18 July 2021

Review: Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph Gies & Frances Gies

Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph Gies & Frances Gies book cover
Life in a Medieval Castle
was originally published in 1974 and reissued in 2015, and was used by the author George R. R. Martin as a primary resource when writing his A Song of Ice and Fire series, upon which the legendary A Game of Thrones adaptation is based. Authors Joseph Gies and Frances Gies were both historians and published many books focussed on medieval history and the Middle Ages, before the married couple passed away in 2006 and 2013 respectively.

I learned a great deal reading this non fiction title which was broken down into many chapters, including 'The Castle Comes to England', 'A Day in the Castle' and 'The Castle at War'. I will say that the black and white photos were terrible and I could hardly make out what was pictured, which is disappointing given the opportunity to include better photography in the reprinting stage in 2015. This is best rectified by having Google Images at your disposal while reading, which is how I enjoyed this title.

There's nothing better than getting down into the nitty gritty of everyday life, and I knew that castle floors were strewn with rushes and herbs which were regularly replaced, but this quote from Erasmus in the book was gold. Erasmus observed that often under the rushes lay:
"an ancient collection of beer, grease, fragments, bones, spittle, excrement of dogs and cats and everything that is nasty." Page 60
Gross! It was interesting to learn on page 76 that the medieval feminine ideal was "blonde, delicate, fair-skinned, boyish of figure." That was a bit of a surprise, although I guess it's not that different to the lean and flat chested ideal in women's fashion in the 1920s.

I love learning about the different roles in households from different eras, and discovered that the role of butler (or bottler) originally worked in the buttery where beverages were kept in butts or bottles. A completely new job title to me was the pantler, who was the servant in charge of the pantry and the bread. I also enjoy identifying surnames that survive today that originate in the duties the person once would have held, like: Archer, Baker, Carter, Cook, Cooper, Chandler, Gardener, Knight, Miller, Smith, and Thatcher to name a few. Joseph Gies and Frances Gies were able to introduce me to a few new ones in Hayward, who was in charge of the haie, and repairing the hedges and fences; and the Woodward, who had charge of the lord's woods and was elected by his fellow villagers.

The descriptions of the food eaten in the period set the taste buds watering, although I don't think I'd like this dish:
"In addition to roasting and stewing, meat might be pounded to a paste, mixed with other ingredients, and served as a kind of custard." Page 112
The authors managed to take the reader through many facets of the medieval castle, focussing on Chepstow as their case study or best example. I think they best summarise the appeal of castles and castle ruins to tourists and wannabe tourists like me in their following conclusion to the book:
"In Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere, with the aid of a guide or a guidebook and some imagination, one can stand in the grassy bailey and re-people the weathered stone ramparts and towers and the vanished wooden outbuildings with archers and knights, servants, horses, and wagoners, the lord and lady and their guests, falcons and hunting dogs, pigs and poultry - all the unkempt, unsafe, unsavoury but irresistibly appealing life of the thirteenth century." Page 224
Life in a Medieval Castle by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies is recommended for readers with an interest in history, castles (obviously) the Middle Ages and the medieval way of life.

You can seize this book at Booktopia.

My Rating:

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  1. Actually p76 makes sense because in the Middle Ages the average age of a bride was 12 years old so ‘boyish of figure’ was to be expected!

    1. Thanks Shelleyrae, I did wonder whether the pre-pubescent body type was preferred due to the fact that the marriageable age was so young. But that's not the age of sexual maturity, so still a little strange to me.


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