The Architecture of Security and Power

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The Architecture of Security and Power


Although the design of churches was the primary focus of medieval architectural creativity, structures for the daily living and defense of members of the upper level of society also displayed technical ingenuity and an awareness of the importance of image. Just as the monastery assembled different kinds of buildings—church, hall, infirmary, barn—to accommodate all of the activities—prayer, work, eating, sleeping—of the monk's life, the castle fulfilled an equally varied array of functions in the secular world. With the collapse of the centralized authority and administration of the Carolingian Empire in the later ninth century, power was increasingly concentrated in the hands of local lords. Rather than providing a common defense for the towns under his control, the lord built only for his own security. The great circuits of walls and gateways that had protected cities in the past, such as Rome or Constantinople (modern Istanbul), gave way to fortified independent residences. Castles thus developed as multi-purpose structures at once a dwelling, a governmental headquarters, and fortress. But along with these practical duties, castle architecture projected an image of power and security that aimed to impress both the lord's subjects and peers. Rather than pursuing the celestial vision of a "walk of angels" as in religious construction such as at Cluny, it spoke a language of form whose vocabulary was assertive gateways, thick walls, and tall towers. Nevertheless, religious structures drew upon castle features, such as battlements, narrow windows, or towers, to enhance their own image of authority. Building techniques, including the use of precisely cut ashlar masonry and engaged columns, that first appeared in castle construction were soon adopted by church builders, suggesting that despite differences in function and appearance there was an interchange of ideas between the two areas of construction.

The Keep.

Castles appear to have developed from the union of the motte, a purely defensive wooden tower set upon a conical earth mound, and the hall. Halls, used for feasts and spectacles, official audiences, rendering justice, and administrative business, were complemented by a private chamber for sleeping, a kitchen, and a chapel for worship; these few structures constituted the essential domestic spaces of early castles. Around the year 1000, and apparently beginning in the Loire river valley of France, these separate areas were combined into a single, multi-storied tower called a keep or donjon surrounded by a circuit of protective walls that created an inner courtyard or bailey, where stables or industrial buildings were located. At Loches, one of the earliest examples, the ground floor was probably used for storage while the hall on the first floor, with its fireplace and latrines located in the surrounding wall passages, was entered through an attached rectangular building. A staircase within the massive walls climbed to the private chamber and chapel, distinguished by its apse, on the second floor. A spiral stair on the upper level provided access to another private room. A similar design was used at the Tower of London (White Tower), built by William the Conqueror immediately after his conquest of England in 1066, where the apse of the two-story chapel is visible on the exterior and the great hall was also likely intended to rise through two levels to create a noble festival space. Marked by four towers at the corners of the square block (118 by 107 feet), the enormous tower that dominated the eastern edge of the city ostentatiously advertised the Norman presence and left no doubt as to who was in charge. Even in the fourteenth century at Vincennes to the east of Paris, King Charles V erected a mighty tower in which residential chambers and a chapel were combined with military features that included provisions for the use of new gunpowder weapons.

Walls and Defense.

The defensive character of the tower or keep of a castle is clearly indicated by its sheer and solid walls and the reduction in the size of windows to narrow slits or small openings. As the last inner stronghold of the castle, the architecture of the keep and the castle continually incorporated new features designed to repel the advances in weapons and technology of warfare. In Norman castles of the eleventh century, for example, the battlements formed a protective parapet (a wall with both taller areas for defense and openings for deployment of weapons) for the use of defenders. Cantilevering the battlements forward on supporting arches or corbels created machicolations (openings) through which a variety of missiles, rocks, boiling water, pitch, or refuse could be dropped onto attackers below. Inclining or battering the base of the wall then ensured that the volley would bounce or splash onto an enemy unable to flatten himself against the wall. A moat or deep ditch, often filled with water, and one or two rings of walls then surrounded the keep. A fortified gateway and a heavy portcullis (an iron grating that could be lowered from above) further protected access into the castle, which was gained over a drawbridge. Additional towers studded the outer walls of the castle, each floor with narrow slit windows that widened toward the interior, allowing archers within to cover the entire field of fire around the tower. With this description in mind, one might imagine the difficulties of trying to capture Beaumaris castle, built 1295–1323 by King Edward I on England's western border with Wales. After climbing the steep hill, somehow crossing the bridge and fighting their way through the gate, attackers would find themselves marooned in a courtyard facing another set of walls, another ring of towers. In this case, the inner gateway is not aligned with the outer entry so that troops are forced to change directions and are exposed to fire from a different angle. Each tower formed an independent bastion so that the fortress would have to be taken tower-by-tower and ring-by-ring. Similar ideas of defense were also applied to cities. The thirteenth-century wall systems of the southern French town of Carcassonne offers a particularly well-preserved example of a double ring of walls, fortified gateways, and directional changes, while Aigues-Mortes, begun in the 1240s by Louis IX, joins an intimidating circular keep, the Tour Constance, that protected the port to a towered precinct wall that enclosed the entire city.


In contrast to castles, palaces were non-fortified residences that were more ceremonial and administrative in character. At Aachen, for example, Charlemagne's palace consisted of a great audience hall and monumental chapel tied together by long galleries in a scheme that emulated Roman luxury villas and imperial palaces. In the ninth century, a poet described Charlemagne's palace at Ingelheim as "a large palace with a hundred columns, with many different entrances, a multitude of quarters, thousands of gates and entrances, innumerable chambers built by the skill of masters and craftsmen. Temples dedicated to the Lord rise there, joined with metal, with bronze gates and golden doors. There, God's great deeds and man's illustrious generations can be reread in splendid paintings." Ranges of rooms, a great hall, a banqueting hall with three apses, and a chapel were set around two spacious courtyards, one rectangular, the other semicircular, and connected by porticoes. The lobed hall carried particular architectural importance for it denoted "the house of the lord." Featured in the banqueting structures of the imperial palace of Constantinople, a similar type would have been seen by Charlemagne in the papal palace of the Lateran in Rome. As in church architecture, German emperors of the eleventh century continued Carolingian traditions in palace design, best represented at Goslar (begun around 1050). Unfortified, the palace's regular organization, double-level hall, and towered chapel composed the ideal expression of heritage and magnitude of the ruler's authority. Because of political instability, palaces such as that at Westminster in England all but disappeared from European architecture until around 1300 when the nation-states led by powerful monarchs created a climate in which display superseded defense.

Paris and Avignon.

In the 1290s, King Philip IV ("the Fair") of France began to enlarge and transform the motley collection of buildings, ranging from the eleventh-century donjon to the thirteenth-century Sainte-Chapelle, that composed the royal palace in Paris. In the space of about twenty years, his architect, Jean de Cerens, added a huge new hall, the largest in Europe, built a chamber for the Parlement, towers for civil and criminal courts, and offices for the kingdom's financial departments, and remodeled the royal apartments. All of the branches of government were united in the complex, efficiently grouped around a series of courtyards, and linked by long corridors. Statues of Philip and his royal ancestors decorated the main door into the palace and the piers of the festival hall, the Grand'Salle. Although the king seldom resided in his chambers that looked out onto an extensive garden, its walls encompassed the entire machinery of royal administration and justice, made room for commerce in the galleries, and showcased the Sainte-Chapelle as a religious jewel that signified France's divine favor. The high walls and clusters of towers that encircled the palace gave the appearance of strength but, in reality, these features were decorative and symbolic.


introduction: In 1323, Jean of Jandun, a philosophy professor and translator of Aristotle at the University of Paris, wrote his Treatise in Praise of Paris, a work in the tradition of the "city encomium," a genre that had been popular since Carolingian times. In Jean's case, he was hoping to convey to his readers his own sentiment that "to be Parisian is to be." The two passages below describe the effect of the ornamentation in the Sainte-Chapelle and the carefully planned arrangement of the various chambers of the Royal Palace, reflecting the author's sense of how the best examples of architecture are planned to create a perfect harmony between form and function.

Part II, Chapter II: On the Churches and Principally on Notre-Dame and the Sainte-Chapelle

In Paris, privileged sanctuary of the Christian religion, beautiful edifices consecrated to God are founded in such great number that there are not many cities among the most powerful in Christianity that can boast of counting so many houses of God.

But the most beautiful of the chapels, the chapel of the King, conveniently located within the walls of the royal residence, is admirable through its strong structure and the indestructible solidity of the materials of which it is made. The carefully chosen colors of its paintings, the precious gilding of its images (statues), the transparency of the windows which shine from all sides, the rich cloths of its altars, the marvelous virtues of its sanctuaries, the exotic ornaments of its reliquaries decorated with sparkling jewels, give to this house of prayer such a degree of beauty that upon entering, one feels transported to heaven and one imagines that one has been ushered into one of the most beautiful chambers of Paradise.

Oh! How salutary are the prayers that ascend from these sanctuaries towards all-powerful God when the inner purity of the faithful corresponds exactly to the outer corporal ornaments of the oratory!

Oh! How gentle are the praises of God the most merciful sung in these tabernacles when the hearts of those who sing are embellished by virtues in harmony with the lovely paintings of the tabernacles.

Oh! How agreeable to God most glorious are the sacrifices prepared on these altars when the life of the priest shines with a brilliance equal to that of the gold of the altars!

Chapter II: On the Palace of the King in Which Are the Masters of Parlement, the Masters of Requests, and the Royal Notaries

In this illustrious seat of the French monarchy a splendid palace has been built, a superb testimony to royal magnificence. Its impregnable walls enclose an area vast enough to contain innumerable people. In honor of their glorious memory, statues of all the kings of France who have occupied the throne until this day are reunited in this place; they have such an expressive demeanor that at first glance one would think they are alive. The table of marble, whose uniform surface presents the highest sheen, is placed in the west under the reflected light of the windows in such a way that the banqueters are turned toward the east; it is of such grandeur that if I cited its dimensions without furnishing proof for my statement, I fear that one would not believe me.

The palace of the king was not decorated for indolence and the crude pleasures of the senses, nor raised to flatter the false vanity of vainglory, nor fortified to shelter the perfidious plots of proud tyranny; but it was marvelously adapted to the active, effective, and complete care of our wise monarchs who seek continually to increase the public well-being by their ordinances. In fact, nearly every day, one sees on the raised seats which are placed on the two sides of the room, the men of state, called according to their functions either Masters of Requests or Notaries of the King. All, according to their rank and obeying the orders of the king, work for the prosperity of the republic; it is from them that the generous and honorable favors of grace flow incessantly; it is by them that appeals, weighed with the scales of sincerity, are presented.

In a vast and splendid chamber, entered through a special door in the northern wall of the palace because the difficult negotiations that take place there demand the utmost tranquility and privacy, the skillful, far-sighted men, called the Masters of Parlement, sit on the tribunals. Their infallible knowledge of law and customs permits them to discuss cases with complete maturity and clemency and to hurl the thunder of their final sentences which give joy to the innocent and to the just because they are rendered without regard to persons or presents and in the contemplation of God alone and law. But the criminal and the impious, according to the measure of their evil, are overwhelmed by bitterness and misfortune.

source: Jean of Jandun, Treatise in Praise of Paris, in Paris et ses historiens au XIVe et XVe siècles. Ed. A. J. V. le Roux de Lincy (Paris: Imprimerie Impériale, 1867). Text modernized by Michael T. Davis.

Jean de Jandun's description of 1323 eloquently captures the character of the royal palace. Rising in the midst of the capital city, its unusual combination of military features, delicate gables and window tracery from church architecture, and a garden embodied the might, the piety, and the prosperity secured for the realm by a wise monarch's good government. Much the same can be said about the palace at Avignon built by the popes in the fourteenth century during their exile from Rome. Begun by Benedict XII in 1334, the original palace with its offices, assembly and banqueting halls, chapel, and residential wing arranged around a central court was not unlike a monastery's plan, perhaps not surprising in light of the fact that Benedict had been a Cistercian monk before his election to the papacy. His successors, Clement VI and Innocent VI, enlarged the papal apartments and added new wings including the west façade with its muscular arches, battlements, archers' slits, battered walls, and machicolations. Who would guess from this forbidding, even ferocious exterior that the palace enclosed an essentially bureaucratic compound and that the pope wielded little effective political power? The towers, like modern office buildings, contained work spaces, libraries, chapels, and apartments; a small garrison could be deployed on the roof platform in case of attack, but the palace was not designed to withstand a determined or prolonged assault.


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Matthew Johnson, Behind the Castle Gate: From Medieval to Renaissance (London and New York: Routledge, 2002).

Guillaume Mollat, The Popes at Avignon. Trans. Janet Love (London: Nelson, 1963).

N. G. J. Pounds, The Medieval Castle in England and Wales: A Social and Political History (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

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Denis Bethell (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1970).

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Whitney S. Stoddard, "Avignon," in Medieval France: An Encyclopedia. Ed. William W. Kibler and Grover A. Zinn (New York and London: Garland, 1995): 87–88.

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The Architecture of Security and Power

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