Book Review: Castles

Castles:  Their History And Evolution In Medieval Britain, by Marc Morris

For a long time I have been deeply interested in castles and had the dream of having one of my own. This book does a good job at pointing out why this is the case for me and no doubt for many other people as well in reminding the reader that a castle is both a fortress and a home, both a defended place as well as one that was where someone lived with their household.  That combination of fortress and home is not something that can be forgotten, because it was present from the very beginnings of the castle.  Likewise, it is important to note that just as the defensible nature of castles allow for the possibility of defense against others, but it also allows one a safe base from which to project force onto others.  Small wonder then that when the English first saw castles in the 11th century that they recognized the loss of liberty that was portended by them, or that there was a desire on the part of areas to encourage the slighting or destruction of castles held by enemies who brought invasion upon localities.  All of this the author tells with a great deal of insight.

The author introduces this roughly 250 page book with a discussion of the thorny issue of how to define a castle.  After that the author discusses the humble origins of the castle in the 11th century motte and bailey constructions (1) that both preceded and immediately followed the Norman conquest.  There is then a look at the rise of stone towers (2), which there the next type of castle to be found in England, and the way that Edward I built an English empire in subjugating Wales through the building of many castles there (3).  The author shifts to a look at the castle as an English home for upwardly mobile folks (4) as well as the way that castles were safe as houses in Scotland (5), where many people there sought a combination of defense and even more so the appearance of it.  The author then spends a great deal of time talking about the castle’s last stand in the violence of the English civil war of the 1640’s (6) before ending with an epilogue that helps the reader place the evolution of castles and their design in a larger context of politics as well as personality.

And indeed it is that combination of the two that makes castles a continuing area of study.  Someone who builds a castle has a certain desire for safety and defense but also a desire to be seen as someone worthwhile in the eyes of others.  Given the expense of building castles, many people would rather spend their money on less provocative structures, but for some people the needs of both home and fortress have always been of considerable importance, and that strikes me as being very interesting as well.  Paradoxically, castles are a sign of living in a world where one’s place is not entirely safe and secure and also by their existence often create a lack of safety and security for those who are outside of a castle and who may find themselves resisted and/or oppressed by those who are inside of it.  This sort of conundrum, which the author discusses through very real and noteworthy examples, is one that appears often in human existence, where our desires are often thwarted by the way we go about them, and where our behavior has symbolic resonance far beyond what is immediately obvious to ourselves and those around us.  Long may the castle live as both beautiful and provocative building, both safe house and base of operations for people on the rise.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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2 Responses to Book Review: Castles

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    “A man’s home is his castle.” I always thought that a man’s home is the place where he could feel safe and secure; a place where his word is law and that he reigns supreme (so to speak) as a benevolent king. This is his symbolic castle; the four walls his fortress that keeps the world at bay. Within its space is where he can dwell in peace. His queen’s duty is to make him feel that way.

    We stayed in a castle during one of our travels overseas and enjoyed the “Middle Ages” feel of the place. It was located on the Buda side of Budapest close to the Danube–quite picturesque–and was one of the most unique experiences of that particular trip.

    I like the thought that palaces will be jeweled castles and kings will dwell and rule from them. Fortresses will be a symbol of strength and power, not defense, and that power will be used to righteously judge and serve the people. That’s when a man’s home will be his castle–in the literal sense.

    • Yes, the thought that a man’s home is his castle is a surprisingly rare one. To be sure, elites have always had their castles, but few societies have considered that right as belonging to ordinary folk.

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