The Motte and Bailey Castle: Instrument of Revolution

The Motte and Bailey Castle: Instrument of Revolution

By Michel Bur

Engineering and Science, Vol.45:3 (1982)

Waytemore Castle – photo by Mark Seton / Flickr

Introduction: Scattered across the European countryside are a number of what appear to be insignificant mounds of dirt. As a medievalist and archaeologist trying to reconstruct the European landscape of the 10th to 15th centuries, I have become interested in these little artificial hills, because for several generations in the 10th and 11th centuries they constituted a weapon for the widespread seizure of power and were at the root of the most important social and political revolution of the medieval world – the beginning of feudalism.

So far no one knows exactly how many of these mounds there are or their geographical distribution. It is hard to say whether they formed a pattern or were independent units. It is certain that they are neither tombs in the style of the Egyptian pyramids or Celtic tumuli, nor temples similar to the ones the Aztecs built on this side of the Atlantic. They are mottes – the first fortified castles.

A motte was made partially or completely by human hands, surrounded by a ditch, and topped by a wooden tower. A trenched annex was attached to the foot of this mound, forming the lower yard or bailey where the service buildings were assembled. The remains of mottes and baileys are still found today all over the European countryside, and their preservation over the intervening centuries has probably been due to the fear or respect that surrounds a leader’s dwelling.

The mottes began to appear toward the end of the 10th century, first in low and swampy areas but then also on hills and rocky spurs, during a period of the disintegration of central power – the cracking of the unity of the Carolingian empire. Consequently this was the period of the rise of feudalism and the formation of local power. For warriors seeking to subvert the king’s authority, to appropriate hereditary rights of command and justice, and to expand their power over a territory, a motte constituted a powerful weapon. It enabled its possessor to hold out against attacks on territory he already controlled and to spread out in all directions. The mottes were the physical expression of a challenge to the incompetence of the central power. As the force behind the law over the neighboring population, they established the supremacy of the strong over the weak, of the dominant over the dependent. The motte was the symbol of a new feudal society.

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