Anatomy of a Castle – Furniture

Table in hall 2

One of the things that has always struck me about castles is how small the rooms are.  There are two main reasons for this. The first, and most obvious, is that building a castle was incredibly expensive. The reasons for the cost were that it took time, sometimes more than a decade, and sometimes imported stone was used. The masons who built castles were very skilled and demanded a higher rate of pay than ordinary labourers, who were also required.

The second reason is that castles didn’t have to be large. Even a small castle put awe and fear into the hearts of the local populace. The largest building many people knew was their parish church. Even a small castle would dwarf a church.

Another reason why they didn’t need to be large was because there wasn’t very much, apart from people and stores of food and fuel, to put into it.

People in the Middle Ages had few possessions, unless they were fabulously rich.  If you could afford to build a castle, you fell into that category. The things that you might have, however, wouldn’t necessarily take up a lot of space. An expensive horse, for instance, wouldn’t need any more space than an ordinary horse. Tapestries were a good way for a man to show his wealth, but they hung from a wall, at least while the lord was in residence.  He might own a few jewels, a few gold or silver chalices and good quality knives, but none of these needed much more space than cheaper versions of the same thing. A wealthy man probably had a few books. They would need to be kept securely in a locked chest to prevent theft.

Apart from tapestries and jewels, the main thing that a wealthy man had that most others in a castle (or anywhere else) didn’t have was a bed and a chair. At the top of the post I’ve put a photograph of the reproduction furniture in the hall of the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton. It’s not a castle by any means, but it will give you an idea about medieval furniture. There’s one chair. At mealtimes everyone sat on benches like the one you can see in front of the table. The table was a trestle table, which could be taken down and stacked against a wall when it wasn’t in use at meal times. The same thing applied to the bench. Unless they were sitting as part of their employment or at meal times, people mostly stood. If they were allowed to sit, they probably sat on a stool like this.

Stool in front bedroom 3

The stools could also be folded and put away when not in use.

Few people in a castle had beds. Most of the household slept in the hall. The lord had a bed in his solar and there might have been another bed for important visitors. When the lord moved on after spending two or three weeks in his castle, the bed would be dismantled, put on a cart and taken to the next place.

There were cupboards to store the lord’s gold and silver cups, if he had any, and clothes were kept in chests or on rails along walls. There wasn’t much need for interior space in a society that didn’t even know what privacy was and lived, for the most part, communally.

There are many things that still baffle me about castles, though, not least the question about where knights and soldiers kept their armour. They slept in the great hall, or some other communal space. Their armour and their weapons were expensive and couldn’t be folded up out of the way. Nothing that I’ve read or seen gives any indication about where these were stored. If anyone knows, please tell me.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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33 Comments

Filed under Castle, Fourteenth Century, Medieval Buildings, Medieval Life

33 responses to “Anatomy of a Castle – Furniture

  1. Good question, which I can’t answer. I never stopped to think about it. I have wondered, though, about everyone sleeping in the hall. Would they have had pallets? If so, where were they stored? They’d have been clumsy things to get out of the way.

    Another advantage of small rooms would’ve been how little heat they got from an open fireplace. Smaller is better under those conditions.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sleeping on the floor sounds incredibly uncomfortable! Would some have slept in their place of work, rather than the hall, e.g. cooks, turnspits etc in the kitchen? What about important members of the household, like the steward?

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think people did sleep in the kitchens and stable. I don’t know about the steward. In my imagination he slept in the visitors’ room when there were no visitors, but that’s just my imagination.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Sounds plausible. When castles evolved into manors & other palatial residences, it was a mark of honor to have a room reserved for visiting superiors or peers. Some even purchased elaborate beds on the chance the monarch would visit. No others were allowed to sleep on them.

        On a different note, about movable furnishings:

        Leeds Castle in Kent has (or had) replicas of the furniture, bedding and hallings of Catherine, wife of Henry V. The tester is tied to hooks on the ceiling, and the bed itself, devoid of mattresses & etc., is just a platform that would be covered so the bare wood was not seen. Mattresses started with straw, then wool, feather, & down ticks, several of each. They required daily fluffing, with the straw being replaced often.

        There is a kind of day-bed, with a conical tester and thickly padded seat and back, a chair completely covered with an elaborate cloth, & heavy wall coverings that hung from hooks all around the room. A round bathing tub was lined with fine linen, tented, and curtained, There were other items, which I cannot remember.

        The cloths are heavy silk, with warps and wefts in different colors, some in crimson and green, some crimson and gold, producing unusual sheen and luster. All embroidered with ciphers of H’s and K’s intertwined richly. I so wanted to run my hands over the silks, which looked positively decadent.

        If they’re still there, please try to see them! They are all of English manufacture, I think from the same craftspeople who made Princess Diana’s wedding silks.

        If I am wrong on any of this, I welcome correction. Thank you!

        Liked by 3 people

  3. Surely the word “armory” comes from a place that kept armor? You stated that there were many buildings within a castle complex that were wooden, and no longer around. Perhaps the armory was such a building? This would likely do for any jacks, helms, & such owned by the lord, but distributed to soldiers when needed.

    It would likely be a daily task for some young boys to keep rust at bay. Having most of the armor in an armory would make the task easier, and help with inventory & repairs. May have been close to the castle smith. Grease & ashes were common ingredients for burnishing metal.

    I also can’t see a man who owned his own, expensive, armor, wishing to be far from it. In case of attack, wouldn’t he want it near? Perhaps there were wooden stands, like coat racks, where the armor could be kept in readiness.
    A lord’s fine suit might have been kept in his private quarters. I can envision its upkeep being the purview of the pages or squires.

    Displaying armor was a sign of wealth and power. I know the displays in today’s palaces were created for show, but is this a holdover from the days when armor was needed for conflicts? Seeing armor displayed also made it easy to notice if anything was missing, damaged, or needed polishing. Maybe armories weren’t so much for storage, as for repairing & upkeep.

    Wow! This does beg for more research!

    Liked by 4 people

    • I know. Once you start asking questions the answers raise ten more.

      Plate armour was made to fit an individual, so he (or his page) had to know exactly where it was. I think a lot of time was spent, again by the page, cleaning it and keeping it in good repair.

      None of the books I’ve read say what happened with armour when it wasn’t in use.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. I didn’t realize that the vast majority of people owned very few possessions back then.

    Did this mean that most children didn’t own any toys? What about something like a crib for a baby? Or did all babies co-sleep with their parents back then?

    Liked by 2 people

    • I haven’t even thought about toys. My guess would be probably not. I’ve put it on my list of things to investigate. There are children in my work in progress, so it would be a useful thing to know.

      There’s a reproduction crib in the bedroom of the Medieval Merchant’s House in Southampton, so well-off people probably had them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • One occasionally reads about “rockers” being assigned in noble and royal households. I’m assuming this referred to young girls whose job it was to either rock a baby in a rocker, or in their arms. Images of “rock-a-bye” rockers can be found in many medieval depictions of Mary and Jesus, though Jesus is usually in Mary’s arms. Medieval artists depicted religious life through their own experiences, which is why their art is good for understanding Medieval clothing, tools, furniture and such.

        However, Jesus IS often depicted lying in a manger or crib. Here in
        America we still refer to & use baby cribs. The earliest reference I can remember to a baby in a crib harked back to the days when dairies were women’s purviews. To keep babies and toddlers safe, mothers would put them in the cribs used to hold hay, which had wide slats that cows and goats could pull their food through. Women could watch their children while they went about the milking duties. Their constant use removed splinters and rough edges. The idea must have caught on strong, as even the baby cribs of my childhood looked much like they’d work in a byre.

        If a castle had cradles and cribs, they might be elaborately decorated and easily broken down for travel. Certainly they would be only for the lord’s & elites’ children. There must have been sets of bedding for them, with elaborate ones preserved to pass down generations.

        For women servants, who were not supposed to give in to carnal delights during their service, I can’t see much provision given toward the keeping of their children. Caring for infants and toddlers consumed a lot of time. It must have been very hard for servants to safely raise their own young. A lot of pregnant women servants were probably sent packing.

        So I’m guessing that most women co-slept with their infants and small ones. Infant mortality was appalling in those days. Court records often mentioned children who died by being “overlain” by mothers. I do not know if elite children died this way from their nurses, but it would give a lord good reason to invest in crib and cradle.

        Wow! April’s writings sure help me recall a lot of stuff I thought I’d forgotten!

        Liked by 2 people

        • I’m sorry I haven’t replied earlier, your comment was hidden. The ways of WordPress cannot be understood.

          I don’t think there were many women servants in a castle, or anywhere else, but I’m always on the lookout for information about women and work in the fourteenth century.

          I’ve added cribs to my list of things to investigate. I haven’t really thought much about babies in the fourteenth century, othter than how to get their parents to fall in love and marry.

          Liked by 1 person

      • Children can make a toy of anything. I remember playing with off-cuts of wood, stones that caught my fancy etc. I suspect very few medieval children had leisure for what we would regard as play. In my imagination I see what we call “toddlers” and “pre-schoolers” picking stones out of ploughed fields, scaring birds, etc. and generally helping their parents in whatever way they could.
        Because of castles being essentially male preserves I’ve always thought that the only children would have been the lord’s. Now I’m wondering about the senior servants’ children…

        Liked by 3 people

        • I liked climbing trees as a child, and making up stories. As you say, I doubt children had much of what we would think of as a childhood. I think they might have played games more than have toys. It will be interesting to see what I can find out.

          Liked by 2 people

    • The people who do reenactments of pioneer life in America have children’s toys made from whittled wood, straw, stones, and other natural objects. I’m willing to wager they would have been recognized as such by medieval youngsters.

      If a girl wanted a doll, she had merely to twist a handful of grass or hay into a body shape. First Americans taught how to make corn dolls, but though that wouldn’t do for medieval children, straw and grass was plentiful.

      Shards of broken pottery, flowers & leaves sufficed for play dishes. Even rags were often too valuable to waste for child’s play. Little “mothers” and “wives” had to rely on vivid imaginations. They fashioned toy brooms with bundled twigs, “ironed” with flat stones, and stirred imaginary pots over invisible “fires”.

      Boys were expected to carry knives & know how to hone them & carve essentials. As men, they would have to make many tools, handles, rakes, pegs, kitchenware, & such.

      Hobby horses were just sticks. Maybe a straw head was fashioned , but little else was needed when so much play depended upon fertile minds.

      A lad could make a slingshot of flexible leather & a “Y” shaped twig. He could bring down small birds, kill vermin, & hone his skills with target games with his peers. There were also whip slings, such as David used against Goliath, that helped keep stray dogs (and maybe wolves) from sheep, crows from the orchards, and such useful functions.

      Of course, every medieval English boy was expected to learn archery at the butts. Likely, their fathers or an older boy taught them to make rudimentary training bows and arrows. As with today’s competitions, learning to use bows and slings were made fun through friendly matches. It would have been to the benefit of American pioneers had archery still been valued, but guns were the dreams of frontier lads.

      I’m thinking most play was mimicking adult activities, and playtimes were probably brief. But there must have been some time to run in the fields, pick flowers, play “hide and seek”, “red rover”, and others, that have carried through even to present times.

      Saints’ Days gave medieval children welcome respite. American pioneers no longer observed such. Days would be marked off a board with a knife to tell that time passed. Sundays were kept as much to rest as to worship. Church strictures almost disappeared in households where faith was weak. If a circuit preacher showed up it was more for the change in routine that he was valued, and the information he could pass along, than what he could do for the spirit. Marriages and burials, by necessity, often occurred without clergy. Baptisms were excuses for family celebrations, no longer critical rites.

      Winter had to have been hard on children. Once the fires were banked, little could be done. But I imagine stories were told and girls were still able to knit and crochet by the pale red glow of ash-covered embers. Boys needed little light to grease and flex harnesses. Everyone likely benefited from long winter slumbers, as less energy was burned & bodies pushed to the limits in the warm days could knit.

      In some ways poor American pioneers’ day-to-day lives probably differed little from their medieval European forbears.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wonderful post as always April. I too wondered, as Shaunn did, about an armory somewhere within the castle?

    Liked by 3 people

  6. Great post, April! I think many of us (myself included) would benefit from taking a page from medieval folks and owning less possessions! :p

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you. Yes, I think there were many things about their lifestyle that was good. I blame the obsession with things, along with much else, on the Victorians.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I blame the Victorians for inventing childhood (as we know it) but I’m inclined to think the obsession with things has its roots in the 16th and 17th centuries and the “things” that became available with the growth in trade and travel – Turkey carpets, Venetian glass, china, handsome maps – and then the passion for collecting porcelain in the 18th century.

        Liked by 4 people

  7. I’m trying to imagine making furniture with the simple tools available. I might not have enjoyed woodworking as much as I do today.

    Liked by 3 people

  8. Excellent post and ensuing discussion!

    Liked by 3 people

  9. I do find your castle series so interesting. I think they probably stored the armour in the keep too.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Pingback: A Medieval Childhood | A Writer's Perspective

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