Medieval fortification

Medieval fortification is the military aspect of Medieval technology that covers the development of fortification construction and use in Europe roughly from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance. During this millennium, fortifications changed warfare, and in turn were modified to suit new tactics, weapons and siege techniques.

Middle Ages
by region
Medieval Britain
Medieval France
Medieval Germany
Medieval Italy
Medieval Spain
Byzantine Empire
by topic


1 See also

Fortification types


A castle (from the Latin castellum, diminutive of castra, a military camp, in turn the plural of castrum or watchpost), is a fort, a camp and the logical development of a fortified enclosure. The term is most often applied to a small self-contained fortress, usually of the Middle Ages,


City walls

The exact nature of the walls of a medieval town or city would depend on the resources available for building them, the nature of the terrain and the perceived threat. In northern Europe, early in the period they are likely to have been constructed of wood and proof against small forces. Especially where stone was readily available for building, the wood will have been replaced by stone to a higher or lower standard of security. This would have been the pattern of events in the Five Boroughs of the Danelaw in England.

In any case, the wall will have had an internal and an external pomoerium. This was a strip of clear ground immediately inside or outside the wall. The word is a medieval and later one, derived from the classical Latin post murum, behind the wall.

An external pomoerium, stripped of bushes and building, gave defenders a clear view of what was happening outside and an unobstructed field of shot. An internal pomoeriun gave ready access to the rear of the curtain wall to facilitate movement of the garrison to a point of need. By the end of the sixteenth century, the word had developed further in common use, into pomery.

By that time too, the medieval walls were no longer secure against a serious threat from an army as they were not designed for resisting canon shot. They might have been rebuilt as at Berwick on Tweed or retained for use against thieves and other threats of a lower order. Very elaborate and complex schemes for town defences were developed in the Netherlands and France but these belong mainly to the post-medieval periods. By 1600, the medieval wall is likely to have been seen more as a platform for displaying hangings and the pomery as a gathering ground for the spectators or as a source of building stone and a site for its use. However, a few such as those of Carcassonne, survived fairly well and have been restored to an impressively complete state.




A monastery is the habitation of monks. Originally: a hermit's cell. Christian monasteries are also called abbey, priory, charterhouse, friary, and preceptory, while the habitation of nuns can also be called a convent.

Mottes, Baileys

Motte-and-bailey was the prevalent form of castle during 11th and 12th centuries. A courtyard (called bailey) was protected by a ditch and a palisade (strong timber fence). Often there was an entrance, protected by a lifting bridge, a drawbridge or a timber gate tower. Inside the bailey were stables, workshops, a well and a chapel.

Motte was the final refuge in this type of castle. It was a raised earth mound. Its height varied between 5m (15 ft) to 10m (30 ft). There was a tower on top of the motte. In most cases, the tower was made of timber, though some were also made of stones. Stone towers were found in natural mounds, as artificial ones were not strong enough to support stone towers. Larger mottes had towers with many rooms, including the great hall. Smaller ones had only a watch tower.




Structure and Elements


  • Height: As high as they wanted their walls to be
  • Width: usually 2.5-6 m (8-20 ft) thick

Defensive walls were usually topped with crenellation or parapets that offered protection to those defending from the top of the wall.

  • Machicolation: Machicolations (from the French word machicoulis, implying a meaning of something like "neck-crusher") consisted of openings between a wall and a parapet, formed by corbelling out the latter, so that the defenders might throw down stones, melted lead, and so forth, upon assailants below.
  • Inner walls and gates: the inner walls protected the outside attackers from getting inside the castle.


  • Importance of gates
  • Defences




A moat was a common addition to medieval fortifications, and the principal purpose (just as in antiquity) to make the walls harder to assail and increasing their effective height. In many instances, natural water paths were used as moats, and often extended through ditches to surround as much of the fortification as possible. Provided this was not so unnaturally contrived as to allow an attacker to drain the system, it served two defensive purposes. It made approaching the curtain wall of the castle more difficult and the undermining of the wall virtually impossible. To position a castle on a small island was very favourable from a defensive point of view, although it made deliveries of supplies and building materials more cumbersome and expensive.

To facilitate transportation but still maintaining the advantage of the construction, a drawbridge was often constructed as a part of the bridge spanning the moat.

Keeps and citadels


At this time, internal stairways in fortified buildings were generally constructed so as to wind up a cylindrical well, and designed to give an advantage to a defender. The principle usually adopted was that the defender was likely to be positioned higher than an assailant who was presumed to have entered on the ground floor. As most people are right handed, and the defender higher up, the stair was constructed as a left-handed helix, forcing the assailant to fight with his sword hand close to the central pillar, the newel of the stair, thereby limiting his capacity for sword play, while the defender could more comfortably reach around with his sword arm nearer the outer wall of the well. Conversely, spiral stairs in churches are usually but not invariably, in the form of a right-hand helix.

Stairs were also constructed to contain trick or stumble steps. These were steps that had different rise height or thread depth from the rest and would cause anyone running up the stairs to stumble or fall, so slowing down the attackers' progress.


Doors were made out of two layers of oak planks. The grain of the wood would run vertically on the front layer and horizontally on the back, like a simplistic form of plywood. The two layers would be held together by iron studs.

The studs themselves were pointed on the front so that attackers would damage their weapons (swords, axes, etc.) while trying break through.

City planning

Dismantling fortifications

As the power of cannons grew during the 16th and 17th century, medieval walls became obsolete as they were too thin to offer any realistic protection against prolonged bombardment. As a consequence of this, many walls from medieval times were torn down and the stone (still valuable as construction material) reused in more modern bulwarks and bastions. The resulting space is often seen in old city centers of Europe even to this day, as broader streets often outline where the old wall once stood (evident is for example Prague and Florence, Italy).

Defensive Obstacles

Just as modern military engineers enhance field fortifications with obstacles such as barbed wire, Medieval engineers had a number of obstacle types at their disposal, including:

Factors influencing fortification construction


See also


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