The Castle

The nobles of Roman Gaul lived within the city except during the villeggiatura in the autumn. The German lords preferred the country, and either fortified the Roman villas or built new castles of their own. They surrounded themselves with a bodyguard of personal retainers; their prisoners of war were made to till the ground as serfs. And soon they reduced to much the same condition the German soldiers, and seized their humble lands. In that troubled age none could hold property except by means of the strong arm. Men found it difficult to preserve their lives, and often presented their bodies to some powerful lord in return for protection, in return for daily bread. The power of the king was nominal: sovereignty was broken and dispersed: Europe was divided among castles: and in each castle was a prince who owned no authority above his own, who held a high court of justice in his hall, issued laws to his estates, lived by the court fees, by taxes levied on passing caravans, and by ransoms for prisoners, sometimes obtained in fair war, sometimes by falling upon peaceful travellers. Dark deeds were done within those ivy-covered towers which now exist for the pleasure of poets and pilgrims of the picturesque. Often from turret chambers and grated windows arose the shrieks of violated maidens and the yells of tortured Jews. Yet castle- life had also its brighter side. To cheer the solitude of the isolated house minstrels and poets and scholars were courted by the barons, and were offered a peaceful chamber and a place of honour at the board. In the towns of ancient Italy and Greece there was no family: the home did not exist. The women and children dwelt together in secluded chambers: the men lived a club life in the baths, the porticoes, and the gymnasiums. But the castle lord had no companions of his own rank except the members of his own family. On stormy days, when he could not hunt, he found a pleasure in dancing his little ones upon his knee, and in telling them tales of the wood and weald. Their tender fondlings, and their merry laughs, their half formed voices, which attempted to pronounce his name -- all these were sweet to him. And by the love of those in whom he saw his own image mirrored, in whom his own childhood appeared to live again, he was drawn closer and closer to his wife. She became his counsellor and friend; she softened his rugged manners; she soothed his fierce wrath; she pleaded for the prisoners and captives, and the men condemned to die. And when he was absent, she became the sovereign lady of the house, ruled the vassals, sat in the judgment-seat, and often defended the castle in time of siege. A charge so august could not but elevate the female mind. Women became queens. The Lady was created. Within the castle was formed that grand manner of gentleness, mingled with hauteur, which art can never stimulate, and which ages of dignity can alone confer.

The barons dwelt apart from one another, and were often engaged in private war. Yet they had sons to educate and daughters to marry; and so a singular kind of society arose. The king's house or court, and the houses of the great barons, became academies to which the inferior barons sent their boys and girls to school. The young lady became the attendant of the Dame, and was instructed in the arts of playing on the virginals, of preparing simples, and of healing wounds; of spinning, sewing, and embroidery. The young gentleman was at first a Page. He was taught to manage a horse with grace and skill, to use bow and sword, to sound the notes of venerie upon the horn, to carve at table, to ride full tilt against the quintaine with his lance in rest, to brittle a deer, to find his way through the forest by the stars in the sky and by the moss upon the trees. It was also his duty to wait upon the ladies who tutored his youthful mind in other ways. He was trained to deport himself with elegance; he was nurtured in all the accomplishments of courtesy and love. He was encouraged to select a mistress among the dames or demoiselles; to adore her in his heart, to serve her with patience and fidelity, obeying her least commands; to be modest in her presence; to be silent and discreet. The reward of all this devotion was of no ethereal kind, but it was not quickly or easily bestowed; and vice almost ceases to be vice when it can only be gratified by means of long discipline in virtue. When the page had arrived at a certain age, he was clad in a brown frock; a sword was fastened to his side, and he obtained the title of Esquire. He attended his patron knight on military expeditions, until he was old enough to be admitted to the order. Among the ancient Germans of the forest, when a young man came of age, he was solemnly invested with shield and spear. The ceremony of knighthood at first was nothing more than this. Every man of gentle birth became a knight, and then took an oath to be true to God and to the ladies and to his plighted word; to be honourable in all his actions, to succour the oppressed. Thus, within those castle-colleges arose the sentiment of Honour, the institution of Chivalry, which, as an old poet wrote, made women chaste and men brave. The women were worshipped as goddesses, the men were revered as heroes. Each sex aspired to possess those qualities which the other sex approved. Women admire, above all things, courage and truth; and so the men became courageous and true. Men admire modesty, virtue, and refinement; and so the women became virtuous, and modest, and refined. A higher standard of propriety was required as time went on: the manners and customs of the Dark Ages became the vices of a later period; unchastity, which had once been regarded as the private wrong of the husband, was stigmatised as a sin against society; and society found a means of taking its revenge. At first the notorious woman was insulted to her face at tournament and banquet; or knights chalked an epithet upon her castle gates, and then rode on. In the next age she was shunned by her own sex: the discipline of social life was established as it exists at the present day. Though it might sometimes be relaxed in a vicious court, at least the ideal of right was preserved. But in the period of the Troubadours the fair sinners resembled the pirates of the Homeric age. Their pursuits were of a dangerous, but not of a dishonourable nature: they might sometimes lose their lives; they never lost their reputation.

We must now descend from ladies and gentlemen to the people in the field, who are sometimes forgotten by historians. The castle was built on the summit of a hill, and a village of serfs was clustered round its foot. These poor peasants were often hardly treated by their lords. Often they raised their brown and horny hands and cursed the cruel castle which scowled upon them from above. Humbly they made obeisance, and bitterly they gnawed their lips as the baron rode down the narrow street on his great war-horse, which would always have its fill of corn, when they would starve, followed by his beef-fed varlets with faces red from beer, who gave them jeering looks, who called them by nicknames, who contemptuously caressed their daughters before their eyes. Yet it was not always thus: the lord was often a true nobleman, the parent of their village, the god-father of their children, the guardian of their happiness, the arbiter of their disputes. When there was sickness among them, the ladies of the castle often came down, bringing them soups and spiced morsels with their own white hands; and the castle was the home of the good chaplain, who told them of the happier world beyond the grave. It was there also that they enjoyed such pleasures as they had. Sometimes they were called up to the castle to feast on beef and beer in commemoration of a happy anniversary or a Christian feast. Sometimes their lord brought home a caravan of merchants whom he had captured on the road and while the strange guests were quaking for the safety of their bales, the people were being amused with the songs of the minstrels, and the tricks of the jugglers, and the antics of the dancing-bear. And sometimes a tournament was held: the lords and ladies of the neighbourhood rode over to the castle; turf banks were set for the serfs and a gallery was erected for the ladies, above whom sat enthroned the one who was chosen as the Queen of Beauty and of Love. Then the heralds shouted, "Love of ladies, splintering of lances! stand forth, gallant knights; fair eyes look upon your deeds!" And the knights took up their position in two lines fronting one another, and sat motionless upon their horses like pillars of iron, with nothing to be seen but their flaming eyes. The trumpets flourished: "Laissez aller!," cried a voice; and the knights, with their long spears in rest, dashed furiously against each other, and then plied battle-axe and sword, to the great delight and contentment of the populace.

In times of war the castle was also the refuge of the poor, and the villagers fled behind its walls when the enemy drew near. They did not then reflect that it was the castle which had provoked the war; they viewed it only as a hospitable fortress which had saved their lives. It was therefore, in many cases, regarded by the people not only with awe and veneration, but also with a sentiment of filial love. It was associated with their pleasures and their security. But in course of time a rival arose to alienate the affections, or to strengthen the resentment of the castle serfs. It was the Town.

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