They swept through the country andbombarded and destroyed many castles. This invasion signaled the end of thecastle as a stronghold of defense. For centuries it had been the dominantfortification in Western Europe for the defense of kings, nobility, andtownspeople. Ancient cities were often walled to keep out invaders, and withinthe walls there was usually a citadel, a strongly built fortification occupyingthe highest or militarily most advantageous position.
A castle is much like sucha walled city and its citadel contracted into a smaller space. Castles werebasically fortified locations. The word itself comes from the Latin castellum. Up to the 6th century fortifications were primarily communities in which most ofthe population lived. But in the middle of the 6th century, the armies of theByzantine Empire began to build strong forts as defensive positions. For thenext few centuries this castle building was confined to the Byzantine Empire,but later hordes of Islamic warriors who swept out of Arabia to conquer theMiddle East, North Africa, and much Byzantine territory also started buildingsuch forts.
Western Europe, in the depths of the Dark Ages from the 5th throughthe 9th century, had no such works. But late in the 9th century, as local lordsand kings began to consolidate power, castle building began probably in France. Once begun, castle building spread rapidly to other areas. But it was not untilthe 12th and 13th centuries, after the Crusaders returned from their warsagainst Islam in Palestine, that castles as imposing as those of the Byzantineor Islamic empires were constructed in Europe.
Many of the stone castles of thelate Middle Ages still stand. Some are tourist attractions, in various states ofrepair, along the Rhine River from Mainz to Cologne in Germany, dotted about theFrench countryside, or perched on hilltops in Spain. The original French castleshad been built on open plains. Later ones, however, were situated on rockycrags, at river forks, or in some position where advancing enemies would findapproach extremely difficult, if not impossible. The fortifications became moreelaborate with time, with considerable attention paid to making the livingquarters more comfortable.
A typical castle was usually guarded on the outskirtsby a surrounding heavy wooden fence of sharp-pointed stakes called a barbican . It was intended to prevent surprise attacks by delaying the advance ofassailants and giving those within the castle compound time to prepare to resistand attack. Inside the barbican stretched the lists, or wards: strips of landthat encircled the castle. The lists served as a road in time of peace and as atrap in war; once within the barbican the enemy was in the range of arrows shotfrom the castle walls.
In peacetime the lists also served as an exercise groundfor horses and occasionally as tournament grounds. Between the lists and thetowering outer walls of the castle itself was the moat, usually filled withwater. Across it stretched a drawbridge, which was raised every night. At thecastle end of the drawbridge was the portcullis, a large sliding door made ofwooden or iron grillwork hung over the entryway.
It moved up and down in groovesand was raised every day and lowered at night. In times of danger it blocked theway to the heavy oak gates that served as doors to the castle compound. Thesegates were so large that they were rarely opened except on ceremonial occasions. A smaller door was built into one of them to provide easy entrance and exit forthose who lived in the castle . A person known as the chief porter was chargedwith the responsibility of making sure that only friends passed through. Theouter walls of most castles were massively thick, sometimes as much as 15 feet.
At intervals were high towers, each a small fort in itself with provisions towithstand a long siege. When an attack was expected, wooden balconies were hungover the outer edges of the wall. During an attack, large stones were thrown orboiling oil poured from the balconies onto anyone trying to climb the wall. Thewall and the towers had hundreds of narrow openings through which defenderscould shoot arrows and other missiles. Inside the walls was the bailey, orcourtyard. At intervals around the bailey were the stables, a carpentry shop,the shop of