On My Shelves: How to Read Castles

I cannot speak for others, but I find the single-most difficult element of packing–whether for a holiday, work, or (in this case) house sitting–is always the selecting of books to be lugged hither and thither. I imagine everyone has their general parameters for the process. Mine are:

  1. Some poetry
  2. Some Old English (or Middle English)
  3. Some history
  4. A novel or two
  5. Whatever is required for projects on the go

I know what you’re thinking. “Get a damned Kindle, Kobo, or some such, you troglodytic whinger. Take the whole library with you and shut up about it already.”

I prefer ‘antediluvian’.  I believe I am at least that evolved. Moreover, I am contemplating, not whinging. Furthermore, for the record, I did attempt to join the 21st century by purchasing one of those aforementioned gadgets a few years ago. I made certain it was one of the good ones, supposedly easy on the eyes (in the sense of eye-fatigue and not in the Richard Armitage sense) and all that.  There was only one word for the thing: anathema.

No smell of ink. No texture under the fingertips. No sliding whisper of turning leaves. The thing had no heft (which I know is one of its supposed virtues) and it felt utterly artificial. Most importantly, there was no way to make notes in the margins, so that later one might flip rapidly through and find the bits marked for particularly beautiful passages, bits where one suspected the author had lost her/his mind, bits that onenever wanted to forget but knew one’s memory would mangle within 30 pages or so, bits that one would give somebody else’s kidney to have written, and so on. Before that Kindle/Kobo disaster,  I knew I was a habitual marginalia-ist, but I had no idea how crucial even the possibility of scribbling was to the very act of reading. I felt like I couldn’t breathe.

Dear Reader, I returned it.

Consequently, I  will happily dedicate a portion of my luggage to books or carry a spine-collapsing backpack, so long as I can have real books with me.  And that returns us to the quagmire of the selection process because those categories cited above are terribly, terribly broad.  I mean, poetry alone takes quite a while. Milton or Tranströmer? Rilke or Stevens? Carson or Moore? Armitage (Simon, that is) or Jennings? What if you’re sacked out on the road somewhere contemplating some singular prospect and decide you need Hopkins and you’ve brought Hill? That’s the stuff of deep, deep dissatisfaction, that is.

Dithering aside, the one advantage of this occasional, excruciating scrutinizing of the bookshelves is the rediscovery of a book that has slipped from conscious memory. This go round, I found Malcolm Hislop’s How to Read Castles: a crash course in understanding fortifications (Bloomsbury). I’d picked up Hislop in Limerick, Ireland more as a reminder of the visit than anything else. I most certainly did not need another book on the types, elements, or history of castles. I believe I spent a happy hour with it in a tea shop, fell asleep over it on the plane, only to completely forget about it after shelving it once I got home. It got lost among counterparts like H. W. Kaufman’s The Medieval fortress: castles, forts and walled cities of the Middle Ages (Da Capo Press), Otto Stimson’s ubiquitous Gothic Cathedrals (Princeton UP), R. A. Stalley’s very useful Early Medieval Architecture (Oxford UP), and then one of my favorites, S. Gardener’s out-of-print  A Guide to English Architecture (Cambridge UP) which I rescued from the bin into which it had been scandalously deaccessioned by a local library. (Such is my affection for this book–particularly Arnold Mitchell’s illustrations–that I am slowly copying it–word and image–by hand.)

Needing an architectural reference for castles for this last trip, I decided to bring Hislop’s  How to read Castles. Its snack-sized entries seemed like perfect porch reading – not exhaustive, but fine details so far as they went. It was an solid pick unlike the New York Times bestseller which I took with me and which I heartlessly abandoned at a local Starbucks. (25 pages of that damage was enough for me. It’s not often I bail, but I bailed. Hype or no hype.)

Once settled with the guide and a G&T on the porch, I remembered why I’d bought Hislop’s guide in the first place. It’s a sweet little encyclopedic thing that begins with the “Grammar” of the Castle, the relationship between function and form, and the general history of these sort of fortifications. No, there’s nothing earth-shattering or new here, but it is tidily brought together. I appreciate that Hislop touches lightly on non-Western European castle building to provide a different angle on roles castles could play in expansion and in warfare, providing a useful (albeit fleeting) reminder that Western Europe didn’t have any corner on the fortification market either in terms of innovation or rigorous application of the technology’s possibilities.

Hislop 120 Batter or Talus

Hislop, p. 120

From there, the book provides a fine visual guide into the details of castles. Ever wonder what the name is for the sloping base of a fortified wall? Wonder no more. If the walls have an angle that A) exposes to hot oil from above any nincompoop with the temerity to scale it, or B) defies the use of battering rams, digging works, and whatnot, then it’s a batter or talus. If it’s just straight up and down and sends out engraved invitations with “Scale me” on them, it’s a curtain wall. Yes, yes. That’s an gross oversimplification, but you get the idea.

Want to distinguish your machiolated turret from your corbelled turret? Of course you do.

 

When playing Scrabble have you ever put down the word ‘bartizan‘ with the ‘Z’ on the triple letter, only to falter when challenged so that you gave the definition of a ‘barbican‘ by accident? Did the execrable blighter against whom you were playing refuse to give you the points because the word you put down was not the word you defined, despite the fact ‘bartizan’ is STILL A WORD?  Well, don’t make that mistake again. Study the figures below and win that damn game of Scrabble.

Bartizan.

Hislop 136-7 Bartizan

Barbican.Hislop Barbican 176-7All straight? Good. This is more important knowledge than you can imagine.

The battlefield of Scrabble aside, Hislop’s book offers practical guidance for those starting their love affair with fortifications, an architectural kama sutra, of sorts. Even if you’re just having a passing holiday fling, you’ll find it useful for getting a sense of practical details that will enable you to “read” the structure at which you’re looking.

Hislop 212 windows mid MA

Take windows, for example. Beyond the mere the change of shape from the semi-circular Romanesque to the lancet shapes of the Gothic and the various foilstresfoil and cinquefoil–Hislop provides hints to how the shape and tracery details of windows may reflect the purpose of the rooms which they illuminated. So, groups of arches were often the “hallmarks” of important chambers like the great hall and chapel. Similarly, while lancet windows were the province of churches in the thirteenth century their use proliferated to castles in the fourteenth. Who doesn’t want to know this while toddling about ruins and such?

Then, for geeks such as myself (because everything written hitherto is without doubt of general interest to everyone) Hislop provides details about stonemasonry and variations on a theme in loopholes. Oh, frabjous day!

The splayed foot. The cross slit. The oillet.

 

You are, I know, a happier person for that knowledge.

You’re welcome.

 

Malcolm Hislop, How to Read Castles: A crash course in understanding fortifications. Bloomsbury Visual Arts, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing. London, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

One thought on “On My Shelves: How to Read Castles

  1. It sure is hard to choose what books to bring! One must be selective, for books are heavy! I bring my Kobo now without fail – then I can bring a whole library with me and buy more books on the go!

    But the books in my Kobo don’t have nice illustrations of castles. Wah!

    “The bird a nest, the spider a web, man friendship.” – William Blake

    Like

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