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Sunday, September 18, 2011

My Impressions of Berg Nanstein, A Knight's Castle

For some historical romance novels, we authors place our heroes and heroines in castles. Just the word castle conjures up images of wealth and opulence. Those images are further enhanced by novels and movies. So I was delighted when I had the opportunity to visit Landstuhl Germany’s Berg Nanstein in person this summer. I wanted to discover the reality of living conditions for a medieval knight and his lady.

From my study of English castles, I knew were built as military structures to protect landed estates and offer a safe haven in time of war. Berg Nanstein was no exception. Begun in the middle twelfth century, Berg Nenstein reflected the aspirations of ambitious knights. The castle served many functions for its various lords. The castle was the lord’s living quarters along with his administrative, economic and court center. It also acted as a school, archive, treasury, arsenal, and if the castle contained a chapel a sacral function. But most importantly, it was an instrument of war – a place to launch war from, and a retreat or safe haven when war turned against the lord.

This castle is one of five castles built around Emperor Frederic Barbarossa’s Kaiserslautern administrative center. It guarded a strategic and important East-West trade crossing. This castle was a typical fortress built on a hilltop with an elongated tongue of walls that ran down the hillside to surround the city below.

When I walked the grounds around the German castle, I was impressed by the fifteen foot high walls with slits for weapons to be fired. Berg Nenstein, the knight’s strong house, was set on a mountain overlooking Laundstuhl. The sheer drop off to the town as well as its moat and imposing wall would have discouraged most enemies in the twelfth century. But when I wound my way up tight cramped spiral staircases to the top of the towers, I was surprised by the view. Berg Nanstein wasn't situated on the highest point around. That fact caused its defeat in 1523. Enemy cannons mounted on three surrounding peaks situated higher than the castle. The sturdy stone walls were no match for the bombardment, and the castle was destroyed. The castle’s surrender in 1523 during the Imperial Knight War marked the end of medieval castles' usefulness against the modern cannon.

Within the castle walls on top of the hill, all personnel and animals (war horses and hunting dogs) lived on the first floor in areas that resembled a tunnel opening into a large dark holding room with a fire pit at the end. The only private chamber belonged to the lord. All other living accommodations were communal. Public or reception rooms were located on the second floor.

What little light entered any room came from a gun chamber from which castle soldiers shot at the advancing enemy. Weapons were stored along the walls at the ready. All stairs exposed a person’s right side to a lethal rain of arrows from above. (Most fighter were right handed and held shields in their left hands making left spiraling staircases highly effective.)

Although carvings of the knight’s crest adorned the entry arch, the interior of the castle was sparsely furnished with small chairs or wooden block, trunks for mobile possessions, niches in the walls to hold personal objects, a stone hearth, a castle well and fountain. Ulrich von Hutten, a contemporary of the lord who surrendered the castle in 1523, described life in the castle as “not built for the comfort but for battle, inside of depressive narrowness squeezed together with cattle and horse stables, dark chambers and war equipment. The smell of gunpowder everywhere, the odor of the dogs and their excrement is not much more pleasant either.”

Unfortunately, my camera wasn't good enough to capture the interiors of the castle with any clarity. Needless to say, Berg Nanstein wasn't anything like the fairytale castles seen in the movies.

Margaret Breashears


Kirsten Arnold said...

Isn’t it interesting, Margaret, how romanticized castles became in literature and then in movies? Always depicted like Cinderella’s castle in Disney World. I remember my tinge of disappointment when I took British history courses in college and these illusions were stripped in one lesson on castle life. You definitely wouldn’t want to sport glass slippers in those fortifications. :o)

Thanks for the post and pictures of Berg Nanstein!


marybelle said...

A real castle would have been a fort - able to be defended. Nothing Disney about them really.

Angelyn said...

Oh, you went to one of the best regions in Germany. Speyer Cathedral is a favorite of mine. Hope we get to see more of your trip!