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Tuesday, February 10, 2009

How to Visit a Castle Without Ever Leaving Your Living Room

I once attended a writing class where the instructor, a successful writer of medieval romances who was sharing her medieval research methods with us, ended the class by informing us all that she would soon be returning to England to research her next novel, because she “finds it difficult to write about things she hasn’t actually seen for herself”…such as castles.

There I sat, thinking to myself, “Hmm, does that mean I can’t write about the Middle Ages unless I go to England and ‘see for myself’?” A thought immediately followed by the dour recognition that a trip to England was in no way compatible with my current budget, or likely to become compatible anytime in the near future. (Much though I still dream of visiting England and its castles “someday”.)

I, too, am a very visually oriented person. It’s difficult for me to describe something I haven’t actually seen, hence my fondness for “picture books”, such as books on medieval clothing or even children's books on the Middle Ages. Once I have seen a picture or image, I can then store that in my imagination to use as a point of reference when studying more detailed, less visual texts.

For those of us who write about castle-dwelling characters, but who have never had the opportunity (and no immediate prospect) of seeing even so much as the ruins of a medieval castle in “real life”, how do we begin to imagine, much less transport our readers, back to this far-distant environment?

Modern technology is…well…marvelous. And thanks to a History Channel DVD called Modern Marvels: Castles & Dungeons, those of us with limited budgets can now enjoy a striking tour of medieval castles from the comfort of our own homes.

I remember reading for years about the “motte and bailey” model on which the earliest castles in England were built. And I remember straining for years and years to try to imagine exactly what these books were talking about. I didn’t want to “guess” at what a motte and bailey castle looked like. I wanted to know. Castles & Dungeons took away all my guesswork by showing me exactly how closely my imagination had and hadn’t matched “the facts”.

In addition to learning how castles were built, first of wood and later of stone, this DVD gives the viewer an up close and personal look at such castle features as: crennelation, glass windows, loop holes and arrow slits, the portcullis, murder holes, the oubliette, the great hall, and castle kitchens. The visuals and narration are so well done, that one comes away feeling reassured that an actual trip to England isn’t an absolute requirement for writing medieval fiction with some degree of authenticity and confidence.

Modern Marvels: Castles & Dungeons is currently only available from the History Channel, but you can get a copy by clicking on this link:


stevent said...

I didn't realize Modern Marvels had done a video on Castles & Dungeons. I may have to buy it. I own another video from the History Channel, and since it's not in front of me right now, I can't exactly recall the name of it. I think it's Castles and Warfare, or something like that. I'll have to see if I can find it later. It also has some visual 3D constructions of castles that were fairly good.

A really good book that I own that has some nice diagrams and descriptions of medieval castles is The Medieval Fotress: Castles, Forts, and Walled Cities of the Middle Ages by H.W. Kaufmann and J.E. Kaufmann. I'm a visual learner as well and this book helped me a lot. Still looking for a good visual of what the inside of a gatehouse complex looked like. Do you know of any books or websites that have diagrams of a gatehouse layout by chance?

It's funny you mention children's books b/c some children books I've seen actually have pretty good visuals of castles. There was one good one I noticed while working in a bookstore but I can't remember the name of it now. I have it written down somewhere I think.

Joyce DiPastena said...

Thanks for the tip about The Medieval Fortress book. I'll have to check that one out!

I love children's books and have quite a lot of ones on the Middle Ages. One is called: See Inside A Castle (series editor R.J. Unstead). You can get a used copy for as little as $0.74 on Amazon. It has a very nice drawing of a cut-away gatehouse and how it was connected to the keep. The Castles & Dungeons video might have some shots of the gatehouse, too. To be honest, I haven't viewed it for quite awhile. I borrowed this post from another blog of mine called, Medieval Research with Joyce. I have a lot more information on research sources I've used on that blog, if you want to take a look at it. I've really fallen behind on keeping it up lately, but if you want to look at some of my old entries, you can find it at One of my favorite books is called The Castle Explorer's Guide, by Frank Bottomley. It's currently out of print, but there are lots of used copies on Amazon, and if you Google the title, you might even be able to find some copies cheaper. I consider it a "must have" for researching medieval novels.

Joyce DiPastena said...

PS I just took a look at your website/blog. Very cool! I'll have to go back when I have more time and spend more time on it. :-)

stevent said...

Thanks, Joyce. I'll look into those books you've suggested. If I run across the children's book I'm thinking of, I'll let you know.

Sara said...

Hello I just stumbled upon your blog while searching for Modern Marvels, Castles and Dungeons in search of more info about it....I recently returned from my first trip to England and our tour guide, interestingly, let it drop that he had been part of that particular production....! So, now I guess I'll have to see if it is available on N*etflix, because I'm really curious to see it.

You've got an interesting blog here; I must come back and read some more. By the way, if you are interested in England, you are welcome to come visit my blog; I've been doing a few posts on the trip.

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