John D. Hosler

title.none: Wheatley, Idea of the Castle (John D. Hosler)

identifier.other: baj9928.0608.005 06.08.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John D. Hosler, Morgan State University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Wheatley, Abigail. The Idea of the Castle in Medieval England. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 174. $70.00 (hb) 1-903153-14-X. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.08.05

Wheatley, Abigail. The Idea of the Castle in Medieval England. Woodbridge: York Medieval Press, 2004. Pp. viii, 174. $70.00 (hb) 1-903153-14-X. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

John D. Hosler
Morgan State University

In this book Abigail Wheatley approaches the study of castles from an interdisciplinary perspective, chiefly through the investigation of linguistic and artistic evidence. Beginning with the modern definitions of the terms castel and castellum found in such oft-cited accounts as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle , Wheatley argues that other kinds of sources better illustrate how medieval folk understood castles. Drawing upon an impressive array of architectural, artistic, and literary evidence, she concludes that an English castle constituted "meaningful architecture, involved in a sophisticated series of ideological relationships with its cultural context" (146). Accordingly, modern definitions of the castle must be broadened to include medieval ideological conceptions (149).

The parameters of Wheatley's argument are presented in the Introduction and Chapter One, "The Idea of the Castle." The Introduction is primarily a historiographical overview of the progress of modern scholarship on the subjects of castle imagery and architectural symbolism. It reads a bit like a dissertation literature review (see below) but is nevertheless useful. In the first chapter, she explains that she sees castles as having constituted various defensive elements in relationship to each other, in contrast to modern perspectives that address castle function in terms of social or political utility (i.e. as feudal residences)(30). When conceptualizing a castle, she argues, medieval writers situated the structure into a persistent Biblical and Classical tradition: fortresses had always existed, albeit in different shapes and sizes, and castellum could refer to any order of defensive works or even communal structures such as monasteries and fortified towns (38- 9). Therefore, any large stone or wooden enclosure might be regarded as a castle.

Successive chapters outline Wheatley's findings in this regard. Chapter Two, "The Urban Castle," examines the symbolic relationship between towns and castles of both urban and rural types. Urban castles, often built in towns to control the local population, were received rather worse than those castles surrounded by villages in the countryside. Yet there could be positive relations between town and urban castle, as illustrated by her lengthy review of the Tower of London. The layouts and even locations of urban castles were often presented in terms reminiscent of descriptions of the famed cities of Jerusalem, Rome, and especially Troy (74). The writings of Geoffrey of Monmouth and William FitzStephen illustrate how the meaning of castles was derived from classical or even legendary times.

Chapter Four, "The Imperial Castle," extends this argument further but in more concrete terms. Here, Wheatley examines the impetus behind the construction of fortresses on old Roman sites or with re-used Roman materials. The purpose was to convey continuity with England's imperial past. Continuing efforts of the Norman kings and their successors (especially Edward I) to draw their lineages back to Rome and/or Troy led to the construction of fortresses such as Dover and Caernarfon, structures that convey imperial meanings by way of their design and location.

Chapter Three, "The Spiritual Castle," looks at the ideological similarities between defensive and devotional architecture, suggesting that scholars have erred in studying castles and churches in a separated fashion. Wheatley states: "The whole of this book is an attempt to show that defensive architecture could communicate meaning in the same ways as ecclesiastical architecture" (78-9). Castles were imagined in not only allegorical but Biblical terms. Much of the discussion in this chapter hangs on the castle descriptions in Aelred of Rievaulx's Assumption of the Virgin and Robert Grossteste's Castle of Love . In some ways this is the book's strongest chapter. There is clearly much congruence between temporal and spiritual in such buildings as fortified churches. In addition, Wheatley's work taps into the conversation of literature as evidence of applied warfare, found in the studies of Richard Kaeuper, Catherine Hanley, and others.

Wheatley's prose is clear, concise, and sophisticated. Arguments are amply supported in the notes, and she is very clear about distinguishing her own views from others'. One distracting feature of her writing, however, is an overabundance of signposting. While she is clearly concerned with guiding readers through her intricate argument, the constant reviewing and foreshadowing becomes rather tedious. This is likely a holdover from her doctoral work, which is the basis for the book, and should have been addressed by the publisher.

The main weakness of the book is its brevity. As an introductory work, it does not explore several dimensions of castle imagery and architectural intent. First, it is unclear what role classical tradition played in the early Middle Ages, for the bulk of the evidence presented is post-1100. Were the Biblical and classical notions of fortification adopted before the first Norman stone castles; did the tropes apply equally to wooden structures? Second, Wheatley readily admits that she concentrates only upon royal castles (148). It will take further research to determine if medieval writers conceived lesser castles in similar terms. One wonders if the numerous private castles built during the anarchy of Stephen's reign, for example, were held up as romantic images of the past.

Third, in the process of the ideological discussion the military role of castles is neglected. Wheatley seems uninterested in this subject, and in one sense her approach does enable her to develop a cultural history unfettered by the highly contentious debates surrounding castle warfare. Yet broadening our definition of what medieval castles signified cannot eliminate the military aspect. English castles were, after all, built in a context of violence. The conduct of warfare itself has been interpreted as a cultural rather than scientific phenomenon by a number of scholars. The "cultural reception" of castles (14), to some extent at least, can therefore reasonably include their function in warfare.

So while Wheatley has not addressed practical and strategic issues here, they would seem good avenues to explore in the future, especially given how they haunt some of her points in Chapter Four. Many castles were indeed built on ancient sites, but it does not follow that their primary purpose was symbolic. In one of her case studies, Wheatley spends some time remarking upon the imperial characteristics of Dover Castle. Henry II's background (both descendent of the Conqueror and son of an Empress) perhaps dictated a need for him to stress his lineage as a means of royal legitimization; thus, the walls of his keep at Dover, with their bold polychrome banding, are symbolic (133-6). Yet she offers no proof that these were actually Henry's motives, and one could argue that by 1183 (the date of the keep's construction) he had little need to call attention to his bloodline. And what about the actual purpose of Dover in times of war? Wheatley admits that her focus is on the commentators, not the builders of these structures (111). Castles may have been designed to convey particular meanings but their primary role was to house troops and offer regional defense. Dover itself received enormous funds from both Henry II and later John, and their defensive expectations for the fortress are relevant.

In the end, Wheatley presents a solid thesis that should encourage more analysis and debate over castles in medieval society. What castles meant to people over the centuries is an important question, and in some measure this book provides persuasive answers. It would be an excellent text for courses on architectural history, philosophy, and possibly rhetoric. However, one gets a sense that Wheatley could have pushed some of her ideas a bit further. Much more comparative research will be necessary to demonstrate an extensive "medieval" understanding of castles, rather than just the understanding of writers in High and Late medieval England. It is this reviewer's hope that this book will prompt similar investigations into and beyond the Isles.