Book Review: Castles: Their Construction And History

Castles:  Their Construction And History, by Sidney Toy

When I was a child, I developed a strong interest in castles, likely through the literature I read and loved.  Surprisingly, though I read a great deal about medieval military history and even doctrine [1], castles have seldom come to mind as being a subject of their own, even if a great many books deal with castles as a setting.  So, I was pleased to take this book from my lengthy reading list of library books and take a look at it, especially given that it not only has a lot to say about castles but also contains almost 200 illustrations of the fortifications the author discusses in the text.  As someone who enjoys thinking about castles from a variety of perspectives–as fortifications designed to protect its owner from a hostile world, as homes for lords and their families and retainers, as structures that give the illusion (but not the reality) of impregnability, castles have a lot to offer us as areas to study and research, and it was pleasing for me to look at this work, which had a lot to say about castles in the Middle Ages and before.

This book of a bit more than 200 pages is divided into seventeen chapters, making each chapter fairly short, especially when you take into account the large number of illustrations.  After a preface, the book begins with a look at the ancient fortresses of the area from ancient Greece to Mesopotamia (1), which gives the general scope of the book, which focuses on Europe and the Middle East as a whole.  After that the author looks at fortifications in Greece and Rome during the early Hellenistic period (2) and then in Rome, the Levant, and Western Europe during the period immediately before the establishment of the Roman Empire (3).  There are discussions of the fortifications of the Roman empire (4), early and mid-Byzantine fortifications (5), and the fortifications of Western Europe during the early Middle Ages (6).  After this there is a discussion on donjons or rectangular keeps (7), the Byzantine and Muslim fortifications of the crusader period (8), and the transitional keeps (9) and baileys of the eleventh and twelfth centuries (10).  There are chapters on castles during the period from 1190 to 1270 (11), siege engines and operations of the Middle Ages (12), Edwardian castles (13), towns, fortified bridges, and towers (14), gatehouses and curtain defenses during the late Middle Ages (15), the development of the tower house (16), and sixteenth century forts (17).

What one gets out of this book more than anything–or at least what I got out of it–is an understanding of the tradeoffs that are involved when one builds castles.  Ease and comfort for those living inside of a fortification may limit its use as a fortification–as is the case with the difference between square and polygon or round towers.  A desire to economize materials may compromise the effectiveness of a defense on the level of town walls, and so on.  It is likewise striking to me that many castles viewed as impregnable fell in alarmingly short times, sometimes due to stratagems or demoralization on the part of defenders, sometimes due to technologies that had made a certain fortification style obsolete, and often due to treachery or the ability on the part of attackers to climb up walls with ladders by stealth.  We tend to think of castles as strong and easy to defend, but there are many castles that seemed strong that fell to their opponents and did not justify their cost, while a great many castles and their ruins still remain interesting and noteworthy tourist draws to this day, sometimes in very remote territories.  And since people, myself included, still want to visit or even live in castles, it remains worthwhile to read about them.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, History, Military History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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