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
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
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
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
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
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!
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 is how the majority of people would be carrying their weapon.
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
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
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’
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
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
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.
Don’t Swim In The Moat!
While the primary purpose of a moat surrounding a castle was to protect the castle against attackers, it also helped with waste disposal. Many medieval castles also used a plumbing system that would flush all of the waste right into the surrounding moat — known as Garderobes.
The plumbing system extended outside of the walls of the castle that could be opened to empty into the moat. So, if someone did attempt to cross the moat, they would be met with far worse than just a body of water.
Without Forks, Food Was Often Contaminated
The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty ImagesAlthough spoons and knives were available at the time, forks weren’t, which resulted in much of the lower class eating with their hands. While this might not seem like the worst thing, considering that we still eat many things with our hands today, back then, their hands were far dirtier.
While we frequently wash our hands with soap and water, this was uncommon back then, with most people didn’t even wash their hands after going to the bathroom, working with animals, or worse. This resulted in a lot of people getting sick by contaminating their food.
Surgery Had Little To No Sterilization
Although there was some degree of medicine and surgical procedures during the Middle Ages, the concept of bacteria and microorganisms wasn’t known, and surgery often resulted in the death of the patient.
While sterilization is one of the most important aspects of any surgery today, back then, physicians wouldn’t always wash their hands or even clean their equipment before performing an operation. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that people began washing their hands after Hungarian doctor Ignaz Semmelweis discovered that clean hands and instruments lowered the risk of infection.
Urine Was Used For Unlikely Purposes
Human urine was used for a variety of purposes in the Middle Ages, including as an antiseptic to clean wounds. As if that wasn’t enough, even though clothes were rarely washed, when they were, it wasn’t uncommon for urine to be used as a cleaning agent.
In order to get stains out of clothes, it was common for people to use a combination of ash, lye, green grapes, and urine. Considering that their clothes weren’t washed for extended periods of time, surely using urine didn’t help in regards to their smell.
Many Peasant Men Didn’t Shave
While some peasants did have the opportunity to wash their hair every now and then, shaving was not at the top of the list in terms of hygiene. At the time, mirrors were made of blackened glass or polished metal, so it was difficult to shave even if you wanted to.
For the majority of the population, the only option men had was to visit a barber to get a proper shave. However, this required money and resulted in a lot of men foregoing shaving altogether.
Beds Were Not A Space Of Cleanliness
Unless the individual was a member of the nobility, their bed was likely made of straw. While this might make sense, the problem was that the straw was rarely changed. On top of that, it was slept on by someone who had been working outside all day and rarely bathed.
This made beds particularly enticing to fleas and lice, which would make the straw bed their home. However, some preventative measures were taken, such as mixing herbs and flowers into the straw.
Chamber Pots Were The Norm
Because there was no plumbing, and the majority of people didn’t live in a castle that had actual bathrooms, most people resorted to using chamber pots. These were bowls or pots that were typically placed under one’s bed so they could relieve themselves during the night.
Once they took care of their business, they would usually push it back under their bed. Emptying chamber pots wasn’t the most sanitary process either. It wasn’t uncommon for people to throw the contents of their chamber pots out of their windows and onto the street below.
A Peculiar Cure For Baldness
Male baldness is not a new phenomenon, and men have been self-conscious about their balding heads for centuries. In the Middle Ages, there was a supposed cure for baldness for those who were daring enough to try it.
In a medical handbook written in the 17th century, a mixture of chicken or pigeon droppings mixed with ashes, lye and applied to the head was said to help the balding man. It’s not clear how many desperate men tried this formula, but surely it didn’t work.
Bloodletting Was Thought To Cure Anything
During the medieval period, a standard medical procedure was bloodletting, a process in which amounts of a person’s blood was removed from their body to cure an illness. The blood could be removed by making an incision and letting the blood drip into a basin, or leeches that would supposedly suck out the “contaminated” blood.
The leeches would be applied to the “sick” part of the body where they would feed until they grew fat and fell off. Sometimes, people would even perform bloodletting on themselves until it was discovered that removing blood from the body does the opposite of curing an illness.
The Least-Sanitary Job Out There
While commoners and even most nobles had to deal with cesspits, chamber pots, and public bench toilets, the king was much luckier. He had someone known as “The Groom of the King’s Close Stool,” who was responsible for carrying around a portable toilet for the king and wiping him clean when he had relieved himself.
While most might assume that this position was only for the most desperate, it was the complete opposite. The Groom of the King’s Close Stool was one of the king’s closest confidants and was a respected position that usually led to bigger and better things.
The Truth About Canopy Beds
Canopy beds can be used for a variety of reasons, such as privacy and even to retain heat. However, they also served another purpose, which was to keep the bed and the person sleeping in it clean.
In the Middle Ages, structures didn’t have the same type of roofing as today, which allowed for bugs, other pests, and bird droppings to seep through the cracks and inside the building. The canopy bed was a way to prevent anything unwanted from falling onto the bed or the person sleeping in it.
There Was No Escaping The Lice
Both the affluent and the poor suffered from lice, and there was no way to get away from the nasty buggers. They could be so unbearable that the wealthy would even shave their hair to escape them and don a wig instead.
However, this proved to be futile because the wigs were made with real hair, they could become infected just an easily as someone with natural hair. At times, people could be so infested with lice that they wouldn’t remove their hat when eating for fear of getting lice in their food.
Rain Was Not Good For Sewage Systems
With people emptying their chamber pots in front of their houses, the roads were already disgusting and disease-ridden on an average day. However, when it rained, things got a whole lot worse.
Streets tended to be made of dirt and cobblestone that sloped into a rainwater ditch in the middle of the road to prevent flooding. Yet, with people discarding their waster wherever they could, when it rained, these sewage ditches would overflow, leading all of the trash and human waste to flood into the streets.
The River Thames Was A Cesspit In Itself
While almost all of medieval Europe smelled worse than most people today can even imagine, few places stank worse than the River Thames in England. This is because it was used as a natural sewer that people would dump just about anything in.
One bridge became so popular among butchers to discard their rotten meat and animal parts that it became known as “Butchers Bridge”, constantly covered in dried blood and rotting meat. It wasn’t until 1369 that it became illegal to dump such waste into the river. But that didn’t make the smell go away.
Plague And Disease Was Rampant
Considering that the people living in the medieval era weren’t knowledgeable about how a lack of hygiene greatly affected one’s health, plagues and epidemics were common and devastating. Living in constant filth, poor food preparation and storage, among countless other things gave way to constant sicknesses.
One of the most devastating, however, was the Black Death, which was rampant between 1347 and 1351, killing a vast amount of the medieval European population. Of course, this was just one of the many illnesses that swept across Europe due to poor hygiene, false medical practices, and deplorable living standards.
Be Thankful For Your Dentist
Because the modern toothbrush wasn’t patented until the 19th century, for the most part, people were on their own when it came to taking care of their mouth and teeth. Typically, people in the medieval era would rinse their mouths with water and use a rag to wipe their teeth as a basic form of cleaning.
It was also common for people to chew on mint and other herbs to help improve their breath. Regardless, noble or not, people’s teeth would usually rot, and they would have to be removed without the use of anesthetics. Pray you don’t have any serious dental issues, because little could be done to help.
Ghastly Way To Relieve Pressure
People living in the Middle Ages didn’t have the medical knowledge we have today, so when it came to matters of the mind, things definitely got messy. Trepanning was a surgical process that was used to “cure” people suffering from mental illnesses, migraines, epilepsy, and more.
It involved drilling a hole into the skull to expose the outer membrane of the brain, which supposedly alleviated the pressure in the brain and cured the patient. Unsurprisingly, exposing the brain to the incredibly unsanitary conditions of the medieval world resulted in many people dying from the procedure.
Rushes Were Used As Carpeting
As already mentioned, floors were filthy back then. To clean up any dirt, mud, or other mess that might be tracked in from the outside, many commoners placed rushes on the floors of their homes. Rushes are a water plant that was dried out and laid on the floor to act as a type of removable carpet.
While this might not sound like the worst idea, the reality was that rushes weren’t changed as often as one might think. This meant that the floors were covered with animal waste, mud, and whatever else is outside, which became a breeding ground for diseases and unwanted critters who made their home in the rushes of a home.
Bathing Didn’t Even Get You Clean
Back in the Middle Ages, taking a bath was something typically reserved for the rich, and even then, they didn’t do it as often as we do today. However, if you didn’t have the luxury of living in a castle, your chances to bath were few and far in between, and on the rare occasion that you did, it wasn’t the most pleasant experience.
When the poor would bath, it would be a communal affair, with countless people all using the same tubs and water. Considering how dirty everyone was, you might be cleaner skipping out on the public bath.
The Public Facilities Were VERY Public
Although not everyone had the privilege of having a toilet in or around their home, there were public facilities that could be found in more densely populated areas such as cities. Of course, these public bathrooms were rarely maintained and would have most people today running in the other direction.
Aside from the toilets being the perfect place to catch a disease, there was also little to no privacy. Many bathrooms consisted of a room above a cesspit with benches that had holes in them where people would communally take care of their business.