For centuries, medieval castles were used for a range of purposes, including defence, governance and of course, for living in. Because the Medieval period spanned centuries, there are very few facts that would apply to all castles of the period. There is also a hell of a lot of misinformation when it comes to castle life.
Let’s look back in time and dispel those pesky castle rumours, once and for all. If you want to teach your kids about castles or just learn more about them yourself, I highly recommend a castle building kit like this Neuschwanstein one.
Castles Were Dark, Cold and Smelly
Because many castles were built with defence in mind, the outward appearance and exteriors often had smaller windows. The logic is that it is much easier to penetrate large windows with rocks, arrows and whatever else attackers could sling with their catapults. While exterior walls were often designed with this in mind, many castles had many layers of defence before you reached the keep (where folk lived).
Inner courtyards of castles are the most secure areas of a castle and as such, there are plenty of examples of castles with very large windows in this area. Many also boasted open courtyards which would attract light during the day. It is fair to say that at night, a castle would be darker, but they were often well lit with torches and one of the servants would have the specific job of lighting torches at dusk.
So, were castles dark? It’s all relative, and by today’s standards they would be considered ‘darker’, but they were well lit for the most part and no one at the time would have considered them dark.
Castles Were Cold?
Castles were constructed of all kinds of materials over the medieval period. Remember, it was a period that spanned 500 years and during that time there was plenty of technological advancement. A Norman Castle would differ significantly to a Tudor castle and many castles were changed drastically over their lifetimes.
Various places in the castle would be colder than others. And some would have been positively hot. The castle kitchen would be producing food throughout the day for servants, soldiers, and the castle family, and it would have had a roaring fire going throughout the day. A fun fact is that some castles were constructed of wood, making the castle kitchen a particularly dangerous place to work.
The castle owners and their family would have fireplaces in any room that they lived in, and although it wasn’t quite central heating, it would be enough to keep those rooms warm in even the coldest winter months. Soldiers often slept in barracks (large areas or rooms that were designed to house them) and these too would have been fairly warm. They would have used fires in a similar way to the castle family and warmth would be generated by the large number of people living in close proximity.
Servants’ quarters were the bottom rung of the castle hierarchy, but believe it or not, compared to commoners or peasants, castle servants lived quite well. Their quarters often had at least one fireplace and even those that didn’t, having everyone staying in an enclosed space together generated a natural warmth.
Depending on the wealth of the castle, beds and blankets would also be provided throughout.
Did Castles Smell?
Again, compared to modern standards, a castle would have a different smell profile to a modern house. But castles had a few advantages over modern homes when it comes to odours. Castles were never insulated in the way modern homes are and the construction wasn’t always solid meaning air could pass more easily through the structure. This meant castles were well ventilated and smells that might linger in a modern house would be swept off in a castle.
There were areas of a castle that would have been smellier than others – for example the toilets. Sewage would have been carried away by shuts that often dumped it into a cesspit. A cesspit would of course be a pretty smelly affair, but there were people whose job it was to specifically remove waste from the pit and transport it offsite.
Hygiene was an important part of medieval life, and they were well aware that waste contributed to unpleasant living conditions and illness – so they were very conscientious when it came to dealing with it as best they could. The truth is that some parts of the castle were indeed smelly, but most parts of the castle would have been fresh, breezy and not at all unpleasant.
Castles Had No Drinking Water
One thing a castle MUST have is a good water supply. Castles would not have been constructed in an area without access to water for a number of reasons, but mainly if they were ever besieged, the people locked away in the castle would need to have water to survive.
Castles achieved this in a number of ways. Some were built near rivers or bodies of water like lakes while others used wells that were dug deep into the ground and allowed the drawing of water when required. I saw this first hand at Framlingham castle.
A common misconception is that people relied on alcohol for drinking water. This is not actually the case, although the answer here is a bit nuanced. Having clean water was something that castle builders would have as primary concern before settling on a location for construction. But just because there was access to clean water didn’t mean that on the whole, they drank water.
Beer and mead were commonly consumed with meals as humans being human, prefer flavoured beverages. Aside from that, having access to clean water didn’t make it abundant necessarily and water rations were common during the medieval period to ensure that only the amount of water that needed to be used was used.
Medieval folk were also pretty savvy as well, they knew that boiling water purified it, so they were also able to drink contaminated water if the need arose.
The myth that castles had no water to drink is a myth though and every castle I have visited has had at least one form of clean water supply, with some having multiple places to get clean water.
Personal Hygiene Was Non-Existent
This is probably the biggest misconception about medieval life. Films, movies, and books depict dirt covered people who stank to high heaven with bad teeth. Its probably best to address each of these aspects separately.
Medieval People Were Filthy and Stank
Some jobs in medieval times were downright nasty. There were tanners, cesspit cleaners, nightwatchmen (who fined people for dumping poo and cleaned up any they found) and a whole host of grim jobs besides.
But that doesn’t mean that the people themselves didn’t wash. In fact, villages often had a water bucket that was filled and emptied daily for bathing. Towns had larger homes with some even having bathtubs (although these were smaller than the ones we use today), and bathhouses were introduced by the Romans, making them a very popular place for people to bathe, wash and socialise.
Even peasants knew the importance of regular handwashing and there are plenty of accounts of even the lowest people in the hierarchy washing their hands and face daily. Remember, people were more hands on with their food back then and eating with dirty hands was a sure-fire way of getting sick.
Soap was a big medieval industry too and there were different forms of soap that suited almost all budgets. For those too poor to afford soap, they would use the ash from the fire which has a soap-like cleansing effect when rinsed with water.
Like people of today, medieval people had a sense of smell and would have been equally offended by a bad smelling person. They hadn’t evolved some kind of hyper-tolerant nose and cared very much about being clean and others being clean around them.
Medieval People Had Bad Teeth
Tooth decay is largely caused by sugar – something that was not common in medieval diets. Aside from the actual cause of tooth decay, medieval people cleaned their teeth using wooden toothbrush-like tools and used things like cloves, mint and even pastes.
They cared about how their teeth looked too as some of the pastes or powder remedies were designed to whiten their teeth. If teeth did go bad, they would visit the local barber (they didn’t have dentists) who would remove any offending teeth.
Although tooth decay wasn’t a massive problem in medieval times, worn teeth was. This is because breadmaking was far less sophisticated and fine bits of stone were often ground into the wheat used to make bread.
Many medieval skulls have been found with most teeth intact and in good condition apart from being worn as a result of poor food production methods.