Teaching Medieval Castles

Teaching Medieval Castles

By Robert Liddiard

The Higher Education Academy: Subject Centre for History, Classics and Archaeology (2005)

Introduction: Ask anyone to visualise the Middle Ages and, almost inevitably, they conjure up the image of the castle. Together with the great cathedrals and parish churches, castles are one of the most vivid symbols of our medieval heritage. Castles are ‘tangible’ monuments that exert a powerful holdon the imagination of students and academics alike. The medieval castle is therefore a potentially valuable teaching resource. Castles can provide an excellent starting point for the study of medieval history, especially for those students who, due to the constraints of school curricula, are only familiar with twentieth-century history. The variety and distribution of castles across Britain ensures that they can offer tremendous potential for fieldtrips and seminars in the field. Alongside the familiar role of military fortress, castles also provide potential for the study of topics as various as the household, attitudes to authority, lordly lifestyles, landscape design and spirituality.

Alongside the undoubted benefits, teaching the medieval castle also prevents certain problems. The study of the castle frequently does not fit easily into ‘traditional’ undergraduate units in medieval history or archaeology. This is due, in part, to the multifarious nature of the castle itself. Castles had a multiplicity of roles in the medieval period and, according to the demands of the undergraduate unit in question, often appear in only one of their many forms: as military fortresses, estate centres, as part of the infrastructure of government, as tools of conquest. Only rarely is the unified concept of ‘the medieval castle’ tackled in undergraduate seminars. Moreover, various structural problems ensure that teaching castles can be, frankly, difficult. Many castles are physically inaccessible to campus-based undergraduates and this is compounded by the fact that students themselves, particularly those registered on history degree programmes, often find it difficult to interpret complex architectural arguments or follow the nuances of archaeological reports.

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