International School History - International Baccalaureate - MYP History

MYP4 Last update - 09 November 2017  
Unit 1 - Lesson 5 - Castles and Cathedrals - Medieval architecture.
What can medieval architecture tell us about medieval minds?

Go to tripadvisor and look up 'things to do' in any European city. Chances are, the main attraction is likely to be church or a castle. Why? Part of the reason is their sheer size. Medieval gothic cathedrals were often the biggest structure in a city until the 20th century. They are also very beautiful and they still impress the visitor today. But perhaps more than anything, is that they stand as a record of human achievement that has, quite literally, stood the test of time.

Why important?

It is helpful to consider the concept of historical significance as outlined by Rob Phillips. He argued events were important for four reasons:

Profundity: Refers to how deeply people were/have been affected by the event. How deeply were people's lives affected?

Quantity: Refers to the number of people affected by the event. Did the event affect many, everyone, just a few? Were the effects widespread or localised?

Durability: Refers to how long were people affected by the event. How durable was the event in time? Was the event lasting or only ephemeral?

Relevance: Is the event relevant to our understanding of the past and/or present? Does the event carry any meaning to historians today.

On each of the four indicators of significance, castles and cathedrals, clearly tick every box. But they are also important to historians because they provide rare, accessible, unmediated access to the past. You can walk in the footsteps of our ancestors and relive the past. You can touch the stones, look out at the same views and imagine what it would have been like in the past. History is a social science but also an art. The built past helps us empathise with those who lived that past.

Finally, I hope that in learning about medieval architecture, you will begin to make sense of the world around you. It is hard to find any subject interesting, if it is written in a foreign language. Buildings have their own vocabulary which talk to us: about function and aesthetics, beliefs and skills. Without this vocabulary, medieval buildings are simply piles of old stones.

In this lesson we are going to explore how and why castles and cathedrals were built, how and why they changed over time and what this can tell us about the minds of those who built them, those were were controlled by them and those that tried to destroy them.


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The Tower of London

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Amiens Cathedral, France
Medieval Castles

A castle is a defensive structure associated with the Middle Ages, found in Europe and the Middle East. The word "Castle" is derived from the Latin word castellum. The French château, Spanish castillo, Italian castello derive from castellum. The word castle was introduced into English shortly before the Norman Conquest (1066) to denote this type of building, which was then new to England. The precise meaning is usually considered to be the "private fortified residence" of a lord or noble. This is distinct from a fortress, which was not a home, or a fortified town, which was a public defence.

A European innovation, castles originated in the 9th and 10th centuries, after the fall of the Carolingian Empire resulted in its territory being divided among individual lords and princes. Castles controlled the area immediately surrounding them, and were both offensive and defensive structures; they provided a base from which raids could be launched as well as protection from enemies. They also served as centres of administration and symbols of power. Urban castles were used to control the local people and important travel routes, and rural castles were often built near natural features that were important to life in the community, such as fertile land.


Many castles were originally built from earth and timber (wood); these are known as motte and bailey castles. They were relatively quick to build (as little as one week) and could be made with easily found materials. A motte was an earthen mound with a flat top.  The excavation of earth for the mound left a ditch around the motte, which acted as a further defence. Sometimes a nearby stream was diverted to flood the ditch, creating a moat. Motte refers to the mound alone, but on top of the motte was often a fortified structure, such as a keep, and the flat top would be surrounded by a palisade. It was common for the motte to be accessed via a flying bridge (a bridge over the ditch from the counterscarp of the ditch around the motte to the edge of the top of the mound), as represented by the Bayeux Tapestry's depiction of Château de Dinan. (right - click on the picture to see a close-up)

A bailey, also called a ward, was a fortified enclosure. It was a common feature of castles, and most had at least one. The keep on top of the motte was the home of the lord in charge of the castle and a bastion of last defence, while the bailey was the home of the rest of the lord's household and gave them protection. The barracks for the garrison, stables, workshops, and storage facilities were often found in the bailey. Motte and bailey castles were relatively weak and uncomfortable places to live, so if the location of the castle was important enough it would gradually be replaced with a stone structure. Typically either a square stone keep would be built or a circular wall would replace the wooden stockade (palisade) to form a shell keep castle.

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The stone keep or donjon became a key feature of castle development from the 12th century. With walls up to four metres thick and space to provide comfortable living quarters for the lord, the stone keep became common across Europe. In the late 12th and early 13th centuries, a scientific approach to castle defence emerged. This led to the proliferation of towers, with an emphasis on flanking fire. Many new castles were polygonal or relied on concentric defence – several stages of defence within each other that could all function at the same time to maximise the castle's firepower. The origin of these changes in defence has been attributed to the Crusades, as European's came into contact with Arab castle technology.

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Krak des Chevaliers concentric castle - Syria. It was recently attacked in the Syrian civil war (drone footage)


Key castle defences

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Machicolation Hoarding Crenellation
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Embrasure/arrow loop Gatehouse Drawbridge


Attacking medieval castles

The most common means of attacking a castle was to lay siege to it. This meant preventing supplies and people coming out of the castle. In one of the most famous sieges of the Middle Ages, the Siege of Acre during the Third Crusade lasted from August 1189 until July 1191. The only significant development in the attack of castles was the development of the trebuchet, which again came from the middle east. In 1304, King Edward I lay siege to Stirling castle in Scotland with what was said to be the biggest trebuchet ever built, 'Warwolf'. It took five master carpenters and a team of labourers three months to put together. A recent TV documentary reconstructed the siege and built a trebuchet, using medieval techniques, capable destroying the castle walls.

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Contemporary depiction of a trebuchet at the Siege of Acre.
Biblotheque Municipale de Lyon

Powerful video reconstructing a medieval siege from the feature film Kingdom of Heaven (password 'bisb'). How accurate is the film? See Alex von Tunzelmann's review.

Concentric castles would take a long time to build and were very expensive. Beaumaris Castle in Wales, has surviving records from 1295–96 which describe 200 quarrymen, 400 stonemasons and as many as 2000 minor workmen. For example, costs for Beaumaris, were £14,500 (roughly 20 million Euros in today's money). Work started in 1295 and continued for 35 years and it was never completed. Gunpowder, introduced to Europe in the 14th century, did not have an immediate impact on castle building. Castles were not adapted to resist bombardment by cannons until the 15th century, when artillery became powerful enough to break down stone walls. Although castles were built across Europe well into the 16th century, new techniques to deal with improved cannon-fire eventually led to them becoming uncomfortable and undesirable places to live.

Activity 1

Make a copy of the diagram of a motte and bailey castle. Add labels to each of the key features.

Examine the defensive features of the Swiss medieval castle of Chillon. Explain why this castle would have been so difficult to attack. Rather that simply listing the relevant defensive features, it is important you explain carefully how each defensive feature functions.

Medieval church architecture  

Before we look at the role and importance of the medieval church, we are first going to look at the buildings they left behind. The medieval church building was not merely a place of worship, it was a site where consecrated stones, with the help of a priest and holy relics, could transform ordinary bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. (transubstantiation) But the building was also an expression of the political power of the church.  The sheer size and weight of the church were meant to leave people awestruck. These great cathedrals often took two or three generations to complete. The ideal church was meant to appear as if it was heaven on earth.

As the power and importance of the church increased during the Middle Ages, so the architecture of church buildings sought to reflect this power. The key innovation was the development of gothic. On 11 June 1144 in the presence of the French King at Basilica of St Denis, outside Paris, Abbot Suger revealed a new architectural style, that though the use of the ribbed vault and the pointed arches brought light to the heart of the church. It was an architectural revolution. See Khan Academy on this.

Lausanne Gothic cathedral  1165-1275
The largest church in Switzerland

Activity 2

Using the PowerPoint and film above, explain in your own words the main differences between Romanesque and Gothic styles. You should illustrate your explanations with images you have researched.

Download the floor plan of Amiens Cathedral. Research the various features of the medieval cathedral and add them with descriptions to the plan. You might want to start with a Khan Academy tour of Amiens.


And finally, just to see how much you have learnt.



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