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Life in a Medieval Castle (1974)

by Joseph Gies, Frances Gies (Author)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,308714,745 (3.59)19
Describes conditions and everyday life in a medieval castle. Centers on the twelfth-century fortress of Chepstow on the Welsh border.
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English (6)  French (1)  All languages (7)
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Life in a Medieval Castle was originally published in 1974 and reissued in 2015, and was used by the author George R. R. Martin as a primary resource when writing his A Song of Ice and Fire series, upon which the legendary A Game of Thrones adaptation is based. Authors Joseph Gies and Frances Gies were both historians and published many books focussed on medieval history and the Middle Ages, before the married couple passed away in 2006 and 2013 respectively.

I learned a great deal reading this non fiction title which was broken down into many chapters, including 'The Castle Comes to England', 'A Day in the Castle' and 'The Castle at War'. I will say that the black and white photos were terrible and I could hardly make out what was pictured, which is disappointing given the opportunity to include better photography in the reprinting stage in 2015. This is best rectified by having Google Images at your disposal while reading, which is how I enjoyed this title.

There's nothing better than getting down into the nitty gritty of everyday life, and I knew that castle floors were strewn with rushes and herbs which were regularly replaced, but this quote from Erasmus in the book was gold. Erasmus observed that often under the rushes lay:

"an ancient collection of beer, grease, fragments, bones, spittle, excrement of dogs and cats and everything that is nasty." Page 60

Gross! It was interesting to learn on page 76 that the medieval feminine ideal was "blonde, delicate, fair-skinned, boyish of figure." That was a bit of a surprise, although I guess it's not that different to the lean and flat chested ideal in women's fashion in the 1920s.

I love learning about the different roles in households from different eras, and discovered that the role of butler (or bottler) originally worked in the buttery where beverages were kept in butts or bottles. A completely new job title to me was the pantler, who was the servant in charge of the pantry and the bread. I also enjoy identifying surnames that survive today that originate in the duties the person once would have held, like: Archer, Baker, Carter, Cook, Cooper, Chandler, Gardener, Knight, Miller, Smith, and Thatcher to name a few. Joseph Gies and Frances Gies were able to introduce me to a few new ones in Hayward, who was in charge of the haie, and repairing the hedges and fences; and the Woodward, who had charge of the lord's woods and was elected by his fellow villagers.

The descriptions of the food eaten in the period set the taste buds watering, although I don't think I'd like this dish:

"In addition to roasting and stewing, meat might be pounded to a paste, mixed with other ingredients, and served as a kind of custard." Page 112

The authors managed to take the reader through many facets of the medieval castle, focussing on Chepstow as their case study or best example. I think they best summarise the appeal of castles and castle ruins to tourists and wannabe tourists like me in their following conclusion to the book:

"In Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere, with the aid of a guide or a guidebook and some imagination, one can stand in the grassy bailey and re-people the weathered stone ramparts and towers and the vanished wooden outbuildings with archers and knights, servants, horses, and wagoners, the lord and lady and their guests, falcons and hunting dogs, pigs and poultry - all the unkempt, unsafe, unsavoury but irresistibly appealing life of the thirteenth century." Page 224

Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies is recommended for readers with an interest in history, castles (obviously) the Middle Ages and the medieval way of life. ( )
  Carpe_Librum | Jul 18, 2021 |
Interesting look at life during the middle ages in and around castles. A lot of info about economics which was over my head.
  JohnLavik | Mar 29, 2020 |
940.1
  OakGrove-KFA | Mar 28, 2020 |
940.1
  OakGrove-KFA | Mar 28, 2020 |
This was the first and thus far the only book I have read by these authors (though I own several others I have yet to find the time to read) – it is a fascinating exploration of socio-political history the authors help to put flesh on the ‘bare bones’ of the crumbling stone ruins and empty shells which are all that sadly remains of castles today. They go beyond examining only the political or military function of castles (though this is covered) to explore castles in their roles as homes, and the ‘headquarters’ of estates with the central focus on Chepstow on the Welsh borders, but also other castles.

In chapters under titles such as ‘The Lord of the Castle’ ‘The Lady’ and the ‘The Household’ the inhabitants of castles are vividly bought to life, from the highest to the lowest, and the society in which castles played such an important role is examined. Along the way there are many gems of information, useful, enlightening and entertaining. One of my personal favourites was the section on table manners and dining etiquette which belies the popular misconception that medieval people were uncouth, uncivilised and vulgar- and reveals striking parallels between the etiquette of the middle ages and today. The sections on hunting, which reveal its roles as a social activity, ‘The Making of a Knight’ and ‘The Castle as a House’ are also fascinating.

My only complaint was that some of the information the first chapter did seem a little over simplified in some parts, and the claim that the Normans beat the English and Hastings because they were ‘better’ than them seemed represent a rather outdated interpretation- although this may be a reflection of the fact that the book was written in the 70s. As a result of the nationality of the authors there are some Americanisms (such as Richard the Lionhearted) which may prove a slight annoyance to British readers, and some might find the numerous photographs peppered throughout a history book distracting or irksome. Personally I had to problem with these, and felt they illustrated some of the themes and points made rather well.

The writing style of the authors makes the book accessible and not too high-brow or scholarly but not at the expense of primary source material which is used and included throughout the book. This said, those looking for a more detailed and in-depth examination of some of the subject matter with and academic slant which analysis and some of the sources won’t find much of it here. Although written by Medievalist Historians, ‘Life in a Medieval Castle’ is very much popular history- and very good popular history too.
( )
2 vote Medievalgirl | Oct 4, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Gies, JosephAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gies, FrancesAuthormain authorall editionsconfirmed
Jaquet, ChristopheTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Lynn, who builds castles
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North of the new Severn suspension bridge, on the Welsh border in Monmouthshire, Chepstow Castle rises from a narrow ridge commanding the River Wye, a broad, shallow stream that fluxes daily with the tidal Severn from a navigable river to a nearly dry mud flat.
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Describes conditions and everyday life in a medieval castle. Centers on the twelfth-century fortress of Chepstow on the Welsh border.

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