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8-08-2015, 15:08

The Castle as Symbol: From Fortress to Palace

The first European castles were massive single towers surrounded by walls. These towers contained one or two rooms on each floor and included a basement storage area, a great hall, living rooms, and a chapel. The great hall, a single large common room, provided space where everyone lived and ate and slept. At one end on a raised platform was the lord’s chair and table. Others sat and ate at portable trestle tables and benches perpendicular to the high table. These simple arrangements formed the basis of later developments, and continue today in our own tradition of a “head table” at a banquet. Window embrasures in the thick walls offered small semiprivate spaces. The service areas were located in a courtyard called the bailey. Eventually more private chambers were added and then whole suites of rooms. Castles had always provided hospitality, but by the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries they required stables for horses, suites of rooms for guests and travelers, and apartments for retainers who expected to be housed when they were called on to serve the lord. These apartments became small versions of the lord’s chambers. Castles also had to house men-atarms and servants (who formed their own hierarchies). In short, the arrangements within the castle walls became increasingly complex and “stratified,” reflecting the society at large. Chapter 4 looks more closely at how social and symbolic needs took precedence in the late Middle Ages. The great hall, the center of daily life in earlier periods, remained the ceremonial center of the castle. There the lord received guests or supplicants and there he administered justice, gave orders, and offered hospitality. The architecture provided a setting for all this activity. To continue and even enhance the effectiveness of the lord’s position, the design of portals, passages, and waiting rooms carefully controlled access to him. With the decline of the military necessities, more attention could be placed on residential chambers with amenities such as lighter walls, more windows and fireplaces, private rooms, and pleasure gardens. The buildings that once filled the castle yard joined to become either a single courtyard house built around an open yard or a tower house in which rooms were stacked one above another. By the fifteenth century the courtyard house had become the norm for the great dwelling, although the tower house continued in places like Scotland and Ireland. In sophisticated centers, the great military tower was eliminated altogether, except as a ceremonial feature or as a reference to past glories, as seen at Kenilworth (see Figures 10, 27, and 28). By the fifteenth century, the castle had taken on a symbolic role as a statement of power and status far beyond its military usefulness. As central authority became more important, the government and military role of the castle declined, but the symbolic role increased. The castle’s towers and high walls became a visual symbol of the owner’s position. The castle, always a setting for the rituals of life, became a stage on which the kings and nobles played their roles with increasing theatricality. Castle architecture always balanced the need for security against the requirements of daily life, the desire for grandeur and ceremonial moments against comfort and convenience. The castle changed from a residential fortress to a fortified palace and finally to a palace whose fortifications were only decorative and symbolic. Castles became show places, spectacles themselves—as, for example, many of the castles in the Loire Valley in France and the halls of Elizabethan England. In the modern world castles gave way to garrison fortresses like Fort McHenry in Baltimore or to command centers like the Pentagon in Washington. Today fantasy castles are still seen in films and amusement parks.