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Lords and Ladies: Castles Under Siege

Lords and Ladies: Castles Under Siege

Sources

Castle Storage. The large cellar at the base of the castle keep contained everything necessary to supply a fortified village under siege, including grain, dried foodstuffs, military supplies, and cloth. Because it was half underground, the cellar provided cool storage that helped to preserve foodstuffs. Since access to the cellar was by the same external stairwell that provided access to the next floor of the keep, the castle had to be in grave danger before the supplies in the cellar became unavailable to defenders, and by that time, anyway, the supplies would probably be close to, if not totally, exhausted. Later in the Middle Ages, goods were also stored in structures all around the castle yard, next to where they were most needed. Hay was kept near the stables, weapons caches were at the towers, and iron and other metals were stored beside the smithy.

Water Supply. Water supply was a problem for medieval castles, especially when they were under siege. Few were built alongside streams. From the standpoint of defensive strategy, the preferred castle sites were on coastlines and mountain tops, and potable water was often a good distance away. One of the first tasks in castle construction was to build a well in the castle yard; at times it was even made part of the keep. Water might be hundreds of feet below ground, and drilling a well was dangerous work. After a well was constructed, water had to be pulled up by a chain and pulley mechanism and poured into the castle cisterns. In some castles, the cisterns were located at a high elevation in the castle complex, which allowed lead pipes to be connected to the cistern so there could be running water in various rooms in the castle, but such a luxury was rare. Water cisterns to collect rainwater were also built within the castle walls; in the case of Dover Castle, these cisterns were in a building attached to and in front of the keep. Pipes carried rainwater from the roof into the cisterns, and it was also possible to get water from a well by using a bucket on a chain. Even when a castle had a moat with water in it—and such moats were rare—the moat was not a source of drinking water except in desperation because privies and household wastewater were generally emptied into the moat.

Breaking Down the Walls. Although the most common way of taking a castle was to surround it and wait until the residents ran out of food and water, medieval people also designed weapons that could threaten these enormous structures. Sometimes besiegers provided cover for a team of men who dug under the castle walls and weakened its foundations. Sometimes explosives were planted in these tunnels. Medieval armies also used battering rams to strike

at castle walls and gates. These rams were made of wood—generally a tree trunk—with handles attached to them and the front sheathed in metal. Hammering a ram into a gate or wall was a dangerous business, however, because the defenders shot arrows and threw stones, garbage, burning oil, or boiling water at the attackers. Because of these dangers, medieval craftsmen developed ways of damaging walls that kept their soldiers at a greater distance. One of the most fearsome developments of the thirteenth century was the trebuchet, a catapult that could throw stones weighing hundreds of pounds. These boulders demolished structures, crushed people, and acted somewhat like mortars, fragmenting, maiming, or killing people just with splinters of stone. By the fourteenth century, the trebuchet was being praised as a technological marvel and condemned as a demoniacal weapon. It also caused serious damage to all but the most powerful medieval fortifications.

Breaking Down the People. Much of the staff of a medieval castle was made up of residents from neighboring villages; these same people provided most of the foot soldiers defending the castle in times of siege. Psychological warfare could have a great impact on individuals not trained to deal with the stresses of battle, and medieval warriors repeatedly used it. Threats to destroy farms or injure loved ones were all weapons that an attacking army used to unnerve villager-soldiers. In sieges such threats gained real immediacy because the defenders were trapped inside the castle walls and unable to ascertain what was happening in their village. Besiegers even practiced a form of germ warfare. As Philippe Contamine has pointed out, “In 1332 when besieging the castle of Schwanau [in modern Germany], the men of Strasbourg captured 60 prisoners, of whom they massacred 48, including three carpenters, whose bodies they placed in barrels, together with all kinds of rubbish, which they then catapulted into the castle.” Medieval sieges were brutal, and any technique that assured victory was considered legitimate—a fact that gives the lie to the modern image of medieval warfare as chivalrous single combat.

Sources

Jim Bradbury, The Medieval Siege (Rochester, N.Y.: Boydell Press, 1992).

Philippe Contamine, War in the Middle Ages, translated by Michael Jones (Oxford & New York: Blackwell, 1984).

David Nicolle, Medieval Warfare Source Book, 2 volumes (New York: Sterling, 1995,1996).

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