Disgusting Details About Medieval Castles That Definitely Weren’t In The History Books

Disgusting Details About Medieval Castles That Definitely Weren

Castles are magnificent. They stand atop high hills or difficult terrain to deter potential invaders, and they take years to design and build. And, thanks to fairy tales and Game of Thrones, you might think a castle’s insides match the beauty and splendor of its outside. But the reality is that castle life included scenes unfit for even the most horrific movies, and these little-known details prove they were actually not very pleasant places to live.

What’s That Smell?

Castles were smelly. With a general lack of running water and extreme difficulty in obtaining it, most servants and other lower-class residents couldn’t clean themselves. And the types of toilets they used definitely didn’t help.

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The Porcelain Throne

Toilets weren’t fancy. When you needed to go, you’d likely have to do it on a wooden bench with a little hole in it. Your waste would fall into a vast poo pit or straight into a moat. Outside the bathroom, life wasn’t much better.

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HGTV’s Best Tips

When you were using this gross, dirty toilet, you probably wouldn’t have any privacy either. Castle makers followed the HGTV network’s sage advice and went with an open floor-plan. Unless you were a noble, you probably didn’t have a room to call your own.

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Crowded Hallways

Generally, more than 100 people would live in a castle, meaning you’d never feel alone. There was so much square footage that needed to be maintained, so royalty required an enormous staff for upkeep.

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Delegation

The high-ranking officials were responsible for managing the politics and land protection and delegated all cleaning and cooking work to their staff. Anyone who lived in the castle had some kind of job, even the royals.

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Job Opportunities

There were five different types of careers in a medieval establishment: if you were upper-class, you could choose nobility, the clergy, or just being a royal. Lower classes were merchants, craft-makers, and laborers. Who do you think had to rise with the sun?

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Small Windows

It was critical that people in castles started their day with the sun because so little of it found its way inside the walls. This meant all the indoor servants had a small window of time to get their work done.

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Drink Up!

Castle life may have been lousy, but at least there was always liquor around. Water was still teeming with bacteria and other waste, making it dangerous to safely consume. So, people got drunk for their health, in a way.

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Party Time (Sort Of)

A big part of castle life revolved around preparing for feasts and parties. These were a massive to-do and it took the entire staff working diligently to properly prepare for them. The lame part? Servants wouldn’t even get to eat the fancy food they were making.

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Family Dinners

In the dining hall, people sat based on their royal status. The king and queen would sit at the head, while the rest of their court filed in around them. They were also served the food first, which might have been cold by the time they got to eat it.

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Time for Church

Within the filth, you could attend church. Even though your body wasn’t clean, your spirit was, we guess. If religion was your thing, you wouldn’t have to leave the compound to worship. Still, you should probably bring something to cover your nose.

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If You’re Having Rat Problems…

If you have musophobia, stay out of medieval-era castles. They were filled with rats because warmth, food (any kind of food), and open water sources are only a few of the many things that draw rats inside. Castles really are the perfect ratly environment.

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Cats And Dogs

And like everything else in a castle, floors were extremely dirty. Cats and dogs were given free reign and used the space as a massive toilet. To cover this smell, servants threw fragrant herbs on the ground. It was a crunchy, poopy mess. Getting clean was tough.

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Bath Routine

If someone wanted to take a bath, it would be in a portable wooden tub. The tub would be moved from one room to the next for people to use. Was there privacy? No. Was it hygienic? Also no. But, it was available.

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No Tinder

Not that there was a ton of opportunity in all that open space, but you weren’t allowed to copulate with your spouse unless you were planning for a child. Even admitting to having sexual thoughts about them was a sin and could be punished.

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Send Them To The Rack

Torturing prisoners wasn’t just something created to spice up TV shows. Whenever a ruler was feeling feisty, they could order prisoners who were in the dungeons to be terribly punished.

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Creativity

Many prisoners were captured due to conflicting political beliefs, making this treatment even more heinous. One particular method involved capturing rats in a basket, tying it to a helplessly bound person, and then letting the rats eat their way out. Fun! 

Hulton Archive / Stringer

Where’s The Thermostat?

There’s a reason castles are known for fireplaces — they were dark, cold structures. The windows were high and narrow, to help defend the castle against archers and the stone walls themselves didn’t hold heat. So, bundle up if you’re planning to sleep over in one.

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Kitchen Fires

To add to this, kitchens commonly caught on fire. For some reason, they were made of wood and the food was being cooked over huge flames. You do the math. Eventually builders changed to stone.

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Help From The Stairways

Stairways in castles were always clockwise. This helped defend against right-handed swordsmen who would have their blows blocked by the stone walls. Defenders in the castle had the advantage.

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No Longer Museums

Today’s castles might be museums or houses for royalty, but when the original medieval castles were built, they were designed to serve as fortresses during times of war. All of the planning that went into them was about defending the grounds from enemies.

Moats

When you think of a castle’s first line of defense, you probably imagine a moat, right? Traditionally, a moat was a large body of water that circled the castle and separated it from the land. But despite how bad it was to live in a cold, dark, and damp castle, it really pales in comparison to how the commonfolk lived during Medieval times. Just take a look at what they lived in…

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Peasant Houses

What were peasant homes like? They were small structures with thatched roofs, designed to be easy to repair. Serfs called these little dwellings cruck houses. No matter the weather, they weren’t very comfortable places to be. Winters were harsh, and summers were unbearably hot. And instead of a dog curled up at the end of their beds, peasants did things a bit differently.

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Animals Indoors

Whatever animals peasants owned were rounded up at night and brought inside with the rest of the family. Cows, pigs, chickens, all would crowd into the cruck house for a few different reasons. First was the risk of animal theft. Leaving your critters outside was gambling whether they’d be there in the morning. Though, that wasn’t the only potential problem.

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There Were Tons of Bugs

Sometimes the animals ran off all on their own. Losing your animals was a huge blow to a peasant family. Living with your livestock and farm animals wasn’t easy. In fact, it was just as filthy as you’d expect. Flies, fleas, lice, you name it, — peasants in medieval Europe scratched and swatted them as they slept.

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Incredibly High Taxes

When they weren’t working the land at all hours, peasants were paying hefty amounts of taxes. Yep, even the serfs! No one was exempt when the taxman called. Officials accepted forms of non-cash currency, like seeds, which weren’t exactly cheap. Sacrificing seeds meant you’d have less to plant. Needless to say, this wasn’t a sustainable cycle.

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Different Sleep Schedule

In medieval Europe, sleep was handled much differently. Rather than retiring to bed for the night, peasants broke hours of sleep into smaller increments. They’d snooze for 2-4 hours, only to wake up and do other activities, like work, have sex, or even leave the house to visit friends. Then, they’d go back home to bed for a few more hours.

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Owed The Church

Just when a peasant had a moment to rest from the seemingly never-ending labor of working their own land, they had to do the same for the church. That’s right, in addition to the forced labor owed to lords, the church also had unflinching rules about sweat equity. Though this unpaid work was done without complaint, not participating was considered a sin.

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Sunday Funday

At the end of a backbreaking week was Sunday, a peasant’s only day off. That day was relegated to the church, where, beyond worship, was an opportunity to sing and play music. In some cases, the church offered reading lessons to peasant children. Still, outside of their faith, peasants had a few additional bright lights in their difficult lives.

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Blood Sports

Think exposing children to gory movies is bad? Well, in the Middle Ages, a typical family outing involved attending a bear-baiting. Crowds gathered to witness dogs attack a chained bear, who would ultimately be freed and execute the canines. But for those not interested in bear-versus-dog battles to the death, there was the other popular pastime of cockfighting, or even a version of soccer, which wasn’t much better.

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Soccer Was Cutthroat

Football, or soccer, was a hugely popular game amongst medieval peasants, but you had to be willing to get hurt. Games lasted days and were punctuated by broken bones, unchecked aggression, and sometimes death. Things grew so bad that in 1363 King Edward III made playing soccer an imprisonable offense.

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Dealing With Violence

Violence wasn’t something peasants enjoyed by any means, but it was a huge problem, and it’s not difficult to see why. Physical punishment was a socially acceptable response. Domestic violence in marriage was normalized, despite contradicting codes of chivalry. Other times, violence was born out of extreme financial desperation. Options were limited and tensions were high, so they eventually boiled over.

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They Protested

The lower classes of Middle Ages society weren’t ones to put up with injustice quietly. Peasants organized and attended protests against “The Man,” and while some wildly waved pitchforks and other weapons, most showed up surprisingly well-prepared. They cited their rights from the Domesday book as evidence, despite lacking formal education. Ultimately, though, these protests were met with swift and brutal ends.

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Torture

The worst part about living in the lowest tier of medieval society was the lack of rights. If someone pointed the finger at a peasant, or worse, a serf, living a life of slavery, the accused was at the mercy of the punisher. Serfs were valued for labor, so they usually would be whipped rather than maimed or killed. In some severe cases, the punishment was brutal and cruel, like live burial.

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Multi-Purpose Liquid

Water was even more valuable in the Middle Ages for its wide array of uses. The first stop in a peasant’s morning was the nearby water source, probably a river, where they’d dump their putrid bucket of human waste. Ah, how refreshing! If you’re questioning whether their waste went straight into their drinking and bathing water, the answer is a grotesque “absolutely.” However, bathing itself was a whole other issue.

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Baths In A Lifetime

Running water wasn’t yet an amenity in medieval times, so even the societal elites were far from fresh as daisies. The situation was way stinkier for peasants. Some historians say that in their lifetimes, a typical peasant bathed only twice: once at birth, the other after death! However, for those looking to wash, there was one rough option.

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The Stews

Peasants searching for a rare scrub went to the stews, or what we’d call a public bath today. They stripped down and simmered together in the water, though admittedly, most didn’t go there for hygiene. The stews were mostly known as a brothel, a hub for public sex — and for thieves! It was a treasure trove for pickpockets to rifle through the clothes that “bathers” cast aside.

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Childhood

Helicopter parents be warned: the lives of peasant children will make you sad. It was a feat for babies to survive beyond six months, so each year was counted as a small victory. Schooling was out of the question for children in this rung of society. Instead, they went straight to work, albeit doing more minor tasks like chasing away birds.

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Women’s Roles

While so often throughout history, women were so oppressed that they weren’t allowed to participate in certain aspects of society, that wasn’t the case in the Middle Ages. Peasant women, in particular, were very busy. No, it wasn’t a highly progressive society, but women, especially on the lower rungs, held a lot of responsibility.

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Food

What was on the menu for a typical family dinner? It depended on what was available. A grain, usually bread, was the mainstay of all their meals. Beans were another staple along with some salted meats, though meat was a luxury few could afford.

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Lifespan

Given their filthy conditions and limited resources, peasants had the shortest life expectancy of anyone in the rigid class structure of medieval society. The Black Death was the major culprit, killing 25 million people in a span of 5 years, and since serfs lived only an estimated 35 years on average, it’s fair to say many of those deaths were the poorest of the poor.

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Drunk All The Time

One way to combat the depressing banality of a work-laden life is by drowning it in booze! That was the peasant strategy anyway. While some suggest peasants downed beer over water due to accessibility, that wasn’t accurate. Still, heavy drinking was commonplace across all classes, and it only increased as the Middle Ages continued and distilling was popularized.

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