Castle under siege!

There were many ways of attacking a medieval castle, and almost as many means of countering such attacks.

Ways to Attack

catapultThe first step was to batter the walls with a variety of “engines”, the most common being the catapult or mangonel. Its throwing beam would haul a massive stone, a pot of flaming “Greek fire”, a dead horse (which might infect the garrison) or sometimes… a captured messenger (to show that all hope of relief was in vain).

Another popular method used, was undermining. Beginning some distance away, miners burrowed beneath the defences, supporting their tunnel with wooden props. They then filled the mine with combustible materials – such as, the fat of half a dozen pigs – and fired them, burning away the supports, collapsing the tunnel and, with luck, demolishing the wall above it.

If the castle was founded on solid rock or was surronded by a moat, undermining was a useless method and in these cases it was often necessary to storm the walls instead by using ladders or a “belfry”. A belfry was a wheeled tower with the uppermost platform being the same height as the top of the castle walls. Another method would have been to assault the wooden gate of the castle with an iron-headed battering ram, swung on a sturdy frame.

A traitor within the walls of the castle was the second most effective weapon, whereas, the most effective was cutting off the supplies to the castle. All castles had a well, but if this dried up or was poisoned, the defenders ultimately had to surrender.

Countering the Attack

If the garrison suspected that the castle was being undermined, they could sometimes locate the underground workings by standing jugs filled with water in different parts of the fortress and observing them when they vibrated. They could then sink a counter-mine from inside the castle, and either slaughter the opposing diggers with hand-to-hand fighting, or fill their tunnel with water.

belfyThe people defending the castle (this was usually any able person, not just the garrison) knew that eventually the walls of the castle would be attacked. In defence they would use anything that came to hand to stop the attackers breaching the walls. “Firepots” were dropped from above onto the people scaling the ladders or using the battering ram, along with javelins, stones, boiling oil and a scalding oatmeal mush which stuck to besiegers’ skins.

If the attackers managed to get within the outer gate, they probably found themselves trapped in a passage between two portcullises, here they would be showered with missiles from “murder holes’ in its roof.

The Medieval Horse

The horse was an essential part of the knight’s equipment. Although the knight sometimes fought on foot, he was mostly considered a horse-soldier or cavalryman. He took the greatest pride in the breeding, training and skill of his war horses or destrier.

horse1His horse was the knight’s pride and joy. It was carefully chosen for its strength, stamina and courage. The horse had to be able to charge into yelling, screaming crowds and had to be carefully schooled. In battle, the knight required his hands for holding his sword and shield, so the horse had to be guided by the rider’s knees.

It was not uncommon for the horse to be shod with sharpened shoes so that when their riders reined them in, they rose up on their haunches and beat about them with their deadly forefeet.

There were other kinds of medieval horses. Coursers or running horses were used for war or tournaments; palfreys for travelling or hunting, and hacks for everyday riding. Ladies rode small, spirited horses called jennets.

During the Middle Ages, the bridle consisted of a leather headstall, bit and reins. The headstall was made up of a series of straps fastened around the horse’s head to keep the bit in place. The most popular bit in medieval times was the snaffle. This was a simple jointed metal bar with cheekbars at each end containing rings on to which the cheekbands and the reins were fixed. In the early Middle Ages, the knights used single reins, but during the 13th century double reins became popular. These were often decorated with embroidery.

The saddle consisted of a strong wooden framework which was glued and riveted together, covered with sheepskin, leather or velvet. The covering not only made riding more comfortable but also prevented the horse’s sweat from seeping through into the wooden framework and causing it to rot.

The saddle was kept in place by a series of leather straps. The breast strap was a broad band which passed from the saddle, across the chest and prevented the saddle from slipping back. The girth strap passed from the saddle under the horse’s chest, holding the saddle secure. The crupper stretched from the saddle, along the back and looped under the horse’s tail, to stop the saddle slipping forward.

Horses were sometimes decked out in flowing robes called “caparisons” or “bards”. These were made of cloth, leather and sometimes even mail, although the latter must have been very heavy and uncomfortable. Later, around the 15th century, rich knights protected their war horses with leather or metal armour: a “chamfron” defended the horse’s face; a “crinet” guarded its neck; “flanchards” protected its flanks; and a crupper prevented injury to its back.

The Medieval Village

Villages were only built near a stream or spring because they needed to be close to water. Houses were dotted along a little dirt road. Some of these houses were nothing more than little huts; others were a bit bigger. A large manor house, with barns and stables surrounding it, was where the lord and his wife lived. You would always find a church nearby.

village

Around the village would be three large arable fields. One would be for growing wheat, one for barley and the third would be lying fallow (nothing is planted there because the farmers would be letting the ground rest). Each field was divided into strips. Most of the village families would have strips scattered about in each field, and the lord would have his own strips. His part of the land is called the demesne.

There would also be common grassland because the people had the right to graze cattle and sheep. Near the stream, where the ground is damp, the grass would grow tall and thick in the hay meadow, and close by would be the watermill with its big wheel turning round in the water as it grinds corn. This would belong to the lord, who would also have a windmill on a hill.

Further away, beyond the fields, are dark woods, where pigs might be kept and deer could be hunted.

The Lord and his Villeins

Most of the village people were called villeins. The lord of the manor gave each villein space for a house and small garden, strips in the arable fields and a share in the hay meadow, common land and woodland. Instead of paying rent, the villeins would work on certain days for the lord.

In February or March, they would do several days’ ploughing and harrowing on the lord’s land but they had to provide their own food. Once in summer and once in autumn, they would be expected to do one day’s ploughing and one day’s harrowing, but on these occasions the lord would give them food twice a day. There would also be other regular work to be done on the lord’s strips, like hoeing off the weeds. Besides this work, week by week, there were special times when the villein’s whole family had to work; cutting and carrying the lord’s hay and reaping and carrying his corn.

As well as this, the villeins would have to give the lord four hens at Christmas and twenty eggs at Easter. It is known that this is true because it is written in a custumal. There were so many rules about what the villeins had to do for the lord, and what the lord had to give them, that in many villages, to help their memories, they wrote down these rules or customs in a document called a custumal, which gives information about the work of the villagers, their rents, their rights and their rules.

Houses

The villeins would help each other build houses. They didn’t have bricks or stone but the lord allowed him them to cut down trees in the forest to make a wooden house. They built a framework of timber, filled in the spaces with a lattice-work of this wood, and plastered this all over with a mixture of mud and chopped straw. In this way they made “wattle and daub” walls. Finally, he thatched the roof with straw.
Inside, there would be a flat stone for a fire in the middle of the room and a smoke-hole in the roof above it. The cooking is done indoors in winter but whenever possible the women would cook out of doors. The windows have no glass but do have wooden shutters.

The house has two rooms. In one the man keeps his tools (a hoe, a spade, an axe, a wooden bucket, a sickle, a flail and his bow and arrows) and all the animals sleep there at night. In the other the family lived and slept. Most families would have a wooden table, some three-legged stools, a log against the wall for the children’s seat, and a bed like a big wooden box. The man of the house would make all the furniture himself. The floor would be mud, stamped down very hard and firm. All the clothes would go in one big wooden chest, and most of the food would be kept in baskets. In one corner there would be a wooden trough in which the wife would make bread, and an iron cauldron she used for cooking dinner, washing the clothes and bathing the baby. On the table would be wooden plates and cups, and a clay jug.

Up in the dark roof would be big pieces of bacon and strings of fish hanging by the smoke-hole to get smoked ready for eating in the winter. A tiny door led into a little wooden shed where there would be a great tub of salt water full of port pickling for the winter too.

Nobody in the village had water brought to them by pipes. There was a deep well in the middle of the village usually, where everyone went to draw water.

Feudalism

systemLords and Vassals

For safety and for defense, people in the Middle Ages formed small communities around a central lord or master. Most people lived on a manor, which consisted of the castle, the church, the village, and the surrounding farmland. These manors were isolated, with occasional visits from peddlers, pilgrims on their way to the Crusades, or soldiers from other fiefdoms.

In this “feudal” system, the king owned all of the land in his kingdom. He kept a large portion of the land for his own use, and a great deal of land was also held by the Church. What happened to the rest of the land? The king awarded land grants or “fiefs” to his most important nobles, his barons, and his bishops, in return for their contribution of soldiers for the king’s armies.

The nobles divided their land among the lesser nobility, who became their servants or “vassals.” Many of these vassals became so powerful that the kings had difficulty controlling them. By 1100, certain barons had castles and courts that rivalled the king’s; they could be serious threats if they were not pleased in their dealings with the crown.

In 1215, the English barons formed an alliance that forced King John to sign the Magna Carta. While it gave no rights to ordinary people, the Magna Carta did limit the king’s powers of taxation and require trials before punishment. It was the first time that an English monarch came under the control of the law.

The Peasants

At the lowest echelon of society were the peasants, also called “serfs” or “villeins.” In exchange for living and working on his land, known as the “demesne,” the lord offered his peasants protection.

Many peasants remained free, but most became serfs. A serf was bound to the land. He could not leave without buying his freedom, which was a rare occurrence. Life for a serf was not much better than the life of a slave. The only difference was that a serf could not be sold to another manor.

As rent, Serfs would often work the land and produced the goods that the lord and his manor needed three or four days a weeks. This exchange was not without hardship for the serfs. They were heavily taxed and were required to relinquish much of what they harvested. The peasants did not even “belong to” themselves, according to medieval law. The lords, in close association with the church, assumed the roles of judges in carrying out the laws of the manor.

Childbirth & Infancy

infancyIn medieval times childbirth could be a time of either great joy or great sorrow. Mortality rates for both mother and baby were high, and many children who lived through the birth died shortly thereafter.

During the delivery, some peasant women received help from female neighbours; others could rely only on their husbands.

A woman of the merchant or noble classes was attended by midwives and female relatives. The chamber would be dimly lit, and a warm bath prepared for the infant. Both measures were designed to ease the transition from the womb into the world.

The expectant father performed the important job of appealing to the saints for the safety of his wife and child.

The infant was wrapped in swaddling cloths – long cloths wrapped around the body and secured with crisscross bands. Swaddling kept the child warm but was also said to force the limbs to grow straight.

Unless work prevented it, peasants and artisans nursed their own babies, but wealthy mothers hired other women to serve as wet nurses. Without the burden of nursing, which can serve as a natural birth control, such women sometimes conceived as frequently as biologically possible, bearing as many as 20 children.

About 50 to 60 percent of children never saw their fifth birthday.