Home / West in the Middle Ages 481 A.D. - 1485 A.D. / The Castle, the Manor and the Knight 900-1300

The Castle, the Manor and the Knight 900-1300

COUNT LEON, lord of the vast domain of Grandpré, stirred and waved away his servants. As he opened his eyes, the first rays of the sun were slanting through the narrow windows of his bedchamber. He stared sleepily at the tapestry hanging on the thick stone wall. It depicted a stag hunt and he enjoyed looking at it, for there were few things in the world he loved more than hunting. For a few minutes he lay there, listening to the sounds drifting up from the courtyard –the clop of horses’ hoofs‚ the creak of leather, the clatter of boots on cobblestones. The castle was coming awake.

Some of the count’s people would be going to the fields that lay beyond the castle walls and the moat. As far as the eye could see, the land belonged to Count Leon. Although this castle was his principal residence, he had other holdings as well — manors and manor houses, farmlands and forests. It did not occur to the count to feel grateful for his wealth and position and power. After all, they were his right; he had inherited them from his father, who had in turn inherited them from his father, who had been granted the land as a fief by the king.

Getting up from his massive bed, Count Leon began to dress, not bothering to call his servants to attend him. He put on a short shirt over the white linen undergarments he wore even when he slept. He pulled long hose up over his legs, then slipped a tunic over his head and belted it at the waist. Finally, he thrust his feet into soft boots, combed his shoulder-length hair with his fingers and went out the door. The count’s clothes were little different from those worn by the other people of the castle, except that they were made of finer materials, but only persons of noble birth were permitted to have fur on their garments and when the count presided at his court of justice, he would put on a long fur-trimmed robe.

As usual, Count Leon began his day by attending mass with members of his family and household. His private chapel was near the castle’s huge stone tower, which was called a “donjon” or “keep.” The service was followed by a light breakfast of bread and wine. After eating, the count set out on a tour of inspection; unlike some feudal lords, he was a competent and careful administrator.


Crossing the bailey, or open courtyard of the castle, the count saw Sir Robert Dubois, one of his vassals. Sir Robert had inherited the fief of Dubois on the recent death of his father. For several generations the Dubois family had held its fief as a grant from the great lords of Grandpré. It consisted of a manor house, three villages and some three hundred acres of farm and forest land. Each time the fief holder of Dubois died, his heir was required to renew the oath of fealty, or faithfulness, to his liege lord, or suzerain. It was to make this public vow of faithfulness, known as homage, that Sir Robert had come to the castle. In return, Count Leon would swear to protect him, to give him military aid when needed, to right his wrongs and to guard and protect his children. If Sir Robert’s father had left no children, the Dubois fief would have reverted back to Count Leon, who could have turned it over to another vassal. If Sir Robert’s father had left only a daughter, Count Leon would have arranged a marriage for her and the fief would have been her dowry.


Like any vassal who had been granted a fief, Sir Robert owed definite services to his lord. He would have to attend Count Leon at the count’s court, assist in administering justice and contribute money when requested. He was required to answer a summons to battle, bringing with him a certain number of fighting men, decided by contract and whenever the count traveled across the Dubois lands, Sir Robert would be expected to feed and house the count and all his company.

This intricate kind of private government, known as feudalism, was for hundreds of years the political system of western Europe and England. Powerful nobles held the rights and privileges which had formerly been held only by strong kings, such as Charlemagne. A poet, mourning the death of Charlemagne, wrote:

Once we had a king,

Now we have kinglets.

Once we had an empire —

Now only fragments called kingdoms.

The unit of government was no longer even a kingdom, but the domain of the feudal lord, who administered justice, settled quarrels, coined his own money, collected tolls from roads and bridges on his land, levied taxes and demanded military service from his vassals. In theory, a feudal lord owed loyalty to his sovereign, the king; in practice, the lords did as they pleased. Most of the kings of the feudal period were little more than figureheads. Often they traveled from one castle to another, living on gifts from the mighty lords.


So it was that Sir Robert, like all vassals‚ paid little attention to his distant king. He knew that the king had neither the riches nor the power of Count Leon, who had hundreds of vassals and could put in the field an army twice as large as any the king could raise. Sir Robert was proud to serve such a powerful lord and would gladly fight for him in wars against other lords.


Now the count paused in the bailey to greet Sir Robert. Wishing to learn more about his new vassal, he invited the young man to attend him throughout the day. Sir Robert was pleased and flattered. He was eager to make a good impression on his lord; besides, he was anxious to discuss the question of marriage. He wanted to marry the Lady Charlotte of Croyes, an orphan who was the count’s ward. According to feudal custom, the count had the right, as Lady Charlotte’s guardian, to marry her to whomever he chose.

Sir Robert stood by while Count Leon ordered a man to repair the huge windlass which raised and lowered the portcullis. The portcullis was the heavy oak and iron gate that guarded the entrance to the castle. Beyond it was a drawbridge spanning the moat — the deep, water-filled ditch around the entire enclosure of the castle. If an enemy attacked, the drawbridge could be raised, for the castle was a fort as well as the count’s principal home. Besides the great donjon, there were two other towers at the angles of the encircling walls; from them the archers could shoot arrows at the attackers below. The castle could hold out against a siege of many months, for within its walls were storehouses, shops, bakeries, kitchens, artisans’ dwellings, quarters for troops and guests, stables, a smithy, an armoury and a drill ground.


As Count Leon and Sir Robert made their way to the stables, they saw two young squires practicing swordsmanship on the drill ground. Sir Robert smiled, for he had put in many hours of practice on this same drill ground while receiving his own training for knighthood. It was the custom for a vassal’s son to be sent to the court of a liege lord at seven years of age, to serve seven years as a page. During this period he was cared for by the women of the household, who instructed him in religion, courtesy, deportment and cleanliness. At the age of fourteen he became a squire, a personal attendant to a knight.

It was the knight’s duty to train him thoroughly in horsemanship and all the arts of war, as well as in hunting, hawking and other sports. At twenty, a squire was ready to be accepted as a knight of the sword, whose code was “to fear God and maintain the Christian religion, to protect the weak and defenseless, to live for honour and glory, to fight for the general welfare of all . . . to respect the honour of women, to refuse no challenge from an equal and never to turn the back upon a foe.” Few knights of the Middle Ages were able to live up to this ideal of chivalry, but for centuries it would remain the standard of conduct for a gentleman.

Although a squire could be knighted on the field of battle, for exceptional bravery, usually he became a knight in a religious ceremony. Robed in garments of white, red and black, he guarded his arms all night before the altar of the church. The following morning, after mass and communion, he received the accolade of knighthood, a blow on the shoulder with the flat of a sword, from either his liege lord or a bishop.


Count Leon and Sir Robert watched the young squires for a few moments and then went on to inspect the stables. Count Leon was especially proud of his charger, his huge and spirited war horse and ordered the stable boys to bring some fresh straw for its stall. Next the two nobles went to the smithy, where they admired a new suit of armour, beautifully etched with the coat of arms of Grandpré. They also carefully examined an array of broadswords, daggers, battle-axes and lances that had just been turned out by the smithy.


Their interest in weapons was not surprising, for making war was a knight’s trade. Private wars between lords and knights, often caused by disputes over lands, were common during the Middle Ages and yet, since only knights usually took part in the fighting, the number of persons involved was comparatively small; it was not until the late Middle Ages that battles were waged by large armies. Nor were the wars always bloody

Often a knight preferred to capture, rather than kill, his opponent and release him in return for a ransom.

When there were no wars to fight,“ knights would take part in tournaments, a favorite pasttime of the nobility. These war games, held at the invitation of some noble, would take place on a field called “the lists,” with barriers separating the contestants from the spectators. Tournaments usually included contests between individuals, called jousts, and group combats, and prizes were given to the victors. Although the knights used blunted lances and swords, and the object was to unhorse the opponent, the sport was rough and dangerous. Eager to make their reputation5 as warriors‚ the knights fought hard, and many were injured or killed.

And so it was that Count Leon and Sir Robert examined the weapons in the smithy carefully. They were discussing the last tournament as they entered the Great Hall of the castle for dinner. Because breakfast was so meager, the mid-day

meal was served early, around ten o’clock in the morning. Noise and confusion filled the vast room as dozens of people took their places at the long trestle tables that had been set up. The count’s own table stood on a dais, or platform. Lady Elaine, his wife, sat at his left; Sir Robert at his right, in the place of honor. Also at the count’s table were members of his family, his squire, his priest-confessor, and important household ofiicials. Lesser members of the household sat at the other tables, along with such visiting travelers as knights-at-arms, monks, merchants, and troubadours.


Food was plentiful on this day, for the early spring crops were in. There were meat, fish and pastries, as well as the vegetables known to the Middle Ages — cabbage, turnips, onions, carrots, beans, peas — and freshly baked bread, cheese and early pears, all washed down with large tankards of ale or wine. Fruit juices and honey were the only sweetening. Spices were almost unknown until they were introduced from the Orient, after the Crusades. Everyone ate with his fingers, using a dagger to cut meat. Bones and refuse were thrown on the floor for the dogs.


While eating, Lady Elaine informed her husband that she would be riding over to a nearby village that was part of the original estate of Grandpré. Fever had broken out there. In an age when physicians were few, it was the duty of the lord’s wife to aid the sick and poor of her husband’s fief. This was only one of her many duties; she was responsible for managing every detail of the domestic arrangements of the household.

Count Leon ordered two of his knights to ride escort to his wife. Then he rose, signaling the end of the meal and the Great Hall was prepared for the court of justice. The first business before the court was Sir Robert’s act of homage and oath of fealty. Wrapping himself in his fur-trimmed robe, Count Leon seated himself on his carved chair of office and beckoned to Sir Robert to approach. He asked the young knight if he was willing to be completely his man. “I am willing,” Sir Robert answered and kneeling, placed his clasped hands in the hands of the count. Sir Robert swore, “I promise on my faith that I will in future be faithful to Count Leon and will observe my homage to him completely against all persons, in good faith and without deceit.” Count Leon kissed him, raised him from his knees and proclaimed the grant of the fief: “I Leon, count palatine of Grandpré, make known to those present and to come that I have given in fee to Robert Dubois and his heirs the manor which is called DuBois and whatever the same Robert shall be able to acquire in the same manor I have granted to him and his heirs in augmentation of that fief. . . . The same Robert on account of this had become my liege man. . . ”


After the ceremony of homage, Count Leon sat in judgment on various matters brought before him by his bailiff. He settled a dispute between two villeins, or peasants, over a patch of farmland. Next he heard the case of a poacher who had dared to hunt on the count’s game preserve and had killed a deer. This was a serious offense, for only the nobility had the right to hunt and the count sentenced the guilty man to have his right hand struck off at the wrist. Finally, one of the count’s vassal knights was brought before the court and accused of highway robbery. His case was postponed until Count Leon could summon a group of knights to sit in judgment, for it was a rule of feudal justice that a noble must be tried by his peers, or equals.


After the count adjourned his court, he and Sir Robert spent the afternoon hunting, with both dogs and falcons. Count Leon’s prize falcon brought down three braces of doves and Sir Robert speared a wild boar. Galloping back toward the castle, the hunting party passed a group of serfs digging channels to drain a swamp. Sir Robert asked if they might pause so that he could observe how the channels were dug. He was planning to drain some marshlands on his own fief. Count Leon agreed; the more a vassal improved his manor, the more valuable it was to his lord.


Feudal society, which was based on agriculture, could not have existed without manorialism, as the economic system of the Middle Ages was called. The wealth of the nobles came from the manorial lands, which were worked by the peasants and the serfs. Some lords owned only one manor, but the great lords, like Count Leon, owned many. A manor consisted of a manor house, a village or villages and perhaps several thousand acres of meadow, pasture, woodland and cultivated land. The cultivated land was divided into small strips, with about a third of the strips reserved for the lord and a smaller part for the Church. The remaining strips were assigned to the peasants and serfs for their use.

For at least half of each week, peasants and serfs worked the land belonging to the lord and the Church. They also had to do “boon work,” such as hauling, harvesting, cutting firewood and building roads and bridges. The rest of the time they cared for their own strips of land.

The serfs enjoyed even less freedom than the peasants. A serf was the chattel, or property, of his lord and was bound to the land for life, as were his children and his children’s children. He was permitted to own no property and he could not marry without his lord’s permission. Yet a serf was not a slave; feudal law gave him certain rights and defined the lord’s duties toward him. If a manor was sold or given as a fief to a vassal or another lord, the serf was not displaced; he remained with the land. He was entitled to military protection by his lord and was exempt from military service.


A manor was a self-contained unit which produced all of its necessities. It had its own craftsmen, such as weavers, tanners, carpenters, blacksmiths and millers. Life on a manor centred around the village, which might be populated by only a dozen families or as many as fifty or sixty. Peasants and serfs lived in hovels that had dirt floors and no windows or chimneys. The furnishings were few and simple — three-legged stools, a trestle table and beds that were boxes on the floor, filled with straw or dry leaves. Unlike the nobles, peasants and serfs rarely ate meat. They ate mostly porridge, cheese, black bread and whatever vegetables they could grow themselves.


The life of the peasant was hard and monotonous. An early Anglo-Saxon writer quotes a peasant as saying, “Oh, sir, I work very hard. I go out in the dawning, driving the oxen to the field and I yoke them to the plough. Be the winter never so stark, I dare not stay home for fear of my lord; but every day I must plough a full acre or more. . . . Yes, indeed it is very hard work,” but a peasant had his pleasures, too. He did not work on Sundays, nor on saints’ days, which came frequently. He might visit a nearby market or fair, where he would mingle with the crowds and watch a conjuror or a strolling band of acrobats. He enjoyed village dances, harvest, vintage festivals and sometimes the lord of the manor would give a feast to celebrate a wedding or a christening or the completion of the spring sowing.

Peasant or noble, priest or lord — each man had his place in society. Each man was a member of one of three estates, or classes and was expected to carry out the duties of his estate. The first estate was the clergy, who were responsible for the Church and religion. The second estate was the nobility, whose duty it was to govern. All other men were part of the third estate and it was their duty to work, to produce food and all the other necessities of life.


Neither Count Leon nor Sir Robert ever doubted that this was the way things were meant to be. God had put each man in his place — high or low — and who could question God’s wisdom? This was the way the world was and so it would continue to be until the end of time. Seated on their horses that day, looking down at the peasants digging ditches, pleasantly tired after the hunt, Count Leon and Sir Robert felt that all was right with the world. They were in the best of humour as they made their way to the castle for the evening meal, which would be served at sundown.

Some travelers had arrived during the afternoon — a bishop returning to his cathedral, a merchant from the Republic of Venice, a knight on a mission and a wandering troubadour. The count made them all welcome; Lady Elaine had already assigned them sleeping quarters and given orders for a lavish banquet. When Count Leon and his guests sat down at the tables in the Great Hall, the servants brought in huge pastries, meat pies, spitted boar, roast swan and peacock. There was wine during the meal and even more afterward, when the troubadour entertained the company with chansons de gestes, or songs of deeds, and chansons d’amour, or love songs.

Sir Robert chose this moment to ask the count for the hand of Lady Charlotte of Croyes. Count Leon was pleased that the fief of Sir Robert would be joined to that of Lady Charlotte; the young man would manage them well. He quickly gave his assent to the marriage, then proposed a toast to the betrothal of his liege man, Sir Robert, to his ward, the Lady Charlotte. Sir Robert in turn toasted his liege lord, Count Leon, to whom he pledged his loyalty and his strong right arm, in peace and war. Still more toasts were drunk and the great ball of the castle was filled with singing and merriment, but the hour was growing late and at last the count pushed himself away from the table and started for his chamber and bed. The others followed his example and a day at the castle of Grandpré — a typical day in the life of the Middle Ages — came to an end.

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