Military and Social Developments

The study of castles is but one aspect of medieval society and culture and cannot really be followed without appreciation of the many factors and influences of the wider society. However, we will try here to summarise a few of the more interesting aspects of castles in our period somewhat in isolation due in part by the limits of space.photo segovia castle

The wide range of castle types in Spain, the scale of political change between that which prevailed at the beginning of the medieval period to that at the end was huge and of course the large geographical area of Spain all make generalisations impossible.

Throughout our period of study there was some form of military conflict involving battles, sieges, negotiated settlements and all the trappings of medieval warfare, somewhere within Spain. There were the conflicts between Christian and Islam during the reconquest; there were the internal territorial wars between different Muslim lords at points in the Islamic occupation; between the differing Christian Kingdoms; the border conflicts between Castile and Portugal from the 12th century onwards and similar along the border with France to the north. The military role of the castle therefore, for large parts of Spain, never really diminished until the end of the middle ages.

Running in parallel throughout were the castle-palaces, ever more elaborate and decorated as the renaissance approached.

Castles in Spain were either purely military strongholds designed to house a garrison and their support or were estate centres and residences of the lord or local ruler, with their household and armed retainers. Whether they were Muslim or Christian made a big difference of course as did their period of time and their location.

Early Islamic Enclosure Castles

Although there were fortified buildings in Spain long before the Islamic period (see introduction) our period of study on this site begins with the Islamic occupation of Spain in the 8th century. See the pages on Islamic Castles for further discussion.

Construction materials

photo avila wallsThe type of material used in the construction of castles varies widely across time and place. Clearly the availability of building materials locally had a large bearing on what was used. Bringing materials from further a field was obviously more costly but if the builder wanted to do this to perhaps make a statement of wealth or to have a different material from the surrounding vernacular styles it was done.

The typical building material for early Islamic castles was strengthened mud/clay called Tapial. Stone was most commonly used in all periods of the middle ages, most frequently roughly worked local stone, mortared together to form strong walls. The use of ashlar or finely cut stone whilst by no means rare in Spain was restricted to the most prestigious buildings and most commonly towards the latter part of our period.

Brick as a building material became rediscovered in parts of Spain, particularly from the 15th century and some magnificent and decorative castles were built in brick eg Coca and La Mota

Reused material from earlier structures on the same site or from nearby sites was often incorporated into a later building and some castles contain reused ashlars from Roman and Visigothic buildings within the later fabric e.g. the town walls of Avila.

There is scant evidence of timber built castles within Spain although admittedly detailed archaeological excavations on castle sites that may detect the existence of timber constructions are few. The Spanish word mota is not infrequently applied to castle sites and the word can equate to the word motte mound or hill, although motte and bailey sites in Spain are unknown.

Flanking Towers photo almeria walls

Interval towers along the curtain walls of castles is a common feature of Spanish castles. There are many still remaining Roman fortifications in Spain with magnificent interval towers (ie Lugo) so the castles builders of the medieval period were obviously well acquainted with the benefits.

Early medieval curtain wall towers, like those from antiquity, were often of solid masonry construction particularly at the lowest courses. The solid masonry might be carried throughout the tower to the wall walk level thus leaving a simple solid buttress with a platform on top, usually crenellated in a variety of styles.

Some towers however in both tapial construction or stone masonry were open backed or had internal chambers. There are examples of these open towers, in semi-circular, square or octagonal section from the earliest medieval period. The magnificent 10th century Islamic enclosure castle at Banos de la Encina has 15 original square section mural towers with chambers on three levels. Each level or floor has simple viewing or firing slits looking along the wall or to the field, without embrasures, but nevertheless provides a very early example of sophisticated outer defences. This castle, lacking any residential aspects, is made from tapial.

Some early open towers, particularly on town walls, are today open shells within the complete height and it is presumed that the open backed tower was infilled in some way with timber structures.

The most distinctive type of flanking tower, unique to the Iberian peninsula, were the detached mural towers, linked to the curtain by a flying bridge, called torre albarrana.

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Photos on this page: Top; Segovia. Middle; Avilia Town Walls. Bottom; Almeria - Flanking Towers.