What It Was Like To Live In A Medieval Castle

During the medieval period in Europe, castles were the strongest fortified structures that housed royalty and nobility. With many still standing today, these structures were public defenses that guarded and controlled the surrounding lands. While most people have seen castles in films or read about them in novels, few know what it was actually like to live in one. Read on to learn how living in a medieval castle may have been better than living in a peasant’s hut, but wasn’t all it’s been made out to be.

Castles Were Packed With People

People in a banquet hall
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

When most people think of castles, an image of a king or a lord might come to mind. However, they were greatly outnumbered by the other hundreds of people that lived within the confines of its walls.

Not only did the ruler of the castle typically live with their entire extended family, but the castle had to be manned by soldiers and maintained by countless servants. Basically, a castle held a small village. Not to mention that the lords of castles often had guests who brought plenty of their own people with them.

You Did Not Want To End Up In The Dungeon

Man in a dungeon
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Castles had banquet halls, chambers, throne rooms, and kitchens, and many also had dungeons. These served as prisons inside of the castle where those who had committed crimes against the lord were kept.

The dungeons were usually located in the darkest depths of a castle, and the conditions were deplorable. Moreover, if you weren’t rotting away in a cell, the dungeons often had torture rooms that those unfortunate enough would visit if the lord or lady believed it was necessary.

Rats Were A Normalcy

Rats on a barrel
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The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images

Because castles were such murky, dark, and damp environments, they were the perfect homes for rats and other vermin. Although today, finding a rat in your home may be horrifying, it was a way of life in medieval castles.

However, that didn’t mean that people living at that time were less afraid of them. Not only did people fear their physical presence as many do today, but they were also known to carry diseases that were rampant during the medieval era.

Bathing Was A Chore And An Open Spectacle

Woman making a bath
DeAgostini/Getty Images
DeAgostini/Getty Images

Unlike the commoners who lived outside of the castle walls, those living within bathed on a more regular basis than most. However, that doesn’t mean that bathing was easy by any means.

Not only was finding clean water difficult, but servants usually had to heat the water and transport a wooden tub to whichever room it was required in. This usually meant that people bathed in the same tub, and in full view of anyone in the same room. Not only was this entire process unsanitary, but it also lacked any privacy.

There Was No Sleeping In

Sunrise with trees
Print Collector/Getty Images
Print Collector/Getty Images

With no electricity, a fire was the only source of light, which meant that the daytime was the best time to be the most productive. Because of this, everyone needed to take advantage of whatever sunlight was available, which meant waking up early.

Because most castles only had small windows, indoor work began at sunrise, and it was the same was for outdoor chores. Most individuals had to wake up well before the sun even rose to get fires going, cook food, and prepare themselves and their lord for the day.

Better Bundle Up!

Castle room
Imagno/Getty Images
Imagno/Getty Images

While castles may have protected those living within from the elements, by no means were they a place of warmth. Castles were built using stone as a purpose to keep enemies out, not necessarily for comfort.

With the stone providing no insulation, castles kept the cold in, which was especially problematic in a region that is known to be cold and wet. In addition, the windows were so small that they let in minimal sunlight, and those were only located in certain parts of the castle. Many of the rooms in the castle had no windows at all and were more or less an icebox.

Say Goodbye To Privacy

People in a dining hall
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Although castles may look like impenetrable fortresses on the outside, on the inside, they usually had an open floor plan, and there was little space for the privacy that we hold dear today.

While the lord and the lady of the castle would have private chambers to themselves, the majority of the servants and others dwelling within the walls were forced to spend their days and nights surrounded by one another. There were shared sleeping quarters, bathrooms, dining halls, and more. There was essentially no escape from human interaction.

Hosting Guests Was No Easy Task

Medieval picture of a feast
Photo 12/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Photo 12/ Universal Images Group via Getty Images

If you think having a dinner party or hosting Thanksgiving is a pain, you couldn’t imagine what it was like to hold a feast, banquet, or any other occasion in a castle. Unfortunately for the servants, large gatherings and extravagant meals were the norm, and it took more work than most people think.

Numerous courses had to be prepared without the luxury of modern technologies, and they were expected to be suitable for all of the nobility in attendance. This meant that the food had to be harvested, processed, prepared, and served all at the perfect time. Don’t forget about the dishes!

There Was No Shortage Of Alcohol

tapestry
Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Alcoholic beverages such as beer, mead, wine, and ale were the preferred drinks during meals during the medieval period. Just like today, those who produced the finest alcohol were held in high regard.

However, it’s worth noting that the lower class drank beer mostly because it was safer than drinking most of the water available. While royalty might have had access to anything they wanted at the time, the lower classes took whatever they could get their hands on.

There Was A Status Quo

Woman serving at a banquet
Culture Club/Getty Images
Culture Club/Getty Images

Inside a castle, there was a banquet hall where a lot of the castle dwellers would eat together. However, much like high school, there was a structure to where people ate. Back in the medieval ages, people sat in halls according to their level of importance.

The lord and the lady sat at the head of the table, and their meals were served first (they were also the highest quality). It then went down the table according to rank until the lowliest people in the castle were served. Nevertheless, the last people served were still treated better than the serfs living in the fields.

The Floors Weren’t Exactly Pleasant

Men in a castle
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Keeping a castle clean was hard enough without having to deal with the floors. With so many people treading through on a day-to-day basis, bringing in all of the filth from the ground outside, it was almost impossible.

The flooring was typically lined with fresh reeds and herbs to help soak up everything that was tracked in from the outside. When the reeds, straw, or other material was removed, the floors would need to be deep cleaned before they were lined once again.

Kitchen Fires Weren’t Uncommon

Men working in a kitchen
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

In the Middle Ages, the kitchens were primarily built out of timber. With so many different cooking fires going consistently, it wasn’t unusual for fires to break out.

This would often result in a large-scale fire that usually ended with the entire kitchen burning down. Luckily, because castles were made of stone, the kitchens were often the only casualty of a fire. Eventually, the kitchens were built using stone as well, with hearths to keep the flames under control.

Going To The Bathroom Was Not A Pleasant Experience

Exterior of a castle
Photo12/UIG/Getty Images
Photo12/UIG/Getty Images

Although today, many of us enjoy the luxury of doing our business behind closed doors and with running water, that wasn’t the case during the medieval era. Back then, going to the bathroom meant sitting on a long bench made of wood with a hole in it.

Very much like a modern-day Porta-Potty, the waste would drop into a cesspool, which would later be emptied into a castle’s moat (if there was one). If that wasn’t bad enough, there were no stalls, and most people did what they needed to do in the direct view of others.

Castles Smelled Incredibly Unpleasant

Picture of old castle
PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
PHAS/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Due to the non-existence of plumbing and overall lack of hygiene, castles were not the healthiest or nicest-smelling places to be. Even though there were servants at the beck and call of the lords and ladies, it didn’t mean that they were able to keep the castle pristine.

With little fresh water to go around, castles weren’t cleaned to the standard of hygiene that many of us think of today. Because of this, sickness was rampant within the confines of a castle, and the stench was horrid.

Stairways Were Built Clockwise

Photo of stairs
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

In most medieval castles, almost all of the staircases were constructed clockwise. However, this was no coincidence, but as a form of defense. The reason for this is that if an enemy were to attack, those going up the stairs would have difficulty wielding their swords with their right hand, which the majority of people are.

On the other hand, those going down the stairs to defend the castle would have the advantage of the full swing of a weapon.

Attending Church Was A Must

Drawing of a chapel
Print Collector/Getty Images
Print Collector/Getty Images

On top of everything that most castles provided, one of the essential aspects of any such structure was an onsite chapel. However, this was typically reserved for the lord and his family to attend mass.

In some instances, the chapel was the only other room aside from the great hall that would be distinguishable from the rest of the castle. Although many people still attend religious services today, back then, it was so commonplace that people didn’t even have to leave their homes.

Other Than The Lord And Lady, People Were There To Serve

Servants in the kitchen
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images
English Heritage/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Maintaining a castle is a lot of work, which is why there were so many people living in them at one time. However, the work was very clearly divided. The majority of the people there were only there to serve the lord and lady of the castle, as well as their family members.

Their job was to make the lord and his family feel comfortable and handle any of the daily chores that needed to be done. On the other hand, the lord dealt with political matters and made decisions regarding his keep.

The Lord And Lady Lived In A ‘Solar’

Painting of a castle
Ashmolean Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images
Ashmolean Museum/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Although the vast majority of those living in the castle had to be in a communal setting, that certainly wasn’t the case for the lord and lady.

Although they didn’t live there every second of their lives, when they were there, they resided in a place in the castle known as the solar. The solar was typically located at the top of one of the towers and was one of the few places that anyone could have privacy.

The Lords Of Castles Ate Like Kings

Lord cutting meat
Bettmann/Getty Images
Bettmann/Getty Images

Although kings had their own castles, the lords who had their own also lived in extravagance, especially when it came to food. More often than not, meals were served in a series of courses with each containing what we would now consider rare meats such as peacock, porpoise, and swan.

Many also ate their food in what was known as a “trencher,” which was a hollowed-out piece of bread that was filled with the meats served. Nobles ate very few vegetables, which may have resulted in countless health problems in royal families.

They Kept Enough Guards As Needed

Knight on a horse
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images
Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images

By definition, castles were pointless unless there were soldiers there to guard them. However, the number of guards housed at a castle greatly varied depending on the situation.

During a time of peace, maybe a few dozen knights were needed as a light defense to raise the portcullis and other simple duties. Yet, in a time of war, especially a siege, as many soldiers as possible were forced into the castle to hold the structure.