice during meals in the Middle Ages. The upper echelon of medieval society had their choice of wine, beer, or spirits, but the lowly peasants were more likely to take whatever they could get their hands on. Interestingly, alcohol was sort of a necessity during this time, because the water was often unclean and therefore undrinkable. While people knew they could simply boil water to purify it, it was still regarded as a low-prestige drink. 

So, just like today, the rich get Patron and the rest of us get whatever is on sale in the liquor aisle. 

The day began at sunrise

With only fire to light your way in the evening, sunshine was crucial to actually getting things done around a castle. What little light was allowed in through the small windows had to suffice for many of the indoor chores. And the outside work began right at sunrise to allow the castle workers the maximum amount of light possible. The servants would often actually rise before the sun, to make sure fires were started in the kitchen so that breakfast could be served right away. 

There were essentially five main jobs one could do in a medieval town. You could be part of a clergy, be a noble, or simply royalty if you were of the upper class. The lower class had the choice between being merchants or craftsman and laborers.

So, unless you were of noble decent or royalty, you were getting your butt up at the same time as the sun because your job was to run the town for everyone else.

Bathing took place in wooden tubs

Contrary to what many people believe about medieval times, people did enjoy taking baths, it just wasn’t always easy to access clean water and a bathtub. Inside castles, there would often be a wooden bathtub that could be transported from room to room for the castle dwellers to bathe in. It wasn’t exactly sanitary or even remotely private, but people were happy to be able to clean themselves from time to time.

It should be noted that medieval populations certainly didn’t have the hang-ups about privacy and hygiene that we do today, but they would probably have preferred to not bathe in full view of their roommates. Not that there is anything wrong with that.

It was extremely dark and very cold

Castles were built using stones, and most castles in medieval times were built with defense from enemies in mind rather than comfort. This led to giant fortresses of stone with small and narrow windows. The stone wasn’t exactly conducive to letting heat in and the small windows let in very little of the sun’s light, leaving most rooms in the castle extremely dark and cold.

Just imagine the freezing servants quarters, which would have been in the deepest, darkest recesses of the castle. The illnesses that go along with damp and cold living spaces would have been rampant among the servants and they would have had little defense against the sicknesses.

There was the constant hubbub around preparing for feasts and festivals

The constant pomp may have been a tid bit annoying, especially to the people of the lower class who were doing all the work in preparation for these elaborate feasts and parties. Large and lavish meals were the norm in a medieval castle.

Unless you were preparing the meal, in which case you would have your meal in the kitchen, you would sit down to feast with friends pretty regularly. In fact, you were even seated at the meal table in relation to your level of importance. The lord and lady would sit at the head of a large wooden table, of course, while the castle staff would be sat at the back end out of sight.

How much of a bummer would it be to prepare delicious food and never be able to sample it for yourself?

Dinners were served in the great hall, and you sat according to status

Some things just never seem to change. Just like the high school cafeterias of today, in medieval times people sat according to their level of importance. The lord and lady sat at the head of the table, and their meals were served first and consisted of gourmet courses with exotic spices and specialties. The food for the less important dinner attendees would have been far less extravagant, and those folks would have sat on the darker and colder end of the long table.

But hey, at least they got a spot at the table. More than 85% of the town’s people were considered peasants and worked outside of the castle, and were therefore left to fend for themselves and their families when it came time to eat.

The lord and lady were in charge, though they had a staff to tend to any “real work”

All of the of people living in the castle had jobs to do. Mainly, they were to make sure that the lord, the lady, and their many family members were all well fed and comfortable, but they also had to tend to the daily chores of castle life.

The lord and the lady tended to political matters and made major decisions regarding land and protection of the castle, so they certainly couldn’t be bothered with preparing meals and tending to repairs.

The floors were coverde with rushes and herbs … to cover copious amounts of food grease and animal poop

As part of the ever-losing battle of trying to keep a castle clean and smelling sort of fresh, reeds and herbs would be strewn across the floors. The purpose of this was for the dry grass to help soak up and contain all of the liquids (and solids) that came its way over the course of the average castle day.

“[An] ancient collection of beer, grease, fragments, bones, spittle, excrement of dogs and cats and everything that is nasty” would be revealed when the rushes were swept up and changed out for fresh ones. The herbs did their best to tamp down the unavoidable stench brought on by all that nastiness.

The kitchen might’ve been catching on fire all the time

In the first half of the Middle Ages, kitchens were primarily constructed out of timber. However, given what happens inside of kitchens when you don’t have electricity – like cooking lots of things over open fires – timber as the building material wasn’t exactly the smartest choice.

Your kitchen might’ve been burning down regularly if you found yourself with one of these medieval castle kitchens. In time, stone became the building material of choice, and hearths were built to house the flames.

You attended chapel on the reg

Any respectable medieval castle needed one thing – an onsite chapel where the Lord and his family could attend morning mass. Oftentimes, the chapel would be the only other room aside from the great hall to form the castle structure.

Sometimes, the chapel would be built to form a perpendicular T (or cross) with the rectangular great hall, an anteroom that could be positioned at either side. Some really fancy chapels were built to be two stories, so the Lord and his kin could be positioned above the common folk. 

Stairwells were all built clockwise

As with most design decisions that went into building medieval castles, staircases were always constructed clockwise for reasons of defense. If an enemy were to attack, climbing up a staircase would limit how much they could maneuver their swords as any right-handed swordsman would be blocked by the castle’s wall.

On the other hand, the guards coming down the stairs would have the advantage of a full swing and would more easily eliminate the opposition. Even the steps themselves varied in size so as to trip up anyone unfamiliar with the specialized footing.

(Sources : ranker.com)


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