Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Robert Liddiard - Castles in Context; Power, Symbolism and Landscape, 1066 to 1500

I know little about "Castle Studies" apart from a fascination with these historic buildings and many visits to castle sites in the UK.

Robert Liddiard is a self-proclaimed revisionist. He believes that the "castle story" as it has been told for generations, fundamentally misses the point. Rather than being predominately military sites, the centres of great sieges and battles, Liddiard argues that the castle played a much more symbolic role, albeit reinforced by a contemporary perception that these huge buildings were backed up by military and economic power.

The author makes a compelling argument. Using dozens of examples of many castles from across the UK, he shows firstly how the castles raised by William in the aftermath of the Norman conquest were about "legitimising the succession of a new elite". Interestingly, centuries later, local lords would design new castles in the style of Norman keeps to help legitimise their own authority with reference to earlier symbols of authority.

Liddiard demonstrates the relative rarity of sieges and attacks on castles, going on to show how when these did take place, their rarely took the form of the huge sieges beloved of many novels and films. Instead castle warfare could well have been a highly choreographed affair, based on notions of chivalry, far removed from modern visions of battle. Many castles, were actually badly designed from a military point of view,
At Beaumaris, for example, the most 'perfect' example of medieval military science, there was provision for a maximum of eleven separate households; to contemporaries it may have appeared more like a palace, rather than a tool of war.
This story is true of many other sites, Liddiard goes on to point out that what was often more important was the siting of the castle for visual impact. Frequently sites were chosen not for defensive purpose, but rather for the sense of power, domination and economic muscle they would have portrayed. Castle builders may well have constructed elaborate routes of approach to the castle, leading visitors past symbols of wealth (such as dovecotes or deer parks) past fortifications designed to emphasise military muscle, and on into a central area were they may well have witnessed the Lord or King sitting in his grandeur.

We also learn how the surrounding area would have been planned. Liddiard shows how we are used to thinking of palaces and manor houses having elaborate planned gardens, but many medieval castles may have been designed similarly. Lakes, deer parks, fish ponds and the like would have been visible - places like Kenilworth near Birmingham show this well, with huge artificial lakes. Okehampton Castle in Devon apparently has a strong military side, visible to people passing on the road to the north, but from the south it is more domestic, with "elaborate fenestration, window seats in upper chambers and a low curtain wall, all of which ensured a view of the park".

Liddiard paints a much more complex picture of the medieval world in which military muscle was less important than many history books imply. He also asks some questions which aren't easily answered. How were castles viewed by the majority of the population outside the walls for instance?

As an interesting aside, the author makes reference to the selective destruction of "specific landscape features" by the rebels during the Peasant's Revolt in 1381. Backing up his argument that the castle imagery was as important to medieval society as its military muscle. That this "resonated" across the whole of society is an interesting adjunct to the ideas of Mark O'Brien's book on the Peasant's Revolt that I discussed in my previous review on this blog.

Liddiard has written a well researched and well argued book that is of great interest to everyone, and deserves a far wider reading than those involved in "Castle Studies". Partly this is because it illuminates all those old buildings that we like to visit. More importantly though, because it allows a glimpse into the mindsets of those living in Medieval times.

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