Medieval Castles were structures that changed dramatically over the centuries of the Middle Ages. These changes were brought about by many factors like changes in warfare and the influences of different cultures. Here is a brief history of how the Medieval Castle developed over the five hundred years of the Middle Ages.
Around the tenth century the first castle-like structures were being built as defensive positions. These defensive structures were called Motte and Bailey and they were large mounds of dirt that were capped by wooden stockade fences and buildings. Hundreds of these structures were built during the century and they were very practical because they were made from local and easy to get materials. They didn’t require the massive resources that later stone castles would require.
During the eleventh century many changes were sweeping through Europe and among these changes was an engineering revolution that enabled architectural building with stone. But this engineering growth alone was not enough for the building of large fortresses because that required a substantial commitment of time, resources and money. But there was also a social change sweeping through Europe. Lords and Kings were consolidating large kingdoms and gaining the wealth that made the building of large stone castles possible. In order to protect their lands or to gain a hold in adjoining lands lords and kings built stone fortresses. These stone fortresses were very similar to the Motte and Bailey structures of the previous century and they were often called “shell-keeps”.
It was during the twelfth century that the massive stone keeps we normally consider to be medieval castles took shape. As crusaders returned to Europe they brought with them the engineering and design knowledge they learned from the Greek and the Turkish. Both of these cultures were very proficient with stonework and this new knowledge of architectural building enabled the building of large and elaborate stone fortresses throughout Europe.
Castle building reached a feverish climax during the thirteenth century with over five hundred massive and very intricate castles being built throughout Europe. These castles were the masterpieces that we now think of as medieval castles and they had many design and engineering elaborations such as round towers. Up until this century the towers in castles were square but the square shape was vulnerable to battering rams and had blind zones. Round towers were stronger, less vulnerable, and had no blind spots.
It was during the fourteenth century that the building of castles went into decline and then its eventual demise. Further developments in technology, and in particular the development of gunpowder and artillery brought about the demise by making it impractical and futile to spend ten years or more to build a castle that could be totally destroyed by a few days of artillery fire. But the castle didn’t disappear. It evolved into less of a security structure and more of a living quarters for royalty and wealthy families or what we now think of as a Palace.
The medieval castle was an art and engineering form that evolved dramatically over a period of about five hundred years and reflected changes in warfare, culture, engineering and society.