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8-08-2015, 16:06

THE CASTLE AS HEADQUARTERS: THE POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC ROLE OF THE CASTLE

Castles were more than military posts; they were the centers of political and economic power. As government headquarters they were built to impress the local population as well as visitors and rivals. While power was spread among great tenants-in-chief in a system of delegated government, castles in each territory were places where local lords collected taxes, settled disputes, and administered justice. As the thirteenth century progressed, local lords lost some of their political power to kings and their ministers. A growing bureaucracy to serve these emerging states required more and different spaces; administrators needed more halls than towers. Consequently, castles remained the headquarters buildings in their districts but internal arrangements changed. Greater vassals who assisted at court had to be housed in a style appropriate to their rank; consequently, a castle had to be able to accommodate these aristocrats and their retinues. At each level of society from the king to the peers of the realm to the lesser nobility, each family had its household and retainers. The size and magnificence of a lord’s retinue, decked out in colorful livery, reinforced his importance and authority. In fact, when the lord was in residence and holding court, the castle might have more inhabitants than the surrounding villages. Castles continued to be the focus of economic activity as the center of an agricultural domain. Wealth continued to be measured in land and its produce. The only access the lord had to his wealth was to move from one estate to another consuming products from the harvests. Housing and feeding a household including retainers and servants required vasts amount of food and space for food preparation. For most of the year a castle had only a skeleton staff, the castellan, his family, civil servants, and a few permanent guards. The arrival of the lord meant a massive influx of people and turned a sleepy community into a hub of activity. A sharp contrast existed between the upper classes who constantly moved from manor to manor and the peasants who were tied to the land and lived in agricultural villages outside the castle walls. Yet economic opportunities expanded for both groups. Both the nobility who wanted more profits and the peasants who wanted more land cut down the forests, drained the swamps, and turned them into productive land. As labor and produce were converted to money, nobles became landlords and moved into the emerging cities, leaving a constable in charge of the castle and tenants on the land. Farmers produced enough food to support cities as well as villages; however, large cities remained vulnerable to famine caused by wars and poor harvests. The Black Death in the fourteenth century reduced the population and gave workers the upper hand. By the end of the Middle Ages economic power had shifted to the cities, and rich peasants had bought their land. These people formed a new prosperous class; however, life still had many risks, and changes in status could move up or down from generation to generation (Documents 57–60).

 

 

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