Thomas, Hugh

title.none: Pounds, Medieval Castle ... England/Wales

identifier.other: baj9928.9503.013 95.03.13

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Thomas, Hugh, University of Miami

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1995

identifier.citation: Pounds, N. J. G. The Medieval Castle in England and Wales: A Social and Political History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 95.03.13

Pounds, N. J. G. The Medieval Castle in England and Wales: A Social and Political History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Reviewed by:

Thomas, Hugh
University of Miami

This book, first published in hardcover in 1990 and released last year in soft-cover, is a welcome addition to the corpus of books on medieval British castles and on castles in general since it studies castles in their overall social context instead of focusing simply on their military functions and architectural design. Pounds divides his study into three periods, roughly from the Norman Conquest to King Stephen's reign, from Henry II's reign to Edward I's, and from Edward II's reign to the early sixteenth century. His book provides a good overview of the sort of subjects one would expect in a book on castles: the military functions and impact of castles; the political consequences of the introduction and continued use of castles; the evolution of castle building techniques; and shifts from one style of castle to another depending upon political and military circumstances, new techniques, the financial situation of castle builders, rising costs, and even fashion. However, he also discusses less familiar aspects of the role of castles: castles as centers for administration and local bureaucracy; castles as homes; castles as foci for local communities; and castles as religious centers because of the incorporation of chapels, parish churches, and colleges of secular canons. One tends to think of castles primarily in military terms and of course they were originally designed with military purposes in mind but in England and even in Wales sieges were rare and Pounds performs a useful service in describing the functions of castles in times of peace as well as times of war. By looking at castles in the broadest context possible, he adds many interesting perspectives.

The general history of castles in England and Wales is made quite clear in Pounds' book and can easily be summarized. Though some of Edward the Confessor's Norman followers built castles in his reign, castles, as is well known, were introduced on a large scale only with the Norman Conquest. These early castles normally involved simple technology, with banks and ditches, wooden palisades and towers, and huge mounds of earth called mottes. Such castles were comparatively simple and relatively inexpensive and as a result there were a lot of them. Not only kings and powerful tenants-in-chief built them but also vassals with far fewer resources. As a result, castles proliferated immediately after the Conquest and also in King Stephen's reign. Hundreds of them were built throughout England and Wales. With the restoration of power under Henry II, however, many of these castles were destroyed or abandoned. Other factors also contributed to a reduction in the number of castles. Most important, new siege techniques meant that better castles had to be built and thus increasingly sophisticated stone structures which were extremely expensive to build, garrison, and maintain became the norm. Only the king and the richest nobles could continue to afford these and if one can speak of a castle race analogous to the modern arms race , most lesser figures had to drop out, though knights and gentry continued to protect their homes with simple forms of fortification, such as a small tower, throughout the Middle Ages, especially in the North of England.

Throughout the period castle owners had to balance factors of military preparedness against factors of cost and Pounds remarks in passing that the walls of ruined castles in the care of [the Historical Buildings and Monuments Commission] are in far better physical condition today than they would have been during the Middle Ages. Castle owners also had to balance the military uses of the castle against its other uses. At times military considerations ceased to be important and a castle that also served as the administrative center of a county evolved into a rather leaky office building with a jail attached, or a castle that also served as a residence was redesigned with comfort rather than defense in mind. Indeed, Pounds notes that when new castles were built in the later Middle Ages, the owners sometimes seem not to have been sure whether comfort or defense was more important to them. In some cases, the motive for the maintenance or construction of castles seems to have been status more than anything else.

This scholarly work is obviously no tourist guidebook but it does seem to be directed toward a general as well as an academic audience. As a result, some passages will inevitably seem a little basic to the specialist in medieval English history. Moreover, from my perspective as a social historian, Pounds sometimes makes great oversimplifications in his descriptions of medieval social structures or displays an odd reading of medieval culture, as when he says that a hermit supported in the tower of London and a recluse supported at Dover castle were just curiosities, like the elephant and royal lion at the former castle; this statement ignores the profound importance of recluses in medieval society. However, these are minor quibbles in a book of this sort and specialists as well as others will find this a very helpful and important book, partly because of the broad perspective noted above and partly because the book ties together a vast amount of secondary material with Pounds' own extensive research and knowledge. The book is very clear and well written (though there is occasionally a tendency to go overboard on the number of examples illustrating various points) and is full of useful maps, plans, drawings and photographs. In general, this book is a very good one and worth reading for anyone interested in medieval English history or in castles and their place in medieval society.