What Life Was Like In Medieval Castles


Movies and TV have made
life in a castle look like an episode of
MTV Cribs, provided you’re one of the nobles. But it wasn’t all
feasts and festivals. Castles were dark,
dank, smelly fortresses loaded with vermin and disease. Today we’re exploring
what life was really like in a medieval castle. If you were one of the
lucky ruling class, you got to indulge in rich wine
and the occasional hot bath. For the most part, there wasn’t
much comfort or relaxation to be found outside
of going to church and torturing an enemy to death. Before we get started,
be sure to subscribe to the Weird History Channel. Oh, and that’s not enough. Leave a comment to us and
let us know what topics you would like to hear about. [DRUM BEATS] For Europeans in
medieval times, plumbing was a distant dream,
which means there was no such thing as running
water and absolutely no way to flush a toilet. Waste just collected in a big
cesspool beneath the toilets, essentially making every
castle a giant porta potty. Now picture that porta potty on
the hottest day of the summer. Maybe that’s why everyone
on Game of Thrones is so angry all the time. And it wasn’t just
the perpetual stench of feces making
castle life stinky. No running water means no baths,
unless you were super rich. So all the servants
in a castle were running around smelling
as ripe as my old gym bag. On top of that, the servants
couldn’t afford medicine, like lords and nobles could. So your average castle
dweller was wandering around, intensely ill and trying to
make do with home remedies or praying to God
it would go away. And hey, speaking
of those toilets, privacy wasn’t really
a thing in castles unless you owned the place. So when you had to run
off to the bathroom to do your necessaries,
you’d be doing it on a long wooden bench
with several holes cut into it in full view of your
friends, coworkers, and really anyone else who
happened to walk by. Again, there was no flushing. So your business
would just drop down into a gigantic pit of
horrors inside the castle. And let’s hope you never
accidentally dropped your wagon keys in there. Because you might as
well be throwing it into a septic volcano. You know how cramped the house
gets when one or two relatives come to visit. Multiply that times 100, and
that’s what living in a castle was like. Castles required
dozens of servants, just to maintain the
day-to-day workings, not to mention the several
generations of the lord and lady’s families
living there and all of their personal
servants in attendance. It was like living in
a tiny, cramped city, all serving the needs
of a single family. We’ve all seen enough fantasy
films and Disney cartoons to know that castles had
dungeons where the lord and lady could throw criminals,
political opponents, or really anyone who happened to offend
them at any particular moment. What they tend to skip
in the Disney films is that these prisoners
were routinely tortured in grotesque ways. One popular method
involved letting the prisoner be eaten alive from
the inside out by hungry rats. Ah, isn’t that fun to watch? In addition to being
just plain old sadistic, the common belief was that the
extreme pain helped cleanse a person of their
sins, which brings terrifying new
meaning to the phrase “This is for your own good.” And while we’re
talking about rats– Rats can be tricky to
deal with, even today. So imagine what
it was like living in a gigantic, dark, damp castle
with no modern traps or pest control. Rats were everywhere. And there really wasn’t much
you could do about them. You just sort of
accepted rat infestation as a part of normal life,
kind of like the Chevy Malibu of the day. After a while, you
would imagine people would get used to the rats. But many medieval folks
were deathly afraid of them. It certainly didn’t help that
they were a popular instrument of torture or that
around this time, they carried a plague that
eradicated around half the population of Europe. At this point, it should
come as no surprise that castle dwelling folk
liked to stay sauced. Because the best way
to get through a day inside an overcrowded,
pooh-smelling house of rat torture was with a
mug of ale firmly in hand. The lords and ladies got to
drink pretty much whatever they wanted, including fine
wines, beers, and spirits. But the servants, they had
to take what they could get. It was actually safer to
drink alcohol than water. Because most water you could
find would be so contaminated, the TSA would confiscated
it as a weapon. With all that drinking
going on, you’d assume that most
people in a castle wouldn’t drag themselves out of
bed until, mm, at least noon. And while that may have
been true for the lords, the servants had
to get up to work as soon as the sun came up. Electricity obviously
didn’t exist yet. So sunlight was
crucially important. Castles are dark places,
even during the day. So the servants
had to capitalize on every second of sunlight,
just to get their work done. Even if you didn’t
work in a castle, unless you were
wealthy, odds are you worked as a merchant, or
a craftsman, or a laborer, so you had to be up
at the crack of dawn if you expected
to make any money. Contrary to popular
belief, people liked taking baths
in medieval times, as much as they do today. It’s just that clean water was
hard to come by, especially for the lower class. We really can’t stress
how important plumbing is. The tub itself was a
cartoonishly giant wooden bucket that could be
carried from room to room in the castle for
people to bathe in. Didn’t approach the definition
of either hygienic or private. But at least you got to scrub
off some of that castle funk. Castles were essentially
giant basements with nothing in the
way of insulation. They were designed primarily
as fortresses, rather than dwellings. So everything was
made of cold stone. And what few windows there were
didn’t let in much sunlight. The lords and ladies
would have the nicer rooms with fireplaces and windows. But the servants’
quarters were often located in the lower
interior of the castles, frigid, lightless warrens
that were breeding grounds for diseases that
thrive in the damp cold. At that point, I think
I’d rather sleep outside. There was always something
going on in a castle, whether celebrating some
festival or holiday, or entertaining a
visiting noble family. So consequently, huge
extravagant meals were the norm, rather
than the exception. If you were one
of the cooks, you got to spend all day
preparing the feast and then have your own
meager meal in the kitchen. Meanwhile, the lords
and ladies of the house would entertain their
guests at a long wooden meal table with people seated
according to their importance. The important people
would be seated at the head of the table,
while the servants would be tucked all the way in
the back out of sight. Because nothing
ruins a meal like having to look at poor people. It’s like going to the Waffle
House after your wedding, but sadder. Meals were taken in the
great hall of a castle. And as we mentioned, you
were seated in the hall according to your status. But your status didn’t only
affect where you got to sit, it also determined
what you got to eat. The lord and lady and
their family and guests would be served gourmet
dishes with exotic spices and lavish ingredients. If you were a
servant, however, you got to watch them eat
this food while tucking in some stew or a meat pie
at the dim end of the table. But hey, it could be worse. At least you’re eating. More than 85% of
a town’s residents were considered
peasants and weren’t allowed inside the castle. So even though they
were working the land for the lord or the
lady, it was up to them to feed themselves
and their families. The lord and lady
of a castle were responsible for
governing the land, which included regularly making a
bunch of difficult decisions and engaging in fierce
political negotiations. So they couldn’t be bothered
with trivial matters like preparing their meals or
making sure the castle didn’t fall into disrepair. That’s why every castle had
a huge staff of servants. In addition to the standard
housekeeping duties required to keep
the castle running, they also had to attend to the
every need and whim of the lord and lady and their families. Nobody’s job was easy. But at least the
lords and ladies got to kick back
once in a while. As we’ve established
by now, castles were essentially reeky
stone garbage heaps. Part of the never-ending effort
to keep the castle relatively clean was the spreading of
rushes, reeds, and herbs across the floor. The plants would absorb
the unsightly spills and hopefully cover up some of
the more unbearable stenches. Switching out the old
rushes for clean ones was not unlike moving a body, as
beer, grease, fragments, bone, spittle, excrements
of dogs and cats, and everything that is
nasty would be revealed. Basically, wherever
you went in the castle, you were walking on a layer
of barely concealed filth. Sounds like my
college dorm room. In the time before microwaves,
George Foreman grills, and Sur la Table, all cooking was
done over open flames, which could be a problem
if you’re cooking in a building full
of timber and hay. In the first half
of the Middle Ages, most Kitchens were built
out of wood for reasons that history has not yet
adequately explained. Consequently, your entire
kitchen catching fire over a stray ember from
today’s lunch service was a constant possibility. Everyone and everything
were flame broiled. It wasn’t until later
that stone became the building material
of choice and hearths were constructed to keep
cook fires contained. Oh, OSHA just liked this video. Every castle had
an on-site chapel so the lord and lady
could attend morning mass. In fact, along with
the great hall, the chapel was the defining
structure of the castle. Everything else was constructed
around those two primary rooms. If you lived in a
particularly fancy castle, the chapel would
be two stories so that the lord and lady
and their families could sit in the upper level
and literally look down on the servants. Look at that poor person. So gross. The Middle Ages were tough, so
much so that even the best case scenario of living in a castle
was pretty much a miserable experience. How would you like
it in a castle? Let us know in the
comments below. And while you’re at it, check
out some of these other videos from our Weird History.

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