03.09.10, Johnson, Behind the Castle Gate

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Erica Bastress-Dukehart

The Medieval Review baj9928.0309.010


Johnson, Matthew. Behind the Castle Gate: From Medieval to Renaissance. London: Routledge, 2002. Pp. xx, 209. ISBN: 0-415-26100-7.
ISBN: 0-415-25887-1.

Reviewed by:
Erica Bastress-Dukehart
Skidmore College

Anyone who has ever wandered through the ruins of a medieval or Renaissance castle knows that there is always a moment when the presence of the people who once resided there seems almost palpable. The sensation may occur as we cross over a muddy, weed-choked moat or as we wander amidst the crumbling walls of a medieval great hall or in the dank shadows of the cellars. It can be an exhilarating moment for those of us who are not experts in the history of castles. We might, if we are lucky, capture a glimpse of the past; experiencing for a heartbeat that fleeting sense of what it must have been like to call such a place home.

It is moments such as these, moments of history and memory, of wonder and discovery, to which Matthew Johnson speaks in his new book, Behind the Castle Gate: From Medieval to Renaissance. With lucid prose and vivid descriptions of the transformations English castles experienced between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Johnson asks two fundamental questions: "What did these buildings mean? And how did those meanings change over time?" (161) To answer these queries, Johnson embarks on a lively tour of the remnants of medieval castles such as Kenilworth, as well as the fourteenth and fifteenth-century ruins of Cooling, Bodiam, Tattershall and Warkworth, to name only a few. Johnson takes his readers not only behind the promised castle gates, but also down dark and wandering passages into unexpected spaces.

Johnson makes his intentions clear from the beginning. While he claims that he does not offer "particular new insights into particular structures" (3), he does introduce us to castles not merely as defensive structures, as they have traditionally been interpreted, but as imagined spaces representative of the social status, gender, and personal ambitions of those who built and inhabited them. Putting English castles in their historical context, Johnson adopts a post-structuralist approach to discredit what he refers to as "The Story" regarding castles and their meaning.

Throughout the book Johnson considers what the castle meant not only to its owner, architect and builder, but also to visitors. He argues that while builders and architects created memories/memorials, owners intended to convey their status, wealth, and family history. Strategies for these demonstrations of power included elaborate landscapes, the "symbolic elaboration" of prominently displayed family heraldry, the positioning of towers, and, on a more theatrical level, the spatial ordering of the castle in its geographic context, which, "goes hand in hand with the ordering of society and of material culture" (69).

Yet these intended messages were not always the ones a visitor received. How a castle was understood depended as much on a visitor's cultural knowledge as it did on the owner's presentation. Without this shared understanding, the visitor might easily become lost or disoriented, thereby failing to appreciate the building's intended meaning in much the same way that he would fail to comprehend his host if they did not share the same language. Thus, castles became modes of communication, representations of time, place, creation, creator, and observer.

Johnson introduces his book with a thoughtful deconstruction of the traditional notion that castles were first and foremost defensive fortresses. Here he argues that the purpose of medieval and Renaissance castles was much more complex than earlier military historians and archaeologists have suggested. He establishes the foundation of his argument by looking "afresh at what these buildings meant to contemporaries, and how now, as we think and write in the present, archaeologists and architectural historians might best understand or approach them." (3) As such, castles were first and foremost stage settings, backdrops for the unfolding of the lives, gender, and identities of England's elite.

In Chapter two, entitled "Watery Landscapes," Johnson begins his exploration of a castle's meaning at Bodiam, whose ruins sit on England's south coast. It is here in the opening pages that we get a hint of what is in store for us throughout the book. We are treated to a dramatic description of Bodiam's surrounding landscape: its winding footpaths, its moat in which the castle is perfectly reflected, and its gently rolling hills. To insure that we do not automatically adopt twenty first-century skepticism, Johnson introduces us to Bodiam through the eyes of medieval guests arriving at its gates for the first time, only to discover that much is not as it first appears.

"On mounting the hill," Johnson writes, "our visitor is met with a surprise: it is only at this point that the moat is visible; at first sight, the castle is without a moat. The knight's movement is again controlled as he sets off again, this time around the moat to the right (no guest of honor would enter straight ahead via the postern). Another left turn and the projecting chapel is revealed to the left, another pool to the right; yet another left turn around the corner of the moats and the north front is revealed." (26) In this manner Bodiam is revealed to its visitor. And, in this manner, Johnson brings Bodiam and its landscapes alive for his readers. The rest of this chapter includes examples of the landscapes that surrounded other castles and their significance to our understanding of the owners and the image they had intended to convey to their visitors. Johnson concludes that a visitor's first impression of any medieval castle was carefully and deliberately manipulated: processional routes were staged, and even the water that flowed into moats, rivers, and causeways, was a metaphor for the current social order.

Chapter Three, "The Ordering of the Late Medieval Castle" opens with a description of the Lincolnshire Fens, out of whose marshy depths rises Tattershall Castle's brick tower, the only remnant of what was once a monument to the wealth and power of its creator, Ralph, Lord Cromwell. Tattershall exemplifies how we are to understand the ordering of castles: we should "read" them as representations of how "power is mobilized and distributed in state societies like that of medieval England". (67) Johnson focuses on spatial relationships in this chapter both within a castle's walls and without. He emphasizes again how different spaces provoked different responses from those who moved through them. These were the relationships that mattered, he argues. These were the images of power that would linger after the gates had closed behind the visitor. This chapter, like all the others, is filled with photos of the towers at Tattershall and South Kyme, the gate at Bolton Castle, Warkworth's donjon, and the ruins of Kenilworth. Johnson has also included floor plans of various buildings to help his readers imagine the spaces he describes.

After a useful reiteration of his complex theoretical arguments in the previous three chapters, in Chapter Four, "Medieval to Renaissance," Johnson challenges "The Story" of castle development. Here he sets out to deconstruct the traditional narratives, arguing that the transformations that castles underwent at the end of the Middle Ages are not easily explained away as being the result of the influence of the Italian Renaissance. To make his point he focuses on individual castles and the contexts within which they changed. Recognizing that this makes historical analysis and theory far more difficult than the oversimplified "Story," Johnson is adamant that we will only understand castles when we understand "how one building related to another within a physical and cultural landscape, and how all fitted with a genealogy of changing social practices linked to the emergence of a new kind of State and a new kind of ideology with that State." (143) Each castle has a personal history that is dependent not on Italian influences, but rather on the owner's political, social, and economic history and alliances. This means that Johnson's history is not seamless, as "The Story" has long been portrayed. It is far more ambiguous than earlier archaeologists have suggested, and it is messy. As he notes in his introduction "such a story cannot be reduced to one simple baseline or reality or final explanation. Castles are not 'basically about conspicuous consumption' or 'essentially about social status' or 'at heart about balancing defense and comfort' or 'fundamentally symbols of power'." (3) They are, as he shows so convincingly in this chapter, about all of these things.

In Chapter Five Johnson puts his thesis to the test with a detailed analysis and description of one of England's most famous castles, Kenilworth. First built in the twelfth century, Kenilworth stands as a monument to English history. To demonstrate what that means for this castle in particular, Johnson again devises a virtual tour for his readers, taking us through not only Kenilworth's halls and chambers, but taking us back in time as well through the political, social, and cultural changes the building has endured. He writes that every "generation gets the Kenilworth it deserves". (159) In other words, Kenilworth, built in the High Middle Ages under one set of circumstances and for a certain purpose, has been transformed into something else as a result of changes of ownership, status, political upheaval, landscape and even ideas about personal identity. The Kenilworth of the sixteenth century had a far different image than it had in the twelfth century, not because of architectural innovations, but because of how its inhabitants and observers renegotiated its spaces over the centuries.

Chapter Six, entitled "Beyond the Pale" introduces the notion that England's castles influenced the ideas and attitudes of ordinary people--the majority of the population that would never own one, but who were unquestionably influenced by a castle's imposition on England's landscape. More ambiguous than earlier chapters, Johnson suggests here that castles created certain tensions between the social elite and those who either emulated their architecture or resisted and resented it. How these tensions between what Johnson calls the "polite" and the "vernacular" were manifested depended on political, social, and economic forces and how they changed over time. Johnson warns his readers that the relationships between "those beyond the Pale"--by whom he means those who did not live in castles-- and the elites were multifaceted. He writes, "However complex and ambiguous they were, these expressions can be seen in the material forms of vernacular culture. Difficulties of interpretation are of our own making." (175) We might not understand the cultural significance of a moat or a great hall, but those who were there at the time of their creation assuredly did.

By taking us beyond the castle gate, Matthew Johnson offers his readers a smart, inventive, entertaining, and informative tour of both the real spaces within the medieval and Renaissance castle walls, and a thought provoking analysis of the aspirations, ambitions, and perhaps most importantly, the historical imaginations of those who created them. Johnson's ability to bring to life the stories of these castles is admirable. He has even included a glossary of terms for readers unfamiliar with the language of castles. What might have been a dry retelling of the history of England's castles is instead a lively lesson in historical deconstruction. As the author notes, one of the positive aspects of studying castles "is that it is fun." (17) Indeed it is.

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Author Biography

Erica Bastress-Dukehart

Skidmore College