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The alsatian castle


Les ruines du Châteu du Nideck, Oberhaslach - copyright F. Zvardon

Castles : stone sentinels defying time and history

A castle was a fortified structure that was a locus of power and served as a dwelling place and sometimes as an administrative centre. The castles of which old vestiges remain in Alsace are mostly those in the mountains, rather than in the plain. Born of the major forest clearing movement undertaken by the high nobility starting in the 10th century, fortified castles developed in Alsace due to the waning of Germanic Holy Roman Empire. They embodied the protection of the region and its inhabitants and gave concrete form to the lord’s authority. Emblematic figures of the region’s mediaeval history, these castles towered over the plain and kept watch over the valleys, communication routes and sometimes the abbeys. To the delight of many a visitor, a great deal of them have withstood the test of time, as they were made of stone from the 12th century onwards. Today, their impressive ruins inspire respect and admiration.


Alsace boasts several different types of fortified castles

- The pfalz (from the Latin palatium, meaning palace): residence of kings and emperors. This type of castle featured a great hall (aula), a chapel, presence chambers and domestic buildings.

- Motte-and-bailey castles on the plain: composed of a motte and a bailey, these castles were protected by moats (usually full of water) and were reinforced by a rampart. The motte usually featured a wooden tower (more rarely in masonry), which served as a defensive refuge and as the residence for the lord.

- The wasserburg: a castle on the plain surrounded by moats (ditches filled with water) supplied by a waterway.

- Octagonal castles on the plain: there are four of these in Alsace.

- Troglodyte castles in the mountains: sitting on top of, up against and inside of rocky ridges, these castles abound in the Northern Vosges and in the Palatinate in Germany. The lord would live at the summit of the hill. A network of staircases and rooms with a variety of uses (i.e. kitchens, stables, cellars etc.) was carved into the rock; the bailey extended from the foot of the castle.


The castle: a military building

Castles are composed of defensive elements such as the drawbridge, the portcullis, machicolations and towers. Mountain castles usually had one or several moats so as to set them apart from the mountain, whereas on the plain, castles were completely surrounded by moats. The gateway was always well protected, and was usually located near the keep. Sometimes, the door featured a murder hole. The curtain wall was crucial: sometimes it would be reinforced by fausse-brays, flanking towers and bastions. Defence of the castle was also ensured by the wall walk, sometimes fitted with hoardings. The keep symbolised the power of the lord; it could be circular, square or five-sided. It protected the main entrance, and was always accessed through a first floor entry. It was not only a refuge; it could be inhabited or serve as a watchtower or prison. Principally in mountain strongholds, the residents of the castle were almost totally self-sufficient. The bailey housed domestic buildings (comparable to those on a farm: stables, barns and hog houses) and craft workshops (for working on wood, metal, leather, bones etc.). The bailey also featured plant and vegetable gardens.


Le Seigneur du château

The inhabited castle: comfort and refinement

All castles featured a great hall, which was the centre of the castle. This sumptuously decorated and comfortable hall featured windows with seats, monumental fireplaces and stoves. Luxurious furnishings, as well as tapestries and rugs, completed the decor. The bedrooms had beds, trunks and niches serving as cabinets. The windows had glass (from the end of the 13th century) and shutters. The rooms were lit by oil lamps.

Castles also featured sanitary facilities: latrines and baths for proper hygiene. The kitchens, fitted with sinks, a fireplace and sometimes a bread oven, also contained all the utensils required for preparing meals. In castles, water came from springs, wells (frequently in the plain) and filtering water tanks that provided high quality water.

Finally, a good number of castles featured a chapel, so that there was a place of prayer inside the castle walls.


Foulage au Moyen-Age

What was on the lord’s menu?
Wild game (on feast days), farmed meat (i.e. pork, beef and goat), fishing and forest products (i.e. mushrooms and chestnuts), eggs, white bread, dairy products, fruit, vegetables and herbs such as garlic, rosemary and coriander from the vegetable garden. However, the staple food was millet or oat gruel. Spices were still a luxury; both costly and rare. Honey was used in place of sugar. People living in castles also drank beer, mead and wine, while "schnaps" (a colourless spirit) was considered as a medicinal remedy at the end of the Middle Ages!


Musiciens au Moyen-Age

Life in a castle
There were always plenty of opportunities for entertainment. Music (on instruments such as the harp, the psaltery, the Irish harp, the flute, the whistle and bagpipes) and singing accompanied certain activities such as sewing and embroidery. Men and women of the nobility had to know how to dance, and did so with relish. They often played games, such as Nine Men’s Morris, backgammon, chess, dominos and dice. Finally, men found a good source of occupation in training for tournaments and handling weapons.


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