Definitions and Terms: The Parts of a Medieval Castle
A Medieval castle was a very complex structure and there are lots of things about them that you will recognize. But there are also parts of a medieval castle that you never heard of or maybe heard of but don't really know what they are! Here are some definitions, explanations and drawings of many of the parts of Medieval Castles.
Arrow Loops - These were slots in the walls and structures that were used to shoot arrows through. They came in a wide variety of shapes and sizes.
Ashlar - Blocks of smooth square stone. They can be of any kind of stone. It is the technique of closely joining them together. A good example of Ashlar can be seen in Bodiam castle.
Bailey: This is a courtyard or open space surrounded by walls.The walls that make up the Bailey are also considered to be part of the Bailey. A castle could have several. Sometimes they were called the upper bailey and lower bailey or the west bailey and east bailey.
Barbican: A stone structure that protected the gate of a castle. Think of it as a gatehouse. It usually had a small tower on each side of the gate where guards could stand watch.
Barmkin: A yard surrounded by a defensive wall
Bartizan: A small turret at the corner of a tower or wall. It is usually at the top but not always.
Bastion: A tower or turret projecting from a wall or at the junction of two walls
Battlements: These are the structures at the tops of the walls surrounding a castle. Picture what you have seen in the movies where archers are at the top of the wall and firing arrows between open slots down on the attackers. These shapes at the top (Where the archers position themselves for battle) are called battlements. They are also referred to as crenellations. For several centuries a license was required in order to fortify a building and make it more castle-like. This was called a crenellation license
Buttress: A masonry projection used as additional support for walls. Notre Dame Cathedral is a good examlple of the use of Buttresses.
Courtyard - The open area with the curtain walls of a castle.
Curtain Wall - The stone walls around a castle.
Drawbridge - This was a wooden bridge in front of the main gate of the castle. In the early centuries of castles it was moved horizontal to the ground and in the later centuries it was built so it could raise up in a hinged fashion.
Dungeon - A deep dark cell typically underground and underneath a castle. This is a derivative of the word Dunjon.
Donjon - this is an old word for a great tower or a keep.
Embrasure - An opening in a parapet wall.
GateHouse - A strongly built and fortified main entrance to a castle. It often has a guard house and or living quarters.
Hall or GreatHall - This is the major building inside th walls of a castle.
Hoarding: a covered wooden gallery above a tower the floor had slats or slots to allow defenders to drop object on besiegers. They could also drop liquids and projectiles.
Keep - This definition changed slightly over the centuries of castle building. In the early years of stone castle building the Keep was a standalone structure that could be defended and often square in shape. Over the centuries these structures were improved upon and built around. Thus a castle was made that was a larger and more complex structure. The main tower that this was built around was still called the Keep and it was usually the tallest and strongest structure in the castle. It was also used as the last line of defense during siege or attack.
Machicolations - The openings between the corbels of a parapet. They form areas that stick out along the top of the wall and defenders inside the castle can drop items like boiling oil and rocks onto attackers. I have pictures and more information about machicolations here: About Machicolations
Merlons - The parts of parapet walls between embrasures
Moat: A Body of water surrounding the outer wall of a castle. It was often around 5 to 15 feet deep and it was sometimes within the outer wall -between the outer wall and the inner wall. The primary purpose of the moat wasn't to stop attackers it was to stop tunnelers. Tunneling under a castle was an effective means of collapsing the walls or infiltrating it. A moat would cause any tunnel to collapse.
Motte And Bailey: This isn't part of a castle it is the predecessor to the castle. A Motte and Bailey was an early form of castle where a large mound of dirt was built up then a wooden fortification was placed on top. This wooden fortification was in the shape of a timber fence that formed a circle like a crown at the top of the mound. The Mound is the motte, and the timber fence and the space it enclosed is the Bailey.
Murder Hole: An opening in the roof of a gateway over an entrance. Used to drop projectiles or other things onto the besiegers.
Oriel Window - A window or set of windows that stick out from a building. Think of bay windows. They were made of stone or wood and often times had corbels underneath to support them. I have more, including pics here: What is an Oriel Window
Oubliette: A deep pit reached by a trap door at the top. Prisoners were kept in it.
Palisade: A defenisive fence
Portcullis - This is a metal or wood grate that was dropped vertically just inside the main gate to the castle.
Postern - A small gate at the back of a castle. Often considered to be a "Back Door".
Rampart: Picture the battlements in the previous definition. The battlements are the top sections of the outer wall of the castle. Now to access these battlements the archers would stand on a walk way that was a wall in it's own right. This walkway is built right up against the outer wall and is called the Rampart.
Shouldered Arch: This is a style of arch building with stone. The arch itself can be straight or arched an on each side is a corbel (shoulder) for support. I have more about this including a picture here: What is a shouldered Arch?
Ward - The area inside the walls of a castle. Often also called the Courtyard.
Yett: Iron gates at the entrance of a castle
Want to learn more about Castle walls? I have a video about them right here:
Interested in Learning about the Various Machines and Weapons that were used to Siege a Castle?
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An intimate guide to the inside of a castle and the lives of its residents, this Stephen Biesty classic details the workings of a medieval fortress.
The great walled castles of the medieval world continue to fascinate the modern world. Today, the remains of medieval forts and walls throughout Europe are popular tourist sites. Unlike many other books on castles, The Medieval Fortress is unique in its comprehensive treatment of these architectural wonders from a military perspective. The Medieval Fortress includes an analysis of the origins and evolution of castles and other walled defenses, a detailed description of their major components, and the reasons for their eventual decline. The authors, acclaimed fortification experts J.E. and H.W. Kaufmann, explain how the military strategies and weapons used in the Middle Ages led to many modifications of these structures. All of the representative types of castles and fortifications are discussed, from the British Isles, Ireland, France, Germany, Moorish Spain, Italy, as far east as Poland and Russia, as well as Muslim and Crusader castles in the Middle East. Over 200 photographs and 300 extraordinarily detailed technical drawings, plans, and sketches by Robert M. Jurga accompany and enrich the main text.