Medieval Castles: Almost everything you wanted to know – Part #1

Once upon a time, in a castle far, far away… How many classic fairytales start with these words? Picture a large, gray stone building with cylindrical towers in each corner, a drawbridge over a moat, and knights guarding the entrance. And somewhere inside that magical building is a handsome prince or beautiful princess.

It’s easy to see how one can be fascinated by such buildings—the architecture, the history, the folklore. I wanted to learn more—which got me thinking, maybe there are other people who share my fascination.

Welcome to this mini-series: Medieval Castles — Almost everything you wanted to know.  

Join me in this five-part series where we’ll journey from this introductory article through to the architecture and history of castles from medieval times. Whenever possible, I share the names and locations of castles that are still standing today.

Castles are structures whose primary reason for being is as a defense against invasion. But did you know that they were also used as public gathering spaces or to hold religious services? Given the era, they were likely used more for religious services, as religion played a significant role in daily life.  

Medieval Castles

Medieval times, or the Middle ages, spanned from the 5th century through the late 15th century; however, the first documented castle didn’t appear until the 9th century. Earlier castles were very simple structures set on hills, near rivers or mountain passes, allowing the inhabitants to see invaders coming. As time went on and weapons evolved, castles had to evolve into what we would now consider militarized fortresses.

Castle Classifications

Medieval castles were classified as either ‘keep’ or ‘keepless’.

The keep, also called the donjon, in France, was considered the safest place in the castle. Usually located at the highest point of a castle, the keep was a heavily guarded tower that could only be accessed by narrow staircases leading to each level. If you were part of the nobleman’s family and were being invaded, you would go to the keep.    

The keepless castles are what the name implies—there is no highest point; towers are equal in height. Keepless castles were usually square or rectangular courts, surrounded by large walls with towers in each corner. Bonaguil: an example of a keepless castle in rural France.

Medieval Castles: Almost everything you wanted to know - Part #1
Keepless Castle – Normandy – © P. Jeanson

Fun fact for fans of the television show Outlander… Doune Castle in Scotland (a keepless castle) was used as the exterior shots of ‘Castle Leoch’. Never heard of Outlander? Doune castle was also used in the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

Regardless of whether a castle had a keep or not, medieval architects were clever and added features to increase the castle’s defense.

Security Features

You may have heard of the more common security features during Medieval times: the moat, barbican, and the curtain wall.

  • Moat – a deep man-made ditch surrounding the castle, that may or may not contain water. Moats were meant to slow down invaders.
  • Barbican – a tower, or the length of wall, at a castle bridge or gate. Its function was to protect what we would call the castle’s ‘front door’. 
  • Curtain wall – is a high reinforced stone wall surrounding the castle’s perimeter. They were sometimes built as a slope, making them harder to climb. 

As castle architecture evolved, so did the security measures.

concentric castle
(parts of a castle)

Castle Types

Four primary castle designs mark the period; Motte and Bailey, Shell keep, Stone keep, and Concentric; however, sub-types, such as Square Stone keep and Round Stone keep emerged over the years.

1. Motte and Bailey

Motte and Bailey castles were classified as a keep style and are considered the first style of the period. They were built with wood and covered in animal skins to defend against fire attacks.

2. Shell Keep

The donjon annulaire, in French, is a stone casing built around the keep of an existing motte and bailey castle. This method was cheaper than building an entire castle with stone, but the weight of the rocks usually caused the original keep to collapse.

3. Stone Keep

The Stone Keep first appeared in France in the 10th century. They featured a tall stone keep with thick walls and few windows. The kitchens were on the ground floors while living quarters were on the upper floors. The castle entrance was high off the ground and could only be accessed by a bridge.

4. Concentric

Concentric Castles were classified as keepless, developed in the 13th century, and designed to defend against the newly invented gun power. They feature an inner court surrounded by a thick wall with towers in each corner. The inner court and its walls were surrounded by another wall with towers in each corner, hence the concentric name.

I hope I’ve piqued your interest in medieval castles enough to join me in the remaining four articles of the series. In each article, we’ll have an up close and personal look at the four primary castle designs, beginning with the Motte and Bailey design in Part #2.    

Do you find castles fascinating? Have you visited many castles in France? Please share your experiences in the comments below.

Image Credits
1-2 Château d’Arques via wikicommons
3. A keepless castle in France via Normandy Tourism by © P. Jeanson
4. Doune Castle by Andrew Shiva via wikimedia
5. A graphic showing parts of a castle via Pinterest

About the Contributor

Michelle Mason

I’ve loved the French language & culture ever since taking my first French class in high school. By day, I’m an instructional designer, content, and technical writer, working on projects for Fortune 50 and Fortune 100 companies. At night, I’m a freelance writer & copywriter.

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  1. Sandra Feijoo Oct 5, 2022 at 7:01 AM - Reply

    I certainly did enjoy this article. It took me back to an analysis ? of how these people thought and their frame of minds… Indeed they were clever..

    • Michelle Mason Oct 11, 2022 at 7:24 AM - Reply

      I’m glad you enjoyed the article! It is amazing how they built these structures without tools and techniques. Please join us for the rest of the series.

  2. France Oct 7, 2022 at 8:00 PM - Reply

    There is a medieval castle in France that is still under construction…
    You can come and help build it. It’s very cool.
    Château de Guédelon in Yonne, approximately 120 km from Paris

    • Michelle Mason Oct 11, 2022 at 7:21 AM - Reply

      Thank you for the information! I’ll look into it.

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