By Danièle Cybulskie
This week, the time I had planned to spend working on this post was spent with a sick first-grader on my lap, so I decided to take that particular lemon and make lemonade. Kids always seem to take a keen interest in castles, and they ask great questions that cut to the heart of the matter. So, keeping in mind that there are plenty of mini-medievalists out there, here are some castle questions from a six-year-old, with kid-friendly answers.
1. How would they build a castle in a whole day?
Actually, castles took a really long time to build. Years! This is because they had to cut all the pieces of the castle from stone, without modern cutting tools. Often, they chipped carefully at a stone until it split, and then shaped the edges, little by little, until the stone was the right shape. Then, they mixed together some cement using sand and water and some other sticky stuff to stick it all together, gluing stones on top of each other one at a time. Castles often had walls that were several feet thick (some of them as thick as a kindergarten student is tall!), so you can imagine how many stones that would be. Yep, a lot. If you want to see a real castle being built using medieval methods, check out Guédelon. There’s a video on their “The Guédelon Adventure” page called “Hands-On Learning” that shows the builders at work. People have been working on Guédelon for almost twenty years, and there’s still a long way to go. Building castles out of LEGO would have been much faster.
2. How did blacksmiths make stuff out of metal?
If you’ve ever tried bending a big piece of metal, you know it’s pretty hard to do. But if you heated that metal up to a really high temperature, it would become bendy, and eventually melt into a puddle. That’s how blacksmiths made things out of metal in the Middle Ages: they heated it up, and then shaped it. Sometimes, they heated part of a metal rod and hit it with a hammer until it flattened into the right shape, cooling it off in a bucket of water to get it to stay that way. Sometimes, they heated metal in a pot until it was melted and bubbling – like lava! – and poured it into a mould. That would be the easiest way to make many copies of the same thing. Like building castles, making all the metal stuff for a castle took a long time.
3. Why did they use stale bread as plates?
Think about it: no dishes to wash! Using a thick slice of stale bread as a plate (trencher) was good for a few reasons. It did make for fewer dishes to wash, but it also gave people a bit more to eat, kept the sauce and drippings from being wasted, and saved people the cost of actually buying dishes to use (remember how long it took to make things?). Using bread also meant people didn’t have to carry a plate around with them, although they did carry their own eating knives. Like us, some medieval people used wooden or metal plates, especially as time went on, but people today still find that using bread is a handy way to eat. Now, we just call it a sandwich.
4. Why did they use dead pigs as a weapon? (Thank-you, David Macaulay…)
When people tried to take over a castle (to lay siege to it), they would do just about anything to make the people inside surrender. Most of the time, the beseigers would use their siege engines – like trebuchets and catapults – to throw giant stones at the castle in order to break it down. Sometimes, they threw yucky stuff, like dead pigs, in order to gross out the people in the castle and to make them sick. They thought that if the people inside got sick enough, they would surrender the castle in order to get help or escape the disease. It was definitely not a nice way to win the castle. Maybe they should have tried saying please instead.
(And the burning question that inevitably comes after reading Castle: How It Works)
5. Why did they use straw for toilet paper?
In medieval Europe, people didn’t make or use paper for many, many years. This means both paper for books, and paper for toilets. When they finally did start making and using paper, like everything else, it took so long to make that they only used it for important stuff, like writing and printing books. It didn’t make sense to go to all the trouble of making paper, only to throw it away. Straw was handy, because it was used for all sorts of things, like feeding animals and making roofs, which meant that (unlike paper) it was very easy to get. Using straw was a good solution, although the modern one is much more comfortable.
It’s easy to get kids interested in the Middle Ages via castles, whether it’s through building or besieging castles out of blocks, snow, or sand, or giving kids fun and memorable trivia that they can gleefully tell the teacher (or any handy adult). I hope these quick questions and answers keep that interest keen!
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist