So you want to write a story set in a medieval castle? Great! Well, first you need to get more specific about where that castle is and when in the Middle Ages your characters live. Castle life varied a lot throughout the period, and from one region to another. Consider the two examples below, and imagine how different life would have been in each.
Archaeological remains or modern reconstructions may show you roughly what your castle would have looked like on the outside. But how was life lived within those walls when they were new? If the building has remained in use, its rooms will have been adapted over the centuries to new patterns of living, and whole sections may have been rebuilt. If it’s in ruins, you may be able to see where the rooms were, but they will be empty, without floors or ceilings. It’s hard to bring the past to life from such bare bones.
There has been some amazing work done on reconstructing the living spaces in certain castles, providing us with a conjectural picture of the decor and furnishings. Here’s an example from Dover Castle, which you saw above:
We’re still missing one piece, though. How did the original inhabitants move through that space; how did they use it? Think about how important that is for a story. If a modern hero invites a modern heroine up to his apartment after a date, it means one thing if they stay in the living room, another if they head for the bedroom. The different rooms have very specific meanings. But what if those characters lived in a setting where (as in many places in the Middle Ages) single people didn’t customarily have private bedrooms?
Today I want to explore just one example of how historians have tried to flesh out the bare bones provided by archaeology. What follows is material repurposed from my PhD dissertation, which focussed on private space in medieval literature.
First, a story. The Roman poet Ovid tells the tale of Pyramus and Thisbe in the fourth book of his Metamorphoses. You’re more likely to know it from the play-within-a-play in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, but it was also retold by medieval adaptors, including the anonymous author of the poem Piramus et Tisbé, who wrote in Old French in the twelfth century. It’s the story of tragic lovers who live next door to one another but are kept apart by their families. They are able to whisper secretly through a crack in the wall that separates their two houses. Desperate to be together, they curse the wall that comes between them:
“Envious wall,” they would say, “why do you stand between lovers? What harm would it be for you to allow all our bodies to be joined, or if this is too much, that you should open for us to kiss?”
But the wall that keeps them apart also offers them their only means of communication. Ovid pauses for only a moment in his fast-paced tale to consider this irony. The medieval adaptor tells the story in a more leisurely style, with a lot of added detail. He (or she, though more likely he) also expands on the paradox of the wall that both separates and connects the lovers. Piramus laments the thickness of the wall and fantasizes about widening the crevice so that he could pass through unobserved. He thanks the wall for allowing them to talk, begs it to keep their secret, and finally doubles back to anger at the wall’s unyielding nature. (Medieval French authors love to give their heroes long, ranty monologues.)
Ovid doesn’t specify which of the lovers first discovered the crack in the wall, but the medieval version of the story does. Piramus is able to leave his house to go to the temple of Venus, but Tisbé is imprisoned inside her family’s palace, shut up in the least frequented room of the house. There she is the first to discover the crack through which they can talk, and the first to propose the plan to elope. The interesting thing for our purposes is how this medieval text illustrates, better than Ovid’s version, a paradox at the heart of the story. The same structure which separates Piramus and Tisbé provides the only means for them to communicate; the cracked but unyielding wall is both friend and foe to the couple. And it’s the woman, who seems more strictly confined than the man, who is able to discover and exploit the crack in the wall, partly because of the way she is confined.
This story shows off a paradox of private space in the Middle Ages. First of all, there was not a lot of private space to go around. This was true in one-room peasant cottages, of course, but also in castles. Large households were accommodated in buildings with relatively few rooms. As I said earlier, few people had private bedrooms. There are many different reasons for this, which would take too long to get into here. Medieval women, both daughters and wives, often spent more of their time in the private space of the home than the men of their families, who had more freedom to come and go. But here’s the paradox: secluding women within the castle gave them privacy, which was scarce in the medieval world, and that offered them a different kind of freedom. This is precisely what happens with Tisbé, in the Old French text; imprisoned in a inner chamber, she is able to find the crack in the wall and through it plan her tryst with Piramus (which ultimately leads to both of their deaths).
Piramus et Tisbé is a fictional story, an adaptation of an ancient source, and so we can’t assume that it reflects medieval reality. But in some ways, as it turns out, it does. Roberta Gilchrist writes in her book Gender and Archaeology about “female space” in several medieval English castles. Gilchrist argues that even though in theory women in these real-life castles were secluded and hidden from the outside world in the same way Tisbé is, in practice, this seclusion gave them prestige and a surprising degree of autonomy. If you think about it, this makes sense. The prestige comes from the mystique attached to someone who is hidden away from the world or hard to access (rulers and holy men and women were treated the same way), and the autonomy comes from a lack of surveillance.
In the six castles that Gilchrist discusses, the “female household,” that is, the lady of the house and her attendants and daughters, were provided with a number of distinct architectural features. One common feature is a private chapel for the women, or direct access to private, enclosed pews within the main chapel.
Private courtyards or gardens are almost universal features of the female household; often they are screened from view of the other parts of the castle. Women’s chambers are located on upper levels, the preferred space for private accommodations of high-ranking individuals within the castle. Often women are associated with spaces where they could command a good view without themselves being viewed. (We know this is the case because these rooms are labelled things like “the Queen’s Chamber” in inventories and other documents.) Gilchrist also finds that the spatial boundaries that secluded noblewomen and their female attendants were far from rigid. They could often take in members of the public, as when guests were welcomed into women’s chambers or gardens. Sometimes the seclusion of the female household was more symbolic than real.
The funny thing is, medieval storytellers themselves noticed the paradox in women’s access to privacy. Medieval literature is full of stories of daughters and wives who are locked in towers and walled gardens but still manage to meet their secret lovers. The theme provides a great wellspring for plot and conflict within a story.
I hope this example shows how researching a historical setting can do more than help you get the details right (although that’s important too). Your research can inspire plot twists, strengthen themes in your writing, and allow you to get to know your characters better by better understanding the world in which they live.
If you do want to write a story set in the Middle Ages (or to base your fantasy world on medieval Europe), consider joining me in my upcoming workshop, “How to Write a Convincing Medieval Setting,” where we’ll explore skills and resources to help you immerse yourself in the period.
Alice Degan is an academic and novelist. She has a PhD in Medieval Studies—her dissertation on privacy in stories of illicit love was titled Get a Room—and she has taught courses on Arthurian literature and medieval women’s writing. Ignoring the obvious application of “write what you know,” she set her debut novel, From All False Doctrine, in 1920s Toronto. Find her online at www.alicedegan.com.
Toronto, 1925: An ancient manuscript and a modern cult promise the secret to personal metamorphosis. An atheist graduate student falls in love with a priest. A shiftless musician jilts his fiancée and disappears. From All False Doctrine is a metaphysical mystery wrapped in a 1920s comedy of manners.
Thrown together when their best friends fall in love, Elsa Nordqvist and Kit Underhill don’t think they have much in common. But when Kit’s friend Peachy drops off the face of the earth, and the manuscript that Elsa wanted to write her thesis on seems to have something to do with it, Elsa and Kit become unlikely allies. The question is, can their combined resources of Classical scholarship and Anglo-Catholic liturgy save a man from himself?