Main Page

Social Interactions in a castle

Life in a medieval castle bears only a superficial resemblance to modern home life, in that a castle is a place where people live, eat, drink, sleep, relax, and work. One of the biggest differences between a castle and a modern home is that a castle has enormously more people living in it. A castle is the center of a community, and its main purpose is the protection of that community. The lord and his family (or the Governor, for a royal castle like Scarborough) are the center of castle life, but without the rest of the inhabitants the lord would have little to eat, nothing to sit on, nor any way of keeping passersby from coming in and taking over.

Like Medieval society in general, castle social structure is very hierarchical; the lord is at the top, of course, but even the servants had very defined social positions. The Lord was the master; it was his job to govern and act as judge. He administered his holdings and defended his honor. The lord owed his overlord arms service (usually 50 days a year), and to this end he hired or commanded other knights and kept armsmen. The Lady ran the day-to- day life of the castle, making sure that things were cleaned properly and that everyone ate on time. She also took over many of her lord's duties when he was away (like leading the castle defenses, and overseeing the field work). The seneschal kept the records and did the bureaucratic stuff. The chaplain would see to the spiritual needs of the castle folk. Usually a small private chapel for the lord's use would be in the castle. Servants made up the bulk of the people who lived in a castle, and they did everything from cleaning latrines to grooming horses to housekeeping. Everyone but the lord's family and high- ranking guests would have slept in the great hall. The great hall was a very large room and the center of castle life. Everyone ate there, and they gathered there to do tasks by firelight or for entertainment.

Post card of castle From a drawing by Ivan Lapper of how Scarborough Castle might have looked around 1350, occupied and busy. 1

Visitors would be shown the courtesy their station demanded. Nothing would be held back if the King visited during his progression around the country. A high-ranking and powerful visitor like the King was both a blessing (for the prestige) and a curse, because the more powerful a person was, the larger their entourage. Large numbers of guests could quickly strain the food resources of a castle. Traveling minstrels and other entertainers were always welcome, for they brought songs, tales, and news from other areas.

Castles, in the later Middle Ages, were very solid buildings made of very large amounts of stone. The walls were often 12 feet thick, because they had to hold up such a vast weight. (To see pictures of the Keep.) This much stone helped keep them at a more constant temperature. But any opening door or window could not be well sealed, so castles had a tendency to be rather drafty. Doors were made of solid wood held together with pegs (both wooden and metal), then hung on wooden or leather hinges. Windows were very rarely glazed, because this was so expensive, and instead oiled parchment was used to cut down breezes. Often, though, windows were not covered except in inclement weather, when shutters were used. Any window larger than an arrow slit would only be used on upper floors or on interior walls of the castle. (To see a 3D rendering of the Keep.) Light and warmth came from fireplaces (both open pits with smoke holes and those inset into a wall with a chimney were used). (To see pictures of the Inside of the Keep.) Candles were used, either made from beeswax (for the wealthy) or from tallow (for everyone else), set in stands around the floor or in sconces on the wall. Oil lamps were used some, but the old-fashioned torch was still used often. Because of a basically agricultural culture and from the expense of fully lighting a room at night, people in the Middle Ages went to bed early and rose with the sun.

Castle denizens got some of their food from trade, especially delicacies like spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger) and wine. Most food would have been raised locally. Every peasant had to work in the lord's fields a certain number of days per month, and animals from pigs to peacocks would have been raised in and around the castle. The lord contributed to the table by hunting: his nobility determined what animals it was legal for him to hunt. Every tool and personal item possible was made by the castle inhabitants. Ladies did their share of the physical work. They made clothes for their families, from cleaning the wool to trimming the neck line. Women did many of the jobs around a castle: for instance, traditionally women brewed the ale and beer. Smiths (often also the armorer too), carpenters, butchers, cabinetmakers, cooks, cleaning maids, dairy maids, grooms, candle makers, weavers, dyers, wheelwrights, potter, and others all lived in or around a castle and plied their useful trades.

Top Main Page