Icon and Imagination – The Medievalism of Castles

This paper was delivered at the Wilfrid Laurier University Medieval Student’s Society Colloquium this past spring, I thought I may as well throw it up on here in conjunction with a cool article about Gothic cathedrals that you can find here. The paper addresses the symbolic meaning of castles, both to our contemporary eyes and to the minds of those that built and lived in them. What do castles tell us about our modern relationship with the medieval world?

(The paper also touches on how castles are used in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones, which I talked a bit more about in a digital exhibit for a course this year; you can also find lots more Game of Thrones scholarship on our class website here.)

The Medievalism of Castles

What is a castle? A seemingly easy enough question, but the debate rages on none the less. Is it fundamentally a house, a fortress, a palace, a statement, or a stage? Johnson, whose book Behind the Castle Gate some of you may have just read, puts forward the proposition that this debate is fundamentally flawed and will continue to prove fruitless. We cannot understand what a castle “meant” when it was created and initially interacted with, because we were not there.[1] Any scholarly attempt to explain the castle or its meanings come from a different social and intellectual climate that obscures whatever the “real” meaning of the castle might have been to contemporaries.

Johnson’s post-modern critique on the debate over castles may seem a little too radical for the more traditionally minded among you, but if his argument is examined in the context of medievalism, it becomes clear that he is on to something. While never quite elucidated clearly enough in Behind the Castle Gate, he is making the point that when we see a relic from the past, in this case a very concrete relic, we take to it our own assumptions, ideas, and dreams of the middle ages. This idea is the heart and soul of medievalism research.

So a better question then is what does a castle mean to a 21st century viewer? Castles are a major trope in fiction and fantasy, deployed in everything from Arthurian children’s adaptations to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and its spinoff Game of Thrones. But, when they are used in these fictional constructs, what purpose do they serve? What message are they trying to convey? What do castles tell us about how we view the middle ages?

The answer to this question must briefly sketch scholarly considerations of medievalism’s in general before the castle is considered in more detail. Few scholars have considered the role of the castle as an icon of medievalism or as a mirror of the past, and as such this paper is meant to merely start a conversation. I will make the argument that the castle is an icon of the Middle Ages, a synecdoche or representation of the era as a whole in the public’s mind; Wawn made a similar case with regards to the popular imagination of Vikings.[2] The public largely interacts with history through a series of icons such as the castle, and as such, those icons are clearly worthy of study.

The Medieval Understanding of the Castle

As noted, how medieval contemporaries viewed and thought about castles will continue to be under debate for quite some time. The building served vital military and domestic functions, but it was also a symbol of power and authority to the people viewing it. It signified that the owner was a powerful member of the aristocracy, with enormous resources and legal authority from the monarch. As a statement, Johnson argues that it became more important after about 1300, as its military features began to decline and its domestic features became increasingly luxurious. The castle, he says, was a stage for individuals to constantly reinforce their identities. Manuscript illuminations generally conform to stereotypical and idealized representations of castles, at least until the 14th century, suggesting perhaps that to non-military figures, a castle was a castle, regardless of the specifics.[3]

For the people in the castle, surely it was seen as a safe haven. In Sir Orfeo, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Le Morte D’Arthur the castle is a refuge for the heroes to issue forth from and return to.[4] [5] The most dangerous parts of the quest are always in the wild. The castle is civilization itself.

The lower classes surely had quite a different imagination of castles, though this is hard to tell. Certainly castles were regarded in some chronicles as sources of fear, generally because of associations with torture and punishment, though they could also be seen as sources of safety and protection.[6] Later writers would chiefly borrow from the elite view of the castle, the castle as ideal civilization and a place of safety, rather than the more imposing or dominating imagination that the lower classes may have felt.

The Historic Castle in Historical Memory –Romantic and Victorian Images of the Castle

The influence of Victorian and Romantic writers on the modern perceptions of the Middle Ages has scarcely been under emphasized in the scholarship surrounding medievalism’s, but a brief consideration of how our forebears have imagined the past is crucial. How have writers, artists, and scholars considered both the castle and the period in general in the last two hundred years?

It is true that medievalism’s generally reflect present concerns and often discontentment with the present state of affairs.[7] They often have very real world implications. Medievalism is often expressly political, especially when tied to the creation of a national identity.[8] In Germany, the work of philological medievalists to create a shared national past and collections of national myths spurred on the development of German nationality; likewise, with the compilation of the Kalevala in Finland. In Britain, both conservative and radical thinkers invoked the medieval past in their argument, though in very different ways. While the Whigs saw latent capitalism and democracy, the radicals saw an age of relative freedom for the lower and middle classes, where they had a clear sense of inherent rights and a close connection their labour.

The Romantics often used the Middle Ages to challenge the current order. The Victorians, in turn, preferred to see in the Middle Ages an ideal, chivalric past which was used to justify the long lasting institutions of that past world, namely the monarchy, aristocracy, church, and parliament.[9] The Victorians recognized the unique civilization of the medieval period, and this idyllic past was represented in the newfound appreciation for Gothic architecture and medieval literature, chiefly Arthurian tales of courtly love. Central to their idea of the medieval was the sense of loss – the medieval world is always a past world, gone forever, good and bad. Chivalry was dead. Even Mallory, writing in the later fifteenth century, saw the medieval world, with its honour, honesty, and chivalry, as being gone.

How then do castles fit into this view of the Middle Ages? As they are icons of the Middle Ages, they can be made to fit any view of the period: they have been both cruel oppressors and noble Edenic locales, depending on the piece. While some might see Camelot as a silly place, it is the ideal representation of the chivalric castle: a location of serenity for the royal court, from which knights may ride forth to embark upon quests, while the king and the court are never threatened themselves. Nottingham Castle in Robin Hood stories are probably the most oppressive literary castles, though they are far from being alone. Both archetypes, the heroic castle and the villainous castle, have been cast over time depending on the “middle age” that is being portrayed. An age of chivalry must be set at the Camelot archetype, while an age of oppression and darkness must be set at the Nottingham archetype.  In this way, the depiction and use of different types of castles alludes to the type of medievalism a given work is portraying.

The Modern Castle of Fantasy – Disney and Neo-Gothic Architecture

Most modern perceptions of medieval castles come from literature rather than history. A crumbling ruin in a remote vale is rarely as inspiring as the majestic fairy-tale castles of story. Disney’s castles, as well as castle reconstructions and neo-gothic architecture in general, shapes our view of the medieval world and the true castle. In North America especially there are few relics of this medieval world that are not literary. How then do these modern reconstructions, both literary and concrete, demonstrate how people have viewed the medieval period over time? And perhaps even more importantly, how have these reconstructions shaped our view of the middle ages?

Of all the modern representations of castles, Disney’s are the most interesting. The Cinderella Castle in Disneyworld is an iconic symbol of the brand and is many children’s first experience with castles. The storybook castle it represents is a welcoming symbol of luxury and “happily-ever-after”, shaping the cultural conversation about castles in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The Disney castles retain common historical features, including towers, crenelated battlements, a drawbridge, and even a portcullis, though obviously they are only decorative. The castles are palaces, not fortresses. In most fairy-tales the castle is the symbol of triumph over evil and “happily-ever-after”, and is a refuge for the hero or heroine after their quest.

It is important to consider that medievalism’s must be conceived of in the plural, and they are almost always layered upon one another. Neo-medievalism is a “dream of someone else’s medievalism”.[10] The Cinderella Castle is the perfect representation of this. It was based famously on Neuschwanstein, a late 19th century construction of the ideal castle for the reclusive king Ludwig, whose epithet “the fairy-tale king” says it all. Neuschwanstein is based on the Victorian dream of a lost age of chivalry, nobility, and luxury. It retains common castle features but is obviously means to evoke the pageantry and magic of a lost age above all else. This Victorian image of the castle, and the erroneous Victorian image of the Middle Ages, comes down to us through Neuschwanstein and Disney’s Cinderella Castle, to say nothing of the many other fictional castles in Disney films.

Neuschwanstein is only one of a number of castles built or rebuilt during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Casa Loma in Toronto was built between 1911 and 1914 as a large private estate for a Canadian soldier and businessman with strong ties to Britain.[11] Henry Pellatt was a commanding officer of the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada and along with his wife was an important figure in the Canadian Boy Scout/Girl Guide movement, and was even knighted by Edward VII in 1905.[12] Casa Loma is a home that is clearly designed in a pseudo-medieval British style, neo-gothic, not only for its aesthetic value but also to send a message. Canada, at least to Sir Henry, was completely rooted in a medieval British past.

Likewise, the Canadian Parliament buildings deliberately copy the Westminster parliament buildings in the United Kingdom. These buildings obviously aren’t castles, but they speak briefly to political uses of medievalism close to home. The neo-gothic style applied to both buildings is meant to foster an image of authority and antiquity to the institution of parliament, which was of course itself born in the Middle Ages. Architecture was a key facet to the emergence of Canadian cultural identity in the late 19th and early 20th century, and for the most part relied on conservatively modifying British styles; the cultural elites in Canada were typically upper-class English Canadians with strong ties to Britain.[13] Our modern political system uses the cultural memory of the Middle Ages as part of its rationale for authority; parliamentary constitutional monarchies are the acceptable form of government because of its very antiquity.

So: architectural medievalism, seen in the parliament buildings and in Casa Loma, serves a very real political purpose, and do not reflect mere decorative choices. Likewise, they project a romantic and ideal dream of the middle ages to a modern audience – a dream of order.

The Medievalism of Castles? Tropes, Images, and Cultural Memory

The cultural memory of the middle ages is thus clearly expressed in architecture. The castles examined all express different dreams of the Middle Ages. These examples come from the most cursory look at medievalist castles, and there are countless others. They serve to illustrate my main argument, however, which is that castles are icons of the middle ages; they are objects that represent the period as a whole. If one sees the medieval period as essentially a time of order and chivalric romance, than the castle is Neuschwanstein or Cinderella’s castle. If one sees the period as essentially chaotic, corrupt, and barbaric, than Nottingham or perhaps Maleficent’s castle in Disney’s Sleeping Beauty. A more Whiggish view of the past might lead to Casa Loma or even the Canadian Parliament buildings.

Outside of our real world, castles also function as shorthand for “medieval” in many fictional settings. In fantasy literature in particular, when an author is trying to convey an air of authenticity, castles become important historical objects placed in a fictional world. George R.R. Martin uses castle imagery and allusions constantly throughout A Song of Ice and Fire as a means to add a sense of historical authenticity to his work, because the castle is a real medieval artefact. The castle is intrinsically “medieval”, and its countless repetitions reinforce its pseudo medieval identities.

Obviously, there are many, many misconceptions about the real Middle Ages. It is generally considered an age of violence, barbarity, backwardness, and superstition.[14] The influence of medievalism’s has led to some seeing it as an era of magic, chivalry and security, unworried and progressing. In almost every case, the castle is there. An imposing, dark and gloomy structure or a bright palace, it remains a constant symbol of the medieval middle ages


So what can we take away from this? First and foremost that the castle is an icon of the middle ages – an object that stands in for the period as a whole, with all its associated preconceptions and misconceptions. Icons such as these deserve study as they relate to medievalism and historical memory; the topic has largely been under-considered in scholarship.

The post-modernists insist that we can never truly understand most of the past, because it is an entirely different world. This is certainly up for debate, but what cannot be debated is that our view of the past is fundamentally shaped by how others have seen that past and our modern context and culture. History is shaped by the person who is dreaming about the past. If we want to get closer to understanding the “real” past, we must therefore also study the dreams of the past.

[1] Matthew Johnson, Behind the Castle Gate: From Medieval To Renaissance. (London: Routledge, 2002).

[2] Tom Shippey, “Medievalisms and Why They Matter”. In Studies in Medievalism: Defining Medievalism(s), ed. Karl Fugelso. (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2009): 47.

[3] A. Dean McKenzie, “French Medieval Castles in Gothic Manuscript Painting”. In The Medieval Castle: Romance and Reality, ed. Kathryn Reyerson and Faye Powe (Dubuque: Kendal/Hunt Publishing, 1984): 213.

[4] Muriel A. Wittaker, “Otherworld Castles in Middle English Arthurian Romance”. In The Medieval Castle: Romance and Reality, ed.Kathryn Reyerson and Faye Powe. (Dubuque: Kendal/Hunt Publishing, 1984): 27-46

[5] Barry Gaines, “Malory’s Castles in Text and Illumination”. In The Medieval Castle: Romance and Reality, ed. Kathryn Reyerson and Faye Powe (Dubuque: Kendal/Hunt Publishing, 1984): 215-28.

[6] Gregory Leighton, Castra mentium: The perceptions of castles in the Latin East and the Baltic. (M.A. Thesis, California State University, 2014): 36-7.

[7] Tison Pugh and and Angela Jane Weisl. Medievalisms: Making the Past in the Present. (New York: Routledge, 2013): 2.

[8] Shippey, 48-50.

[9] See Clare A. Simmons, Popular Medievalism in Romantic-Era Britain. (New York: Palgrave, 2011).

[10] Pugh and Weisl, 3-5.

[11] Marsh, James H. “Toronto Feature: Casa Loma”, The Canadian Encyclopaedia. Accessed March 19 2015.

[12] T.D. Regehr, “Sir Henry Mill Pellatt”, The Canadian Encyclopaedia. Accessed March 19 2015.

[13] See Myzelev, Alla, “Canadian Architecture and Nationalism: From Vernacular to Deco”, Brock Review 11.1 (2010).

[14] Stephen J. Harris and Byron L. Grigsby, Misconceptions About the Middle Ages. (London: Routledge, 2008).


About ryanmikeorr

I write at https://doonpress.wordpress.com/
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One Response to Icon and Imagination – The Medievalism of Castles

  1. Pingback: “Historian Uses Lasers to Unlock Mysteries of Gothic Cathedral” – National Geographic | doonpress

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