There's nothing more romantic than the image of a magnificent castle perched atop a high cliff, standing proud throughout the ages. But while these structures might conjure up images of knights and princesses, the truth is that life inside a medieval castle was anything but a fairytale. Between squalid conditions and hidden dangers, castle residents led truly hard lives. Just reading about their trials and travails will make you grateful to live in a modern home!
What's that smell?
Castles were smelly. With a general lack of running water and extreme difficulty in obtaining it, most servants and other lower-class residents couldn’t clean themselves.
And the types of toilets they used definitely didn’t help. Toilets weren’t fancy in the least. When you needed to go, you’d likely have to do it on a wooden bench with a little hole in it. Your waste would fall into a vast poo pit or straight into a moat. Outside the bathroom, life wasn't much better.
Almost no privacy available
When you were using this gross, dirty toilet, you probably wouldn’t have any privacy either. Castle makers followed the HGTV network's sage advice and went with an open floor plan.
Unless you were a noble, you probably didn’t have a room to call your own. Workspaces, common areas, and even beds tended to be crowded.
Generally, more than 100 people would live in a castle, meaning you’d never feel alone. There was so much square footage that needed to be maintained, so royalty required an enormous staff for upkeep.
Such close quarters would become especially difficult during a siege, which prevented anyone from venturing outside the castle walls.
As if life wasn't hard enough, kitchens commonly caught on fire. For some reason, they were made of wood and the food was being cooked over huge flames.
You do the math. Eventually, builders changed to using stone more often than wood, but castle residents still lived in fear of infernos, which, as you can imagine, were incredibly hard to put out.
It was critical that people in castles started their day with the sun because so little of it found its way inside the walls. This meant all the indoor servants had a small window of time — no pun intended — to get their work done.
Back then, glass was a luxury, so most windows opened up to the air.
Castle life may have been lousy, but at least there was always liquor around. Water was still teeming with bacteria and other waste, making it dangerous to safely consume.
So, people got drunk for their health, in a way. But as a silver lining, most beer was less alcoholic back then.
Party time (sort of)
A big part of castle life revolved around preparing for feasts and parties. These were a massive to-do and it took the entire staff working diligently to properly prepare for them. The lame part? Servants wouldn’t even get to eat the fancy food they were making.
In the dining hall, people sat based on their royal status. The king and queen would sit at the head, while the rest of their court filed in around them. They were also served the food first, which might have been cold by the time they got to eat it.
If you have musophobia, stay out of medieval-era castles. They were filled with rats because warmth, food (any kind of food), and open water sources are only a few of the many things that draw rats inside.
Castles really are the perfect environment for all kinds of vermin.
Cats and dogs
And like everything else in a castle, the floors were extremely dirty. Cats and dogs were given free rein and used the space as a massive toilet.
To cover this smell, servants threw fragrant herbs on the ground. It was a crunchy, poopy mess. Getting clean was tough.
No flings allowed
Not that there was a ton of opportunity in all that open space, but you weren’t allowed to copulate with your spouse unless you were planning for a child.
Even admitting to having sexual thoughts about them was a sin and could be punished.
Different sleep schedule
In medieval Europe, sleep was handled much differently. Rather than retiring to bed for the night, peasants broke hours of sleep into smaller increments.
They'd snooze for 2-4 hours, only to wake up and do other activities, like work, have sex, or even leave the house to visit friends. Then, they'd go back home to bed for a few more hours.
Creativity in the worst way possible
Many prisoners were locked up due to conflicting political beliefs, making them vulnerable to all kinds of nasty torture that would help "convince" them to see the error of their ways. One particular method involved capturing rats in a basket and tying it to a helplessly bound person.
Then they'd let the rats eat their way out. Fun!
Help from the stairways
Here's a pretty clever design feature for you: stairways in castles were almost always clockwise. This helped defend against right-handed swordsmen who would have their blows blocked by the stone walls as they walked up.
Defenders in the castle, therefore, had the advantage.
Buried alive and forgotten
An oubliette was a special kind of dungeon. It was characterized by having an entrance which was a trapdoor set high in the ceiling of the cell. These structures were also notoriously dark, damp, and cramped. The French word oubliette means a place that is forgotten, and so, by implication, the prisoner would be left to rot.
Sir Walter Scott – the author of various Gothic romances – popularized the oubliette in his 1819 work Ivanhoe. In any case, there’s little doubt that prisoners were held in castle dungeons – often in appalling conditions.
Secret passages and rooms
In medieval castles, secret passages had various purposes. They might have led to hidden rooms or offered a means of escape. If attackers were besieging a castle, the secret passage to a hidden exit might have been the only way to escape the enemy. The doorway to a secret passage would often be disguised and sometimes looked like nothing more than a blank wall.
Warwick Castle in England – an important stronghold in medieval times – features secret rooms, including a bear pit. A concealed chamber in the castle’s Watergate Tower is said to be haunted by the ghost of Sir Fulke Greville, who was slain by his servant in 1628.
Murder holes – also called machicolations – were a fiendish design feature in castles of the Middle Ages. Introduced after the Crusades, a murder hole offered a method of injuring or even killing enemies who were attacking your castle. And the concept is simple enough. Built into the topmost ramparts of a castle would be a series of projecting buttresses with holes in the floor.
Defenders would wait until the enemy was directly under a hole, and then they’d drop something through the aperture. This might be a boulder, boiling oil, or anything else that came to hand. Obviously, the attacker would then be – at the very least – wounded.
No longer museums
Today's castles might be museums or houses for royalty, but when the original medieval castles were built, they were designed to serve as fortresses during times of war.
All of the planning that went into them was about defending the grounds from enemies.
Fear of invasion
When you think of a castle's first line of defense, you probably imagine a moat, right? Traditionally, a moat was a large body of water that circled the castle and separated it from the land.
But despite how bad it was to live in a cold, dark, and damp castle, it really pales in comparison to how the common folk lived during medieval times. Just take a look at what they lived in...
What were peasant homes like? They were small structures with thatched roofs, designed to be easy to repair. Serfs, who were manual workers bound to their lords' estates, called these little dwellings cruck houses. No matter the weather, they weren't very comfortable places to be.
Winters were harsh, and summers were unbearably hot. And instead of a dog curled up at the end of their beds, peasants did things a bit differently.
Whatever animals peasants owned were rounded up at night and brought inside with the rest of the family. Cows, pigs, chickens, you name it — would all crowd into the cruck house for a few different reasons.
First was the risk of animal theft. Leaving your critters outside was gambling with whether they'd be there in the morning. Though, that wasn't the only potential problem.
Tons of bugs
Sometimes the animals ran off all on their own. Losing your animals was a huge blow to a peasant family. Living with your livestock and farm animals wasn't easy.
In fact, it was just as filthy as you'd expect. Flies, fleas, lice, you name it, — peasants in medieval Europe scratched and swatted them as they slept.
Incredibly high taxes
When they weren't working the land at all hours, peasants were paying hefty amounts of taxes. Yep, even the serfs!
No one was exempt when the taxman called. Officials accepted forms of non-cash currency, like seeds, which weren't exactly cheap. Sacrificing seeds meant you'd have less to plant. Needless to say, this wasn't a sustainable cycle.
Owed the Church
Just when a peasant had a moment to rest from the seemingly never-ending labor of working their own land, they had to do the same for the church. That's right, in addition to the forced labor owed to lords, the church also had unflinching rules about sweat equity.
Though this unpaid work was done without complaint, not participating was considered a sin.
At the end of a backbreaking week was Sunday, a peasant's only day off. That day was relegated to the church, where, beyond worship, was an opportunity to sing and play music.
In some cases, the church offered reading lessons to peasant children. Still, outside of their faith, peasants had a few additional bright lights in their difficult lives.
Think exposing children to gory movies is bad? Well, in the Middle Ages, a typical family outing involved attending a bear-baiting. Crowds gathered to witness dogs attack a chained bear, who would ultimately be freed and execute the canines.
But for those not interested in bear-versus-dog battles to the death, there was the other popular pastime of cockfighting, or even a version of soccer, which wasn't much better.
Soccer was cutthroat
Football, or soccer, was a hugely popular game amongst medieval peasants, but you had to be willing to get hurt. Games lasted days and were punctuated by broken bones, unchecked aggression, and sometimes death.
Things grew so bad that in 1363 King Edward III made playing soccer an imprisonable offense.
Dealing with violence
Violence wasn’t something peasants enjoyed by any means, but it was a huge problem, and it's not difficult to see why. Physical punishment was a socially acceptable response.
Domestic violence in marriage was normalized, despite contradicting codes of chivalry. Other times, violence was born out of extreme financial desperation. Options were limited and tensions were high, so they eventually boiled over.
Outbreaks of protest
The lower classes of Middle Ages society weren’t ones to put up with injustice quietly. Peasants organized and attended protests against "The Man," and while some wildly waved pitchforks and other weapons, most showed up surprisingly well-prepared.
They cited their rights from the Domesday book as evidence, despite lacking formal education. Ultimately, though, these protests were met with swift and brutal ends.
Torture was pretty common
The worst part about living in the lowest tier of medieval society was the lack of rights. If someone pointed the finger at a peasant, or worse, a serf, living a life of slavery, the accused was at the mercy of the punisher.
Serfs were valued for labor, so they usually would be whipped rather than maimed or killed. In some severe cases, the punishment was brutal and cruel, like live burial.
Water was even more valuable in the Middle Ages for its wide array of uses. The first stop in a peasant's morning was the nearby water source, probably a river, where they’d dump their putrid bucket of human waste.
Ah, how refreshing! If you're questioning whether their waste went straight into their drinking and bathing water, the answer is a grotesque "absolutely." However, bathing itself was a whole other issue.
Baths in a lifetime
Running water wasn't yet an amenity in medieval times, so even the societal elites were far from fresh as daisies. The situation was way stinkier for peasants.
Some historians say that in their lifetimes, a typical peasant bathed only twice: once at birth, the other after death! However, for those looking to wash, there was one rough option.
Peasants searching for a rare scrub went to the stews, or what we'd call a public bath today. They stripped down and simmered together in the water, though admittedly, most didn't go there for hygiene.
The stews were mostly known as a brothel, a hub for public sex — and for thieves! It was a treasure trove for pickpockets to rifle through the clothes that "bathers" cast aside.
Time for church
Peasants only got to rest on Sundays and various Christian holidays, but on all those days, they were expected to attend church. It was probably a welcome break from toiling in the fields!
Noble women tended to visit houses of worship even more frequently, as it wasn't unusual for them to stop by several times to pray each day.
Childhoods full of hardship
Helicopter parents be warned: the lives of peasant children will make you sad. It was a feat for babies to survive beyond six months, so each year was counted as a small victory.
Schooling was out of the question for children in this rung of society. Instead, they went straight to work, albeit doing more minor tasks like chasing away birds.
While so often throughout history, women were so oppressed that they weren’t allowed to participate in certain aspects of society, that wasn't the case in the Middle Ages. Peasant women, in particular, were very busy.
No, it wasn’t a highly progressive society, but women, especially on the lower rungs, held a lot of responsibility.
A limited menu
What was on the menu for a typical family dinner? It depended on what was available.
A grain, usually bread, was the mainstay of all their meals. Beans were another staple along with some salted meats, though animal products were a luxury that very few could afford.
Lifespans were short
Given their filthy conditions and limited resources, peasants had the shortest life expectancy of anyone in the rigid class structure of medieval society.
The Black Death was the major culprit, killing 25 million people in a span of five years, and since serfs lived only an estimated 35 years on average, it's fair to say many of those deaths were made up of the poorest of the poor.
Where's the thermostat?
There’s a reason castles are known for fireplaces — they were dark, cold structures. The windows were high and narrow, to help defend the castle against archers and the stone walls themselves didn’t hold heat.
So, bundle up if you’re planning to sleep over in one.