05.04.04, Harrison, Castles of God

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Christopher Brooke

The Medieval Review baj9928.0504.004


Harrison, Peter. Castles of God: Fortified Religious Buildings of the World. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2004. Pp. 304. ISBN: 1-84383-066-3.

Reviewed by:
Christopher Brooke
University of Nottingham

As Peter Harrison points out in his opening remarks, religion and fortification have been intertwined since antiquity, yet little serious study has been attempted of this seemingly paradoxical amalgamation of these two distinct forms of architecture. A number of books and papers have appeared on specific regions, mainly in Europe, but no effort has been made previously to synthesize the global picture. Here then, at last, is a work that rectifies the situation and attempts, with absolute success, and deeply scholarly insight, an examination of the world's fortified religious buildings. The book is well illustrated by the author's own sketches and plans, and by an excellent selection of color plates; these form an essential adjunct to the very thorough and erudite text.

Harrison begins with the origins of the defended church by looking at the situation in the Middle East. Early monastic settlements, the concept being pre-Christian in origin, are found throughout the region and into Egypt, where their architectural remains have defensible towers and walls. Dr Harrison reminds us that qasr, the final retreat and refuge, predates the Norman keep by several centuries, and many of the military traits that are seen at this period are echoed in later years in castles of the medieval period.

Following the examination of the origins of the fortified monastery, a general look at the picture in Europe is presented. Here is the only slight criticism of the layout of this otherwise excellent volume: the discussion of Ireland is followed by a chapter on the crusades and then a jump back to Great Britain. It would have seemed better to follow Middle Eastern origins with the discussion of the medieval material in the Holy Land and 12th century Europe, but this is a minor quibble. The content of each of these chapters is robust and well researched, and whilst space precludes a discussion of every example, the major sites and their background history are presented so as to give a broad understanding of each region's character. Great Britain is treated in some detail, both defensible churches and monasteries are found, in two principal groupings: the Anglo-Scottish and Anglo-Welsh borders, and unique to the northern region there is found a group of "vicars' peles" or fortified retreats for priests. France, northern and eastern Europe follow, and a range of examples are provided: from the complete 13th century church at Nas in Gotland, through the major, and better known, bastides of France such as Beaumont-du-Perigord, and Beaumont-de-Lomagne with its machicolated chemin de ronde and crenellated fighting gallery on the tower, to the sky monasteries of Meteora in Greece. Finally, the European chapters conclude with an examination of central Europe, Italy, and Russia. Here are a few surprises which reveal the indefatigable researches of the author: wooden fortress monasteries in Siberia which were built until the middle of the 18th century but of which few examples have survived, and the impressive, but little studied Russian monasteries such as St Cyril at Belozersk with its astonishing array of fortified attributes. The monasteries and churches of the Caucasus region have also been little studied, and Harrison sets them within their context: isolated from the West since the fall of Constantinople and surrounded by powerful Islamic neighbors, much of what survives today dates from the 12th and 13th centuries, although examples are found from much later periods such as the 16th-17th century fortress of the Dukes of the Aragivi at Ananuri in Georgia.

A major section is devoted to an examination of the fortified religious architecture of Islam. Like Christian monastic and church architecture, Islamic fortress monasteries have an early origin: Qasr-al-Hair boasts two excellent examples, built in the 8th century, and having typical military characteristics such as machicolation, towers, and defensive projections. Harrison argues that ribats may be considered to be the successors to the Roman castra, and the Byzantine frontier forts, and served to house garrisons along lines of communication; thus was born the class of "warrior monks" which predate their Western counterparts by four centuries. Following on from this early form of defensible religious architecture, the mosque itself becomes defensible in some instances. The author identifies four surviving examples where the walls of a mosque became an integral part of the defenses of a city, and draws useful analogies with Christian churches and cathedrals being incorporated within fortified towns. There is some discussion of the dual role of the minaret as lookout and beacon tower as well as the more widely accepted role of calling the faithful to the Adhan. Although examples of this dual use are tenuous or scant, the analogy with the use of British and French towers for lookouts and beacons seems obvious. Perhaps use was so commonplace and readily accepted that there was little need to make specific documentary references to it, or indeed to adapt the architecture in any significant way, but this is clearly a line for further research.

America and the Philippines are included in the survey, and a range of fortress monasteries and missions are shown to have arisen in the 16th and 17th centuries. Obviously necessitated by the pioneering nature of settlement in these areas, sites such as Huejotzingo in Mexico and Nuestra Senora de Loreto in Texas bear all the classic hallmarks of defensible complexes that served to protect a religious community. Once again, this highlights examples of locally studied, or poorly documented, buildings that the author has been able to place within a far wider context.

Peter Harrison concludes his world survey with an investigation of the Himalayan region, and for many ecclesiologists and buildings archaeologists this will be the least known area. Having looked deeply at Christian and Islamic religious defense, he now turns to the Buddhist faith and ventures an examination of the monasteries of Tibet, India, China, and Bhutan. As with his examples elsewhere in the world, the author presents some visually stunning material, from the well known Potala Palace in Lhasa, former home to the Dalai Lamas, to the virtually unstudied dzongs of Bhutan such as Punakha and Trongsa. Architectural techniques and forms are discussed, as is the background history which includes fighting monks and the need for protection from external aggressors and rival monasteries that led to the need for fortification.

In a short conclusion to this admirable and well researched book, Harrison considers the key questions of purpose, architecture, and effectiveness, and makes a plea for more fieldwork--there are unstudied areas in India, China, and south-east Asia, as well as a lack of comprehensive surveys elsewhere--and a wider recognition of the fact that religious fortification is worthy of an architectural and archaeological classification in its own right. It is without doubt true that this subject has received little attention from serious scholars, and despite a number of excellent regional studies, Harrison is the only person to have attempted a global synthesis. This book should be essential reading for all those interested in the history of the church, its architecture, and in the development of fortifications.

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Author Biography

Christopher Brooke

University of Nottingham