Castle is a word that brings to mind images of stout battlements, drawbridges over slime-filled moats and dank dungeons. But for one thousand years of European history, castles were more than a source of colorful imagery; they were a critical bastion of security for the inhabitants of a chaotic, dangerous world.

Castles are some of the most interesting, evocative settings for fantasy stories and can be used in innumerable ways. Indeed, unique, well-described castles are virtually characters themselves.  Thus, it is important for fantasy writers to understand what constitutes a castle, why castles have the parts they do and how these elements function as part of the whole.  In short, to write about such structures intelligently, writers need to have a working knowledge of the anatomy of a castle.  Writers should also understand the differences between castles and other sorts of defense works, such as fortresses or walled cities.

Castles will not be part of all fantasy milieux, but some sort of fortifications will be a part of most of them. For example, in an empire with strong borders and safe and secure internal areas, there will be no need for functional castles but there may be border fortifications, possibly including large barracks to house soldiery, watchtowers or long curtain walls (like Hadrian’s Wall in Scotland or the Great Wall in China).

Except as noted, the emphasis of the following information is upon the castles of Europe and the Middle East during the period A.D. 500 to 1500. However, much of it can be applied to fortifications in general, and notable facts about other sorts of fortifications are also mentioned.  Information in this chapter is divided into three sections: the defensive components of a castle, castle life and sieges.  Attached to each section is a detailed listing of important terms, some of which are technical or even a bit esoteric.  These glossaries are intended not just to define useful terms, but also to provide writers with terms they can use to convincingly include castles, their inhabitants and sieges in their stories.


Castles were fortified dwellings deliberately built for the security of a local lord and his or her followers in areas subject to little or no central political control. The primary purpose of true castles is defense, and any other uses are incidental or auxiliary.

Symptomatic of anarchic, fragmented societies, castles were not built casually or for their aesthetic value and were rarely constructed inside strong national states. Rather, they were built for protection against raiders, foreign invaders or aggressive neighbors.  From modest fortifications that sheltered a dozen warriors and their dependents, castles evolved through the Middle Ages into complex, durable citadels that housed hundreds.  Some of the most well-situated, well-constructed and well-stocked castles never succumbed to their enemies, whether by assault or siege.

From at least 200 B.C., and perhaps much earlier, until the first century A.D., fortified cities were the major sort of defense in use. In the ancient world, city-states like those of Greece and republics like Rome fortified their urban areas, guarding their walls with citizen armies.  Such states also built fortresses – fortified military bases – to guard mountain passes, rivers and other strategic sites, and manned them with professional soldiers, usually far from home.  Examples include the Great Wall of China and the Limes in Germany.

During the Dark Ages and early Middle Ages, urban centers persisted as little more than fortified communities. Such towns, along with fortified dwellings, cannibalized Roman forts and other structures, were not true castles.  Many fortified cities from the Middle Ages exist to this day, and some have even had their defenses restructured.  These include Nuremburg and Rothenburg in Germany, Avignon and Carcassonne in France and York in England.

True castles were built in Europe starting in the ninth century. Castle evolution coincided with the rise of feudalism, a hierarchical social system described in chapter one.  Castles were usually built or controlled by the ruler of an area and used to defend its frontiers from invasion.  Such castles would be given to leaders who had sworn fealty to the noble.

The lord of a castle usually had military control over the area immediately around the castle and maybe within a few hour’s travel from it. He lived in the castle with his family, his soldiers and their families, and a variety of craftsmen, servants and serfs.  Frequently, the latter did not actually live in the castle but on its lands and near enough that they could quickly repair it in times of crisis.

Castles were the rocks upon which the tiny states of feudal lords existed, and a suitably built, stocked and manned castle could allow a lord to wield great power within his realm and possible political importance outside of it. Historically, lords were able to tax people passing through their realms; imprison their enemies or shelter other people’s; practice heretical, anachronistic or illegal religions; and engage in mass murder or torture of undesirable inhabitants (as did Vlad Tepes, the inspiration for Dracula, and a disturbing number of other nobles in the Carpathian Mountains and surrounding region).  These activities, whether sanctioned by a greater outside power or not, were possible in large part because of the security afforded by a strong castle.

In their simplest forms, castles were little more than fortified towers, or keeps.  The Norman motte-and-bailey castles of the eleventh century,  built by the vassals of William the Conqueror in England after he defeated the Saxons at Hastings in 1066, are among the simplest of all and constructed of an earthen hillock (motte) surmounted by a stone or wooden tower at one end of a palisaded yard (bailey).  The knight commanding the castle lived in the tower, and his household and serfs dwelt in buildings in the bailey.

Some of the largest and most complex castles have at their heart massive keeps, often centuries older than the rest of the castle. Such a keep might have originally been the entire fortification, and then been augmented throughout the ages as conditions required and resources allowed.  One or several concentric curtain walls might surround the keep, surmounted by battlements and reinforced with large towers at their corners and smaller ones in between.

Effective castles made the most of local geography, such as rivers, coasts and heights, using man-made defenses to augment natural barriers. Indeed, building upon high ground is one of the most fundamental canons of castle architecture, making a staunch ally of gravity.  Being situated upon a hill allowed a castle’s approaches to be protected by several or even a dozen successive gates, or interlocked smaller forts, called wards.  Defenses on heights also forced enemy soldiers to charge uphill laden with weapons and armor, to fire their missile weapons further upward, and to have critical walls and structures situated out of reach of their siege engines.  Likewise, high above their opponents, defenders could see attackers from afar and dump rocks, hot oil and other weapons onto their assailants.  Good castles also needed a reliable source of potable water, as thirsty defenders could quickly be brought to heel.  Thus, the presence of deep wells or unhampered access to rivers or, in their absence, constructions like cisterns were common.

Castles were often built by invaders to dominate and control a conquered country. (Nicollo Machiavelli discusses these uses of castles in Art of War and The Prince.  Both of these books are must reading for anyone interested in warfare and politics during the Renaissance.)  One of the best examples of this are the hundreds of castles built by William the Conqueror to control England after his victory at Hastings.  Most of these were hastily built, economical motte-and-bailey castles, but they also built huge, square-towered affairs that came to represent a school of castle architecture.  Indeed, the lack of Saxon defensive castles is one of the reasons William so quickly conquered England.  It is completely inaccurate in Robin Hood and similar movies when the Saxons gaze upon Norman castles and claim that these massive stone structures were seized from their grandfathers.  Most of their grandfathers would have actually lived in wattle-and-daub lodges.

Castles could not be safely ignored by an invading army. If ignored and left in the rear of even a strong army, mounted riding parties could harass the invading force, cutting its supply lines or burning its camps.  If the castles were attacked, months might be lost trying to take them, adding them and expense to a campaign and even stalling it altogether.  And if an army was not strong enough, it might not even have been able to successfully capture or besiege a castle, especially if a relief force arrived from an allied castle.  Thus, castles had both deterrent and defensive functions.

Fortification construction was a critical art and science, and often represented a major portion of a state’s budget. Construction of a simple fortification, like motte-and-bailey castles, could be accomplished in a matter of weeks.  More complex structures, like the walls of towns and cities, took years or even decades to complete, and might be refined and improved upon over the centuries.  Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth is a historical novel that traces the building of a medieval English cathedral over a period of decades, a story concept that could readily be applied to the construction of a major castle.

In fact, many castles evolved over a period of centuries. A good example of this is one of the most impressive castles ever built, the Krak des Chevaliers in Syria, which began in the eleventh century as a small Arab fortress.  Acquired by the Crusader knights of St. John in 1142, it was enlarged into a rectangular castle.  In the thirteenth century, a curtain wall was added, turning it into the massive concentric fortress that remains today.

Castle architecture evolved over the centuries, and the needs of the various ages can often be seen today in castles that were built over hundreds of years. For every sort of defensive construction, some siege weapon or technique was devised to overcome it.  And for every siege technique, some countermeasure was developed to neutralize or lessen its effect.  For example, some castles built in the twelfth and later centuries made use of shorter, thicker walls, sometimes reinforced with stone plinths at the bases of their towers, in order to better resist the latest form of siege weapon, the trebuchet.

The thirteenth century – a period of warfare, especially in the Middle East and southern and eastern Europe – represented a period of advancement in castle architecture. Developments included cross-shaped arrow slits; wooden shutters to provide greater protection for soldiers standing between merlons; and increased construction of round, rather than square, towers.  On the other hand, while castle architecture did not develop much military in the fourteenth century, effort was put into making living areas more comfortable for the nobility.  During this period, the nobility often lived in manors or buildings that looked like castles but were not militarily functional.

In areas where stability increased and national boundaries began to develop, castles became less important. In less secure areas, however, especially border regions, castles remained crucial.  In Scotland, for example, where highland brigands posed a threat, fortified tower houses, with their characteristic L- or Z-shaped floor plans, were typical of the sixteenth century.

Castle Construction

While most surviving castles are of stone, castles were, however, built with whatever was expedient. Some materials do not lend themselves to lasting hundreds of years, which is why castles made from them no longer exist.  Examples of these range from simple motte-and-bailey castles to massive, complex timber fortresses built by the Russians and Vikings.  In the former case, however, earthworks still exist and can be explored.  This is also the case with the much earlier Bronze and Iron Age earthworks.

Castles might have been made of timber where no other materials were available in sufficient quantity. Timber was also cheaper and easier to work with, allowing for much quicker construction (perhaps half as long, all other factors being the same).  The main disadvantages, however, included wood’s vulnerability to fire and the fact that it would eventually rot.  In other areas, stone was simply not available and other materials had to be used.  For example, in the Low Countries (Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg), brick was often used as a medium of construction.

Similarly, high ground was not always available and other measures had to be restored to. When it was not possible to build on hills and ridges, other sorts of terrain could be exploited.  In the Low Countries, castles often had large, wet moats, or were built in the midst of coastal marshes, their brick foundations rising directly from the muddy waters.  Such fortifications were called wasserburgs.

Windows were never built at ground level, as this would have provided vulnerable entry points. Windows above ground level were often barred or shuttered, and shutters were sometimes provided with arrow slits or loopholes.

Square towers were the easiest to build and, with many notable exceptions, predominated until about the fourteenth century. However, the introduction of gunpowder artillery had the most profound effect on the development of fortifications, and quickly rendered useless many that powerful redoubts for centuries.  Round towers, as a function of their shape, were able to absorb more damage from artillery fire, and also deflected projectiles more effectively than a flat surface.  As gundpowder artillery came into use and spread (from their first likely use in Europe in 1326), so did the need for thicker, stronger and more curved defenses.  Eventually, gundpowder siege weapons became too powerful for traditional defenses to withstand, and castle architecture became decorative rather than functional.  After this, defenses were designed to absorb rather than deflect it, with a return to earthworks (or walls with an earthen core sheathed in stone) and walls that became lower and thicker.  This sort of architecture was exemplified by the work of the seventeenth-century French military architect Marquis de Vauban, whose legacy can be seen in polygonal, star-shaped forts built through the ninteenth century.

Castle architecture evolved throughout the world in response to the changing modes of warfare.  Europe is by no means the only home to great castles, it is just one of the most familiar to us.  In India, military engineers built castles that used a system of concentric walls with the outermost wall the lowest and each successive inner one taller – exactly the opposite of the trend of European fortifications.

Japanese castle architecture is noteworthy and interesting, and was the product of a science all its own. The most incredible examples represent a synthesis of artistic sensibility and functionalism that is not seen anywhere else in the world; castles are usually utilitarian or beautiful, but those of Japan tend to be both, making use of complex systems of curtain walls and moats.  A good example is the Himeji Castle near Kobe.  Because effective gunpowder weapons were introduced later in Japan than in Europe, castles were effective well into the seventeenth century.

In fantasy milieu like that of medieval Europe, most castles will be of small or medium size and controlled by minor nobility, like barons. However, in this setting, and certainly in a less traditional fantasy setting, castles might be the strongholds of many other sorts of inhabitants.  These could include martial orders of priests in a fortified temple; a company of skeletal mercenaries led by an undead lord in a ruinous castle deep in a tangled wood; or a castle guarding a trading center that is maintained and manned at the expense of a major mercantile guild.  Each castle that a writer describes or his characters visits can be made into a unique, memorable, significant subject.

Writers should consider factors like technology or magic when determining the properties of castles and other fortifications in their worlds. If cannons or other very powerful weapons are available, then high, square-towered castles will be an anachronism, and lower, earthen fortifications may be the norm.  Similarly, if wizards or other spell-casters who can easily reduce or bypass the sturdiest walls are common, then traditional castles will be rather moot.  There is no sense spending time and resources to build something that is really of no use.  Other aspects of castle architecture might be affected by the presence of magic, even subtly.  For example, illusory magics might be used to call up rainstorms, to provide water for the besieged and mudslides for attackers camped in areas denuded of trees used for building siege engines.

Well-conceived, strategically placed castles can serve as ideal centers of action in a great many fantasy stories, and can be used to say much about those who dwell in them. Writers can include frontier forts of wooden towers and timber palisades manned by fur-clad hillmen; massive curtain walls of cut-and-fitted stone surrounding mercantile cities, their walls lined with the volunteer men and women of a republican state; or ancient citadels perched on mountainous peaks, the redoubts of xenophobic warlords and their minions.

To the peoples of medieval Europe, castles were homes, fortifications and bastions of security in a chaotic world.  They remained so for a full millennium until, beginning around the fifteenth century, gunpowder artillery made castles inviable and the rise of national states and their armies made castles unnecessary.

Castle Terms

Where multiple terms exist for a given structure, the term closest to English is given with other terms provided parenthetically.

arrow slit: A narrow opening in a wall or merlon through which bows or crossbows could be fired.  The inside surfaces were often angled, both to reduce the size of the hole from the point of view of an attacker and to allow a defending soldier to direct his fire in an arc (of up to about 60 degrees).  Arrow slits were often crosslettered (in the form of a cross) to more easily accommodate crossbows.

barbican: A stone building buttressed with towers almost always used as a gatehouse but sometimes as simply an outwork, and equipped with a drawbridge if situated on a moat.

bartizan: A small, round tower mounted on a wall or larger tower, and typically pierced with arrow slits or murder holes, or could even be a garderobe (latrine).

bastion: A structure bulging out from a curtain wall, looking a bit like a tower the same height as the rest of the wall. Its primary function was to allow flanking fire along the face of a wall.

battlement: The fighting area at the top of a wall, generally consisting of an area for soldiers to stand (either upon the top of a thick wall or on a catwalk), a parapet to protect soldiers up to torso level, and alternating embrasures and merlons.

buttress: A pillar of stone mounted against a wall of tower to reinforce it. Flying buttresses, characteristic of cathedral architecture, are attached to the building with a stone bridge rather than being up against it.

catwalk: A wooden platform that was mounted on a walk otherwise too narrow to fight upon, and used as a fighting surface, often in conjunction with permanent stone battlements, or as part of hoardings.

crenellations: Rows of alternating merlons and embrasures upon a battlement.

curtain wall: A straight section of defensive wall, generally at least twenty feet tall and five feet thick. Walls were usually somewhat thicker at their bases than their tops.  For simplicity, writers can assume that a wall’s base will be about 10 percent thicker than its top for every ten feet of height.  Thus, a wall thirty feet tall and ten feet thick near the top will be 30 percent thicker, or thirteen feet wide, at its base.  Tall walls were also reinforced with plinths and buttresses.

drawbridge: A gate that could be lowered or raised (rather than opened or closed like a door) using chains in conjunction with winches and counterweights. Contrary to popular conceptions about castles, only those with moats were likely to be equipped with a drawbridge.  Timber planks at least a half-foot thick were needed for a drawbridge, which must be strong enough to support armored horsemen.

earthworks: A basic form of fortification, consisting of a ditch with compacted sides surmounted on one side by a rampant, built from the excavated earth. If means allowed, the ramparts were often equipped with a timber palisade.  Simple castles might consist of nothing more than earthworks (e.g., a motte and bailey was made up of earthworks, augmented by a hillock and wooden or stone tower); during the Dark Ages, most fortifications would have been of this sort.

embrasure: The open space in a battlement between a pair of merlons. From about the thirteenth century, these were often reinforced with a set of shutters, often a single piece that could be angled to protect a man from frontal attack but allow him to fire downward.

gatehouse: The gate is perhaps the most vulnerable spot on a castle, and a strong structure was needed to keep it from becoming an Achilles’ heel. A typical gatehouse consisted of a large square tower some two or three levels tall, often flanked with a pair of taller towers.  Anyone entering the castle this way had to enter the gatehouse via the outer gate, pass through it and then enter the castle through an inner gate.  During an attack, anyone within the gate would likely have been subject to attack through murder holes in the ceiling.

Gatehouse roofs could be equipped with battlements and armed with catapults, ballistae, cauldrons and braziers, or they could be manned by archers or arbalestiers. Typically, the outer gateway would be set with an iron-reinforced single or double door and/or drawbridge, the inner gate with a reinforced door, and either with a portcullis.

hoardings: A superstructure mounted on and projecting in front of a curtain wall, consisting of a sturdy wooden catwalk, a wooden wall set with embrasures or arrow slits, a peaked roof connected to the battlements, and murder holes in the floor to allow attacks against opponents at the base of the wall.

keep: A tall, heavily fortified structure that is the defensive heart of a castle. The keep typically served as the residence of the castle’s lord, and the site of an assaulted castle’s final defense.  Early castles might have consisted entirely of a keep.  Many of those of the late Middle Ages did away with the keep altogether, and concentrated on the strength of other defensive structures, such as curtain walls, towers and gatehouses. (French donjon; German bergried)

loophole: A hole in a wall designed for shooting a firearm through.

machiolations: A construction that projected the floor of the battlements over the front of a wall, and was often set with murder holes to allow attacks against enemies against the wall below; essentially like permanent stone hoardings.

merlon: The raised section of a battlement, set on a parapet and flanking embrasures, usually three or four feet wide and four feet tall; thus a four-foot-fall merlon set upon a three-foot-high parapet would create a seven-foot-high obstacle upon the rampart. Merlons may have arrow slits.

moat: A ditch surrounding a fortified area, which could have been either dry or wet (full of water). Wet moats could have been stone-lined channels full of rainwater, or connected with a stream or river; indeed, such a body of water could even border one or more sides of a castle.

motte and bailey: A style of castle typical of eleventh-century Europe. Most of these were simple fortifications consisting of a tower built on top of a motte (hillock), which dominated a palisaded bailey (yard) containing the domestic buildings of the lord’s household.  Such castles were typically built entirely of earth and timber.

murder hole: A hole, trapdoor or slit in a floor that allows attacks against a passageway or area below, often located in the gatehouse of a castle. (French meutrieres)

outwork: A fortified structure that projected from or was completely outside of the walls of a castle, for example, a gatehouse on the far side of a moat that served as a first line of defense.

palisade: A wall made of wooden stakes or timber beams, and often used in conjunction with some other sort of defense, such as earthworks. Palisades could comprise the primary curtain walls of simple castles, be used for temporary field fortifications, or be raised to block breaches in stone walls.

parapet: A low wall, usually about three feet tall, built upon a rampart to provide cover for soldiers. Cover provided by parapets was augmented by merlons.

pilaster: A pillarlike construction used to reinforce walls.

plinth: Also called batters or splays, these were sloping supports that strengthened the bases of walls or towers and hindered attacks against them.

portcullis: A grill of metal or reinforced timber that could be lowered into a gateway and lifted by means of a winch and counterweights.

sally port: A small, heavily defended gate that could be used to launch surprise attacks against a besieging enemy. Such gates could also be used, if necessary or possible, as routes of escape or passages for secret messengers or emissaries.


Even as the physical parts of a castle had certain characteristics, so did the homes and work areas of the people who lived within it and in its environs. The common people – peasants – lived predominately in agricultural villages.  Most of the peasants were serfs, the lowest level in the feudal system.  they were tied to the land where they were born and which they worked, their rights and responsibilities determined by custom and the lord of the region.  Most peasants lived in modest dwellings: wood-framed, thatched-roofed and walled with wattle and daub (lattice walls covered with a muddy mortar) with one or two common rooms, which were also shared with livestock.  For security reasons, their hamlets were almost always within a short distance of the castle or fortified town, so that they would have a place to take refuge in time of danger.

The lord of the castle had broad powers over the area he controlled. These included taxing the local populace a portion of the food they produced; calling upon them to provide labor or other services; rights to all wood and timber on the surrounding lands; and hunting rights to all game.  (Robin Hood is traditionally considered to have been outlawed because he poached a local lord’s deer.)

Lords did not always treat their serfs well, but they needed them since they were the economic base upon which the castle existed. Thus, the lord offered them protection and allocated various resources to them such as wood for construction and fuel.  Hunting, on the other hand, was a jealously guarded privilege that was rarely relinquished by the nobility.

Within the castle, space tended to be limited and was utilized to its fullest extent, integrating defense and daily life. Attics of towers were used as rookeries for pigeons, which were raised for food.  The lower levels of towers, when they were not solid bulwarks of stone, were used for storage areas, wellhouses and dungeons.  Small courtyards were used for herb and vegetable gardens, while larger courtyards were used for stables, the huts of castle staff and workshops of craftsmen like blacksmiths.

In small, early castles, the great hall was used not just for communal meals, but as a common area where most of the inhabitants of the castle slept at night and where much of the work and social activity took place during the day.  (This descends from the Germanic/Viking tradition of using great timber lodges in the same way.)  In larger castles, living and work areas became as specialized as space allowed and the needs of the inhabitants required.  The lord and his family had their own apartments.  Soldiery were housed either in barracks or in small groups within furnished tower rooms.  Servitors like cooks, gardeners and craftsmen lived in huts along the inside walls of the castle.

The role of women in the life of a castle should not be dismissed. Historically, when a lord and his men were away at war or on hunting expeditions, or if they were killed, a lady was often responsible for ensuring that business continued as usual.  Many ladies were necessarily excellent administrators and could run a castle as well as their husbands could, even to the extent of defending it in time of siege.  And sometimes, when the regional social order allowed it or was not strong enough to oppose it, women might rule in their own right following the death of a husband or father (and in fantasy milieux, of course, this can become even more likely.)

Castle walls were thick, but, being built for defense rather than comfort, they were of uninsulated stone. Thus, castles tended to be chilly, damp, drafty and musty.  Their subterranean areas would be even danker, the walls encrusted with feathery white niter.  Because of these conditions, tapestries were hung on walls, cutting down on drafts and providing a form of insulation.

Furniture tended to be sturdy and made of wood. Benches were used at all levels of society throughout the Middle Ages, as were stools.  Actual chairs were much less common and were used by lords, judges or merchants, but not necessarily by anyone else around them.  Castles did not have closets, to various sorts of chests and wardrobes were used to store clothing and other possessions.  Beds tended to be short, not because people were that much smaller, but because many well-born people slept sitting upright.  This was the result of a diet consisting almost exclusively of meat which led to all sorts of digestive problems that caused less discomfort when sitting up than when lying prone.

Castles built in settings unlike the European Middle Ages may have characteristics different than those described above, and when writers are designing and describing their castles, they must take into consideration the individual cultures of the inhabitants of each castle. In a fantasy world, such considerations might extend to other races or species as well.  For example, Muslim emirs would have areas dedicated to their seraglio, or harem; most medieval Indian rajas would have some sort of torture chamber; Christian lords would certainly have a chapel or maybe even a cloister for monks (indeed, a templar castle is essentially a combination of cloister/barracks for religious soldiers); and stables would be of great importance in many traditions, for the horses of mounted European warriors or the elephants of Indian ones.  The needs of nonhuman peoples might be even more specialized or elaborate.

Castle Life Terms

The following list describes some of the people that lived in the castles and the various rooms, sections or areas within a castle that might be relevant to a story. Writers should be able to envision how such areas might be modified for use in a fantasy environment.  For example, in some worlds, an aviary might take up all of the largest tower in a castle and be home to the giant raptors ridden by the castles’ knights.

armory: A room where arms and armor were stored, usually guarded by a stout, iron-bound door to which the castellan and perhaps one or two other people would have access.

aviary: A chamber, often in a tower, where the birds of prey used for hunting were kept, usually under the supervision of a falconer, a commoner trained in handling such creatures.

barracks: Areas full of bunks or pallets that served as living quarters for the men-at-arms dwelling there. Higher-ranking soldiers like sergeants might have shared a tower room together, and single knights might have had their own rooms.

castellan: An officer in charge of all the affairs of a castle who answered directly to the lord. Duties of a castellan included keeping the castle in good repair and ensuring it was well stocked for any eventuality.  In some cases, able castellans served as guardians for lords who had been orphaned but had not yet reached their majority.  (French chatellan)

chapel: Ana rea within the castle dedicated for worship. The word “shrine” might more properly apply to the small temples of non-Christian religions.

cisterns: Large containers used for holing water, especially in areas where a well could not provide enough water for all of the needs of a castle or where a water supply could be denied in time of siege. Such containers could be several stories deep and were typically cut out of solid rock; similarly, small, natural caverns could also form the basis for cisterns.  Historically, many besieged areas were able to hold out against attackers because of water stored in this fashion.  Likewise, defenders of otherwise virtually impregnable fortifications sometimes had to surrender when overcome by thirst.

crypt: A room that was often built beneath the chapel, the crypt could contain the remains of the former lords of the castle and their families.  An excellent place for morbid trysts, secret meetings or forbidden rituals.

dungeon: An area used for imprisonment and torture. Such areas were common in the castles of most cultures.  (French oubliette)

garderobe: Situated on an outside wall or in a small overhanging tower, this area was a latrine with a hole that overlooked an area outside the castle onto which defecation could drop.

great ball: The central social area of a castle, a great hall usually had one or more long banquet tables, and walls lined with weapons, banners and other trophies won in tournaments and battles. It was in this area that communal meals were eaten, guests entertained and strategy discussed with a lord’s vassals.  The great hall could have been the central area of the keep, or a less military building in the main courtyard of the castle.  It was frequently the sleeping area for many of the castle’s inhabitants.

harem: An area set aside by non-Christian, particularly Muslim lords, to house their wives or concubines. Such areas were often guarded by eunuchs (castrated men) or female warriors.

kennel: An area used for housing the dogs of a castle. In some castles, dogs were simply allowed to roam freely and allowed to feed on the refuse in eating areas.  Dogs often had important roles in castles, with hounds being used in hunting, and mastiffs used as guards or in war.

kitchen: In small or simple castles, food for the lord and his retainers could be cooked in the hearth of the great hall itself. Larger castles, particularly those set up to cater to nobility, would have separate, more elaborate areas.

library: In regions where literacy was not the norm, castle libraries were not common or extensive, or could have represented the legacy of former inhabitants. In the castle of a cultured lord or an order of monks, however, not to mention a wizard, sage or alchemist in a fantasy milieu, a library would be of prime importance.

smithy: Blacksmiths, or farriers, worked iron into implements like horseshoes, nails and tools, that did not fashion weapons or armor. A smithy would likely face onto the courtyard of a castle.

stable: An area for housing horses and storing the equipment used with them. The stables of large castles in cultures where horses or other mounts were important often had special officers in charge of them.  Ideally, stables were not underneath or too near to living areas.

storage: Cool, dry areas were needed to store all the supplies necessary for running a castle and sustaining it through long winters and sieges. Basements beneath the keep and the lower level of towers were the primary storage areas.

wells: Wells were often dug deep into the basement of a castle’s keep or within another large tower.

workshops: Areas used to produce goods necessary for a castle that might not otherwise be available. Castles and their attached villages were often isolated from other communities and had to be self-sufficient.  Thus, coarse cloth, furniture, barrels and other goods would manufactured in the castle or adjacent village, often in the homes of skilled peasants.


Sieges can make for exciting reading, even though historically they tended to be dreary, protracted affairs, punctuated by episodes of violence, and culminating in either withdrawal or a bloody assult.

Literally, the word “siege” comes from French and means “to wait,” and most sieges were lengthy, tedious battles of attrition, often as ruinous to the besiegers as to the besieged. This section describes both the process of siege and other methods used to capture castles and fortified areas.

Castles were generally taken either by assault or by siege. A quick assault and overrun of a castle was most desirable, especially if this could be achieved by surprise.  A successful siege, on the other hand, could take weeks, months, even years, and stood to decimate even the besiegers through disease, attrition, attack from relieving forces, or surprise attacks from the castle called sallies, which were made through small gates called sally ports.

The actual means of capturing fortified positions changed little from the earliest sieges right up through the fifteenth century, with the exception that siege weapons gradually became more powerful and destructive. This power culminated in the development of gunpowder weapons, which led to the decline of traditional fortifications.

Sieges were actually conducted very early in humanhistory. Jericho, founded some eight thousand years ago and perhaps the oldest city in the world, fell to siege many times in its history, several times even before Joshua marched around its walls and brought them crashing down.  The first protracted, complex sieges date from at least 1500 B.C., when the Assyrians were attacking neighboring Mesopotamian city-states, and when Aryan steppe dwellers were sweeping into northern India and overrunning the mud-brick citadels of the Harrappans.

Some peoples had a knack for poliorcetics, as the science of siege was known, and others did not.  For example, the Romans excelled at siege and were able to take positions considered impregnable, like Herod’s palace-fortress at Masada in what is now Israel, overlooking the Dead Sea (at considerable cost and time, nonetheless).  Even peoples who were proficient at siege often had to pay a heavy price for their success.

Traditionally, defenders of a besieged castle were allowed to surrender unconditionally. If they did not surrender and their stronghold was subsequently taken, they were usually subjected unhesitatingly to slaughter, rape and enslavement.

The familiar assault upont he walls resulting in the taking of the castle was usually the culminationof months or even years of preparation and activity. Such assaults were costly in terms of men and equipment, and less glamorous but more effective techniques of conquest were tried first.

The first step in a siege was to surround and completely cut off the castle, preventing the besieged from escaping or from being relieved by outside forces. Thus, the besiegers themselves were often in a precarious position with opponents to their fronts and backs.  There is no more famous example of this phenomenon than Julius Caesar’s first century B.C. siege of the Gallic fortified town of Alesia in France.  Just as Caesar was compelled to do, besiegers often built earthworks to protect themselves from missile fire or attacks from the castle or their flanks.

Attackers usually had considerably more men at their disposal thant he besieged. Otherwise, the besieged would not likely subject themselves to the perils of being holed up in their strongholds.  Writers can assume at least twice as many men in the besieging army outside as there are within the besieged castle.

Wooden fortifications were more vulnerable to attack than stone structures. Fire could be used to burn down the walls, axemen could hack them down and weapons like catapults and rams were considerably more effective against such structures than against stone.  Many other specialized methods were also developed for reducing a castle’s defenses. Sapping could be very effectively employed against stone castles. Sappers would burrow into a wall, supporting the excavated area with timbers.  When sufficient material had been removed from the wall or tower, the sappers packed the area with combustibles (from the fifteenth century onward, gunpowder was also used) and set fire to them.  When the timbers burned away, the wall section collapsed, leaving a breach that could then be assaulted by troops.

Sappers and axemen were vulnerable to attack from boulders, boiling oil and missiles dropped on them from above. Therefore, whenever possible, they approached the castle walls and labored under wheeled galleries, or moved up through covered trenches that were gradually being dug toward the fortification.  Troops also worked at the base of a castle with no cover if the means of providing it for them were not available, but horrible casualties often resulted from this.

Hoardings, bastions and machiolations, defensive structures that projected out over a wall, were developed largely to help defenders prevent mischief by attackers like sappers.  Through holes in floors of such projections, defenders could monitor the base of their walls, areas that would otherwise be blind spots to someone positioned on top of a straight wall.

Mining was another way to undermine castle walls. Out of sight of the castle, usually behind mantlets or even from within a nearby building, a shaft was dug downward and then gradually up toward the castle walls (shafts were angled int his way to help prevent defenders from flooding them).

Deep or steep-walled moats made close approach to a castle difficult, especially if they were filled with water. Even a dry moat that had to be crossed was an area devoid of cover that could easily become a deadly killing round for attacking troops.  Before troops could assault walls or employ engines like siege towers, rams or sows, moats had to be negotiated.  A common way to make moats passable to engines was to fill them with rocks or bundles of sticks (fascines); the filled area would then be covered with planks to ensure smother crossing for the wheeled engines.  Portable boats and pontoon or folding bridges could be deployed to allow passage by troops.

Escalade, or attack by use of ladders, was an often final and very hazardous method for capturing a castle. While archers, arbalestiers and artillery engines attacked the defenders manning the walls, foot soldiers ran forward with tall ladders and clambered up toward the battlements, fighting desperately to get onto them.  Defenders would launch missile fire, drop large rocks and pour boiling oil or molten lead upon the climbers.  They would also use polearms to push away the ladders before assaulting soldiers could make it to the top.

Siege towers, if available, could also be used to attack battlements. They were maneuvered up to the walls, and upon reaching them, the attackers dropped their attack ramps onto the battlements, allowing troops to pour out onto the defenders.

Most castles were not constantly subjected to attack and gradually fell into disrepair. Wooden structures like hoardings or catwalks rotted away over the years, and often were not maintained until a time of crisis, when they could be replaced relatively quickly.  Whereas a large stone might take several years to build, the wooden superstructures could be added or replaced in a matter of weeks.

In addition to the replacement of wooden structures, castles often had to be prepared for siege in other ways. These included clearing the moat of debris; diverting a waterway so as to fill it, if appropriate; and repairing any crumbling masonry.  Clearing all trees and vegetation within the largest possible radius of the site was also done to deny the enemy cover from missile fire, deny them wood for campfires or field quarters, and to prevent construction of siege engines.

Siege engines were large, cumbersome, often expensive pieces of equipment and were rarely transported by an attacking army, especially as it was not always known at what point in a campaign a siege might occur (after all, any given lord might capitulate, become an ally, conclude a treaty, etc.). Rather, the tools and knowledge needed to build siege engines were brought and the weapons were constructed at the site of the siege.

Ironicaly, many of the biggest, most impressive and most expensive weapons did not turn out to be the war-winners that they were expected to be, often exhibiting lackluster performance. A good example is the Helepolis, the “City-Taker,” a siege tower built for the 304 B.C. siege of Rhodes.  It was 140 feet tall with a dozen levels for troops and equipment, covered with iron plates, armed with thirty catapults and ballistae of varying sizes, and propelled forward by a crew of two hundred men operating a massive capstan mounted in its lower level.  Several hundred more men pushed and pulled the machine as well.  Despite its imposing appearance and size, the Rhodians managed to damage the Helepolis and the besiegers withdrew it from the fray, fearing for the fate of their expensive weapon.

Writers should be certain to take the special nature of a magical world into consideration when describing scenes of siege warfare. For example, a priest dedicated to elemental gods might cast his blessings upon a catapult boulder prior to its being fired; peoples native to subterranean regions might sap or mine more quickly or efficiently than normal humans; and large, winged creatures might be used to transport attackers over walls.

Siege Terms

Many terms are marked with a (d), indicating an item that it was used primarily by the defenders of a fortified area, or an (o), indicating an item used primarily by attackers. This represents the way various devices were typically used, however, and should not act as a restriction upon writers.

ballista: An engine like a large crossbow used to fire heavy javelins, employing twisted skeins of sinew for power. Ballistae were so powerful that a single bolt fired from one could skewer several men and penetrate almost any armor.  Such weapons tended to be used as defensive weapons rather than by besiegers because they were not very effective against stone and required less space to operate than catapults.  Along with catapults, ballistae were used in virtually every major siege for at least three thousand years.  (Greek oxybeles; Latin ballista, scorpio, cheiroballistra)

battering ram (o): A heavy beam used to batter down doors or, more slowly, walls. In its simplest form, it was a big log carried by a dozen soldiers andused to stave in the door of a small castle.  In its more complex form, a ram was shod with a wedge-shaped metal head, mounted on a carriage so that it could be swung rhythmically, and either protected by a wheeled shed or mounted within a siege tower.  Rams are among the oldest, and the most rudimentary, of siege engines.  (Latin tesudo)

cat: A wheeled shed used to protect troops while they moved toward a fortified position. Cats were often used to house battering rams or screws, and were sometimes attached to the rear or a siege tower, allowing additional troops to follow behind it.

catapult: A siege engine using an arm powered by great twisted skeins of cords to hurl rocks. Missiles of this sort had to be fired in great concentration and over a long period of time if they were to break through strong curtain walls or demolish towers, but could more easily clear walls of defenders, damage battlements or crush wooden structures like hoardings.  Like ballistae, catapults were used in almost every siege from around 1500 B.C. until about A.D. 1500.  (Greek lithobols; Latin onager)

cauldron (d): A large, cast-iron pot mounted over a brazier, which was used to boil oil or melt lead that could then be poured over walls or through murder holes onto attackers (causing horrible, lethal wounds against which armor was of little defense).

crow (d): A device consisting of a long, counterweighted pole and line that could be lowered over a wall by defenders and used to hook onto a besieging soldier, jerk him off the ground and swing him into the castle.

fascines: Large bundles of sticks (usually five to six feet high and three to four feet across) with a variety of uses including reinforcing field fortifications and filling moats.

gallery (o): A covered wooden passageway constructed for the protection of besiegers, often made resistant to fire by being covered with green hides. Galleries were used to allow attackers to approach walls, dig siege ditches and so on, and were often constructed in stages, gradually getting longer and closer to the castle.

gastrophetes: Meaning “belly bow,” this was an early form of crossbow developed around 400 B.C. and apparently used as a siege weapon in classical Greece. Also called Heron’s gastraphete.

hoist (o): A heavy frame mounted with a large counterweight and a lever, one end of which was equipped with a basket large enough to hold several attackers who could then be lifted up to the top of a wall.

ladder, siege (o): A tall ladder that was flung against the wall of a castle and used to scale it by besiegers. Such ladders frequently consisted of a single long timber set with crosspieces.  (Greek sambuca; Mughal narduban, zeenah pae [a broad ladder])

mantlet (o): A large, wooden shield, propped up by supporters or on wheels, which was used to hshelter at least two besieging troops, typically those needing cover while loading slow weapons like crossbows. Mantlets could gradually be moved forward toward the walls of a castle.  (Mughal turah)

petard (o): A crude explosive device employed by means of a hoist and used to blow breaches in walls.

ram catcher (d): A device consisting of a hook or fork on a long beam, which was lowered by defenders to catch a battering ram or screw being used against a wall, and then was rapidly lifted, breaking or dislodging the attacking engine. Grappling hooks on ropes might be used in the same manner.

redoubt: A small field fortification, often built on a natural or built-up piece of high ground, and typically consisting of earthworks reinforced with a palisade or fascines. Besiegers often built such structures.  (French bastille)

screw (o): Sometimes called a pick or sow, this device was placed against a wall and used to bore a hole into it.  Attackers using such a device typically needed the protection of a gallery.  (Latin musculus)

siege engine: Any machine specially designed to assist in sieges. Many types exist, but they can be broadly classified into missile weapons and nonmissile weapons.  Engineers specially skilled in the construction of such weapons were very important members of ancient and medieval armies.  On the other hand, the troops that operated such engines were generally the most lowly regarded, and were often considered little better than laborers.  Such engines used enormous amounts of timber and were so massive in size and weight that they were usually built on-site (or, less frequently, prefabricated and transported to the site of siege).

Missile weapons can be divided into four main categories: ballistae, catapults, springnals and trebuchets (all discussed separately).  A wide variety of terms were used for such weapons throughout the Middle Ages, although these can often be applied to more than one of the four classes of weapons and are not technical nomenclatures.  These names can be put to good use by writers, and include beugle, blida, scorpion, onager, bricole, calabra, fronda, engine, espringale, fundibulu, manganum, martinet, matafunda, mategrifon, petrary, robinet, springald, tormentum and tripantum.

Proper names were often applied to large or powerful weapons (for example, “Wolf of War,” “God’s Hammer”), and such names might be emblazoned on the engine itself.

Nonmissile siege engines included towers, rams, screws and mantlets (also discussed separately).

springnal: A siege engine using the tension of a flexible arm to fire rocks or javelins. The arm would typically be made from laminated layers of planks and bent into firing position with a windlass.  Of the four main classes of siege weapons, the springnal is the simplest and quite possible the oldest.  Those designed to fire rocks would have tended to be less powerful than catapults (not to mention trebuchets) and those configured for javelins would have been less accurate than ballistae.  Nonetheless, it was doubtless a formidable weapon.  Also referred to as a “spring engine.”

tower, siege (o): Towers had to be taller than the walls they were being used to attack or dominate. Thus, they might be as small as thirty feet tall, but much larger ones are known to have been used.  For example, at the siege of Lisbon in 1147, two towers eighty-three and ninety-five feet tall were used.

Because they were used to help clear walls of defenders, towers were sometimes called bad neighbors; they were also known as belfries.

Ropes and pulleys, powered by teams of oxen, were used to drag towers toward enemy walls. They were set up so that the oxen moved away from the walls, dragging the tower forward via the pulleys mounted in front of the tower.  Another slower method was to have men inside the tower ratchet the wheels forward using crowbars.  (French beffroi, malvoisn; Mughal seeba)

trebuchet: A huge, powerful siege engine that used a massive counterweight to hurl large rocks, or even dead cattle and horses; a typical trebuchet could hurl a three hundred-pound rock about three hundred yards.  The trebuchet came into use in the twelfth century and was the only major siege engine of the Middle Ages that did not have its origins in antiquity.  Of all non-gunpowder missile engines, these were the biggest, slowest, most destructive and most expensive. Writers should not underestimate the size of these monsters: They could be well over sixty feet tall, have an arm sixty feet long, be equipped with a counterweight that weighed twenty or even thirty thousand pounds, and required crews of dozens or even hundreds of men.





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