Northwestern professor says that castles work for us

Threave Castle, Castle Douglas, Scotland (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress via Flickr Creative Commons)

Threave Castle, Castle Douglas, Scotland (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress via Flickr Creative Commons)

On Sept. 12, British Archaeology expert Matthew Johnson spoke at the College as part of the George H. Forsyth Jr. Memorial Lecture Series. The talk was hosted by the Departments of Art History and Classics and the South Carolina Branch of the Archaeological Institute of America. The lecture hall was full, with later-arriving attendees relegated to sitting on the floor.

Johnson’s talk, entitled “How Castles Work” seemed harmless enough. That’s where Harry Potter went to school, right? Not so simple, said Johnson. There is actually a debate among medieval scholars and archaeologists about the function of castles. Traditionally, castles were believed to be a method of defense. You build something huge and strong to keep invaders out. If you really don’t like them you set up gaps to pour scalding water and shoot out arrows. Castles then followed a very functionalist design, with the style of architecture optimal for an attack and defense lifestyle.

Recently, this view of castles has been questioned. When taking a look at the number of times castles were actually besieged, one could see that it was rare. According to Johnson, this happened “once or twice every 300 to 400 years. More castles were taken through treachery and poisoned wells. Castles are not as militarily sound as they seem.”

With this in mind, Johnson presented an alternative view of the purpose of castles, one that sees a castle as an “arena to understand performance and theatre.” When you look at a castle in this regard, it does make sense.

Johnson said that:

  • Castles are a product of work
  • Castles do work and are places of work
  • Castles are working for and with society.

But what does all that mean? Castles as a product of work is the simplest identity. Johnson said that more often than not, a castle was under construction. A castle as a form of defense has huge operating costs, even moreso than that of a medieval army. The upkeep and repair, as well as the staff needed to run a castle and estate was expensive. This also falls under the second point, that castles are places of work. Johnson said, “In literature, it always says ‘This castle was built by X’, but hundreds of other people lived there, too.”

Castles also did work; castles came with their own water mills, deer parks, and fishponds, all under the guise of providing leisure activities for the Lord and Lady. But the economic, and cultural side effects of inviting the nobles over for the hunt paid off in more than having fresh meat for dinner. Castles worked for and with society in this way. Comparatively speaking, what other structures were utilized as much as castles were in medieval times? Perhaps only the church.

Here in the States, we have very little reference to this type of structure. But a multifaceted microcosm with diverse intellectual and economic interests, uniting under one impressive name? Now that’s something that anyone who has ever been to a college campus can comprehend.

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Leah is a managing editor of CisternYard News. She is a senior, majoring in Communication.


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