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Castles and Warfare in the Middle Ages

Castles and Warfare in the Middle Ages

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by Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc

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This profusely illustrated and thoroughly researched book describes in detail the diverse methods used to attack and defend castles during the Middle Ages. In a groundbreaking study — the first to shed light on the purpose, construction techniques, and effectiveness of medieval fortifications, noted nineteenth-century architect and writer Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet


This profusely illustrated and thoroughly researched book describes in detail the diverse methods used to attack and defend castles during the Middle Ages. In a groundbreaking study — the first to shed light on the purpose, construction techniques, and effectiveness of medieval fortifications, noted nineteenth-century architect and writer Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc discusses such architectural elements as dungeons, keeps, battlements, and drawbridges. In addition to describing a vast number of European structures — among them fortifications at Carcassonne, Paris, Avignon, Vincennes, Lubeck, Milan, and Nuremberg — he examines the use of artillery and trenches, as well as such weapons as battering rams, mines, and the long-bow.
A concise, scholarly reference for architectural historians, this absorbing history will appeal as well to medievalists, military buffs, and anyone interested in the evolution and development of the castle.

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Dover Publications
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Dover Military History, Weapons, Armor
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Castles and Warfare in the Midlle Ages

By Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, M. Macdermott

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-13757-5



TO write a general history of the art of fortification, from the days of antiquity to the present time, is one of the fine subjects lying open to the researches of arch'ologists, and one which we may reasonably hope to see undertaken; but we must admit that it is a subject, to treat which fully requires much and varied information, —since to the knowledge of the historian should be superadded in him who would undertake it the practice of the arts of architecture and military engineering. It is difficult to form an exact estimate of a forgotten art, when we are unacquainted with that art as it is practised in the present day; and in order that a work, of the nature of that which we wish to see undertaken, should be complete, it ought to be executed by one who is at once versed in the modern art of the defence of strong places, an architect, and an antiquary. The present writer is not a military engineer and scarcely an antiquary : it would, therefore, be in the highest degree presumptuous were he to offer this summary in any other light than as an essay,—a study of one phase of the art of fortification, comprised between the establishment of the feudal power, and the definite adoption of the modern system of fortification as devised to counteract the use of artillery. This essay, perhaps, by lifting the veil which still envelopes one branch of the art of medi'val architecture, may induce some of our young officers of engineers to devote themselves to a study, which could not fail to possess great interest, and which might probably have a useful and a practical result; for there is always something to be gained by informing ourselves of the efforts made by those who have preceded us in the same path, and by following up the progress of human labour, from its first rude essays, to the most remarkable developments of the intelligence and the genius of man. To see how others have conquered before us the difficulties by which they were surrounded, is one means of learning how to conquer those which every day present themselves; and in the art of fortification, where everything is a problem to be solved, where all is calculation and foresight, where we have not only to do battle with the elements and with the hand of time, as in the other branches of architecture, but to protect ourselves against the intelligent and previously-planned destructive agency of man, it is well, we think, to know how in past times some have applied all the abilities of their minds and all the material force at their command to the work of destruction, others to that of preservation.

At the time when the barbarians invaded Gaul, many of the towns still preserved their fortifications of Gallo-Roman origin ; those which did not, made haste to erect some, out of the ruins of civil buildings. Those walled enclosures, successively forced and repaired, were long the only defensive works of these cities; and it is probable that they were not built upon any regular or systematic plan, but constructed very variously, according to the nature of the localities and of the materials, or after certain local traditions, the nature of which we cannot at the present day fully understand, as there remain to us only the ruins of these walls, consisting of foundations which have been modified by successive additions.

The Visigoths took possession, in the fifth century, of a great portion of Gaul; their domination extended, under Wallia, from the Narbonaise to the Loire. During eighty-nine years Toulouse remained the capital of this kingdom, and, in the course of that period, the greater number of the towns of Septimania were fortified with great care, and had to stand several sieges. Narbonne, Béziers, Agde, Carcassonne, and Toulouse were surrounded by formidable ramparts, constructed according to the Roman traditions of the Lower Empire, if we may judge at least by the important portions of the early walls which still surround the city of Carcassonne. The Visigoths, allies of Rome, did no more than perpetuate the acts of the Empire, and that with some degree of success. As for the Franks, who had preserved their Germanic customs, their military establishments would naturally be so many fortified camps, surrounded by palisades, ditches, and some embankments of earth. Timber plays an important part in the fortifications of the first centuries of the middle ages. And although the Germanic races who occupied Gaul left the task of erecting churches and monasteries, palaces and civil structures, to the Gallo-Romans, they were bound to preserve their military habits in the presence of the conquered nation. The Romans themselves, when they made war upon territories covered with forest, like Germany and Gaul, frequently erected ramparts of wood; advanced works, as it were, beyond the limits of their camps; as we may see by the bas-relief on Trajan's Column (1). In the time of Cæsar, the Celts, when they found themselves unable to continue their wars, placed their women, their children, and all the most precious of their possessions behind fortifications made of wood, earth, or stone, beyond the reach of their enemy's attack.

"They employ," says Cæsar in his Commentaries, "pieces of wood perfectly straight, lay them on the ground in a direction parallel to each other at a distance apart of two feet, fix them transversely by means of trunks of trees, and fill up the voids with earth. On this first foundation they lay a layer of broken rock in large fragments, and when these are well cemented, they put down a fresh course of timber arranged like the first ; taking care that the timbers of these two courses do not come into contact, but rest upon the layer of rock which intervenes. The work is thus proceeded with, until it attains the height required. This kind of construction, by reason of the variety of its materials, composed of stone and wood, and forming a regular wall-surface, is good for the service and defence of fortified places; for the stones which are used therein hinder the wood from burning, and the trees being about forty feet in length, and bound together in the thickness of the wall, can be broken or torn asunder only with the greatest difficulty."

Cæsar renders justice to the industrious manner in which the Gallic tribes of his time established their defences and succeeded in resisting the efforts of their assailants, when he laid siege to the town of Avaricum, (Bourges).

"The Gauls," he says, "opposed all kinds of stratagems to the wonderful constancy of our soldiers: for the industry of that nation imitates perfectly whatever they have once seen done. They turned aside the hooks (falces murales) with nooses, and when they had caught hold of them firmly drew them in by means of engines, and undermined the mound the more skilfully for the reason that there are in their territories extensive iron-mines, and consequently every kind of mining operation is known and practised by them. They had furnished, moreover, the whole wall on every side with turrets, and had covered these with hides. Besides, in their frequent sallies by day and night they attempted either to set fire to the mound, or attack our soldiers when engaged in the works; and, moreover, by means of beams spliced together, in proportion as our towers were raised, together with our ramparts, did they raise theirs to the same level."

The Germans constructed, also, ramparts of wood crowned with parapets of osier. The Column of Antonine at Rome furnishes a curious example of this kind of rustic redoubt (2). These works were, however, very probably of hasty construction. We see here the fort attacked by Roman soldiers. The infantry, in order to get close to the rampart, cover themselves with their shields and form what was called the tortoise (testudo); by resting the tops of their shields against the rampart, they were able to sap its base or set fire to it, safe, comparatively, from the projectiles of the enemy. The besieged are in the act of flinging stones, wheels, swords, torches, and fire-pots upon the tortoise; while Roman soldiers, holding burning brands, appear to await the moment when the tortoise shall have completely reached the rampart, in order to pass under the shields and fire the fort. In their entrenched camps, the Romans, besides some advanced works constructed of timber, frequently erected along their ramparts, at regular intervals, wooden scaffoldings, which served either for placing in position the machines intended to hurl their projectiles, or as watchtowers from which to reconnoitre the approaches of the enemy. The bas-reliefs of Trajan's Column afford numerous examples of this kind of structure (3). These Roman camps were of two sorts: there were the summer camps, the castra œstiva, of a purely temporary nature, which were raised to protect the army when halting in the course of the campaign, and which consisted merely of a shallow ditch and a row of palisades planted along the summit of a slight embankment; and the winter, or stationary camps, castra hiberna, castra stativa, which were defended by a wide and deep ditch, and by a rampart of sodded earth or of stone flanked by towers; the whole crowned with crenellated parapets or with stakes, connected together by means of transverse pieces of timber or wattles. The use of round and square towers by the Romans in their fixed entrenchments was general, for, as Vegetius says,—

"The ancients found that the enclosure of a fortified place ought not to be in one continuous line, for the reason that the battering-rams would thus be able too easily to effect a breach; whereas by the use of towers placed sufficiently close to one another in the rampart, their walls presented parts projecting and re-entering. If the enemy wishes to plant his ladders against, or to bring his machines close to, a wall thus constructed, he can be seen in front, in flank, and almost in the rear; he is almost hemmed in by the fire from the batteries of the place he is attacking."

From the very earliest antiquity the usefulness of towers had been recognised for the purpose of taking the besiegers in flank when they attacked the curtains.

The fixed camps of the Romans were generally quadrangular, with four gates pierced, one in the centre of each of the fronts ; the principal gate was called the protorian, because it opened in front of the prœtorium, or residence of the general-in-chief ; the opposite one was called the decumana; the two lateral gates were known as principalis dextra and principalis sinistra. Outworks, called antemuralia, procastria, defended those gates. The officers and soldiers were lodged in huts built of clay, brick, or wood, and thatched or tiled over. The towers were provided with machines for hurling darts or stones. The local position very often modified this quadrangular arrangement, for, as Vitruvius justly observes, in reference to machines of war (cap. xxii.), —" As for the means which a besieged force may employ in their defence, this cannot be set in writing."

The military station of Famars, in Belgium (Fanum Martis), given in the "History of Architecture in Belgium," and the plan of which we here produce (4), shews an enclosure, of which the arrangement is not in accordance with the ordinary plans of Roman camps: it is true, this fortification cannot be referred to an earlier date than the third century. As for the mode adopted by the Romans in the construction of their fortifications for cities, it consisted in two strong walls of masonry, separated by an interval of twenty feet: the space between was filled with the earth from the ditches, and loose rock well rammed, forming at top a parapet walk, slightly inclined towards the town to allow the water to pass off : the outer of these two walls, which was raised above the parapet-walk, was massive and crenellated; the inner one was very slightly elevated above the ground level of the place inside, so as to render the ramparts easy of access, by means of flights of steps and inclined ways (5).

The Chateau Narbonnais at Toulouse, which plays so important a part in the history of that city from the time of the domination of the Visigoths to the fourteenth century, appears to have been constructed according to the classical model: it was composed of—

"Two massive towers, one at the south, the other at the north, built of baked clay and flint, with lime; the whole enclosed by great stones without mortar, but cramped together by means of iron plates run with lead. The castle stood above the ground level more than thirty fathom (brasses), having towards the south two successive gates and two vaults of masonry reaching to the summit of the building; there were also two other successive gates on the north side and on the Place du Salin. By the latter of these gates you formerly entered the city, the ground of which has been since raised more than twelve feet ... A square tower was to be seen between these two towers, or defensive platforms; for they were embanked and filled with earth, according to Guillaume de Puilaurnes, since it appears that Simon de Montfort had all the earth removed which then filled them to their roofs."

The Visigoth fortification of the city of Carcassonne, which is still preserved, offers an analogous arrangement, recalling those described by Vegetius. The level of the town is much more elevated than the ground outside, and almost as high as the parapet walks. The curtain walls, of great thickness, are composed of two faces of small cubical masonry alternating with courses of brick; the middle portion being filled, not with earth, but with rubble run with lime. The towers were raised above these curtains, and their communication with the latter might be cut off, so as to make of each tower a small independent fort; externally, these towers are cylindrical, and, on the side of the town, square: they rest also, towards the country, upon a cubical base or foundation. We subjoin (6) the plan of one of these towers with the curtains adjoining.

A is the plan on the ground level; B, the plan of the first story at the level of the parapet. We see, at C and D, the two excavations formed in front of the gates of the tower to intercept, when the drawbridges were raised, all communication between the town, or the parapet walk and the several stories of the tower. From the first story, access was had to the upper crenellated, or battlemented portion of the tower by a ladder of wood placed interiorly against the side of the flat wall. The external ground-level was much lower than that of the tower, and also beneath the ground-level of the town, from which it was reached by a descending flight of from ten to fifteen steps. Fig. 7 shews the tower and its two curtains on the side of the town; the bridges of communication are supposed to have been removed. The battlemented portion at the top is covered with a roof, and open on the side of the town, in order to permit the defenders of the tower to see what was going on therein, and also to allow of their hoisting up stones and other projectiles by means of a rope and pulley. Fig. 8 shews the same tower on the side towards the country; we have added a postern, the sill of which is sufficiently raised above the ground to necessitate the use of a scaling or step ladder, to obtain ingress. The postern is defended, as was customary, by a palisade or barrier, each gate or postern being provided with a work of this kind.


Excerpted from Castles and Warfare in the Midlle Ages by Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, M. Macdermott. Copyright © 2005 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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