Dirty Castles and Sweaty Knights

Last night I had a vivid memory and realized what it was about the recent restoration of the keep at Dover Castle that struck me as off: The dust and patina were all wrong.

Modern recreations of medieval settings tend to either be dark and stony if they’re going for Hollywood, or colorful and obsessively clean if they’re going for authenticity.

In truth, although the historic recreations get the furnishing and lighting about right, what they don’t get right is the amount of dust, dirt, patina, and trash.  Without that, it just looks too Disneyland.

The level of dust and patina in the throne room gave it the ambience less of a dignified place of state business and more of an old rich man’s den in the house he’d owned since he was a young nouveau riche.  It was lived in, and had the look, feel, and smell of a lived-in place.

The place wasn’t squalid, but it was lived-in, and during a time before vacuum cleaners, even well-bathed people could expect to track in a lot of dirt and dust over the life of a building. But these people were not always well-bathed because a bath was something you did when you had no more business to tend to. These men were sweaty, gassy, muddy, and had probably stepped in shit somewhere along the line and even though they did bathe, and some sweeping was done to keep the level of dirt to a minimum, it really didn’t help much. We certainly weren’t phobic of cleanliness but it was difficult to maintain and carpets and rugs quickly became bald-spotted and dim in color from ground-in dirt.

Even the throne room had a substantial level of dirt thanks to not only everyday use, but a fair number of knights who had ridden through rain and mud to get there. If you were phobic of rain and mud in those days you had no business being a traveler of any sort because the roads were terrible.

Now and then, if there were a severe storm, they might even bring some of the animals that lived in the bailey into the keep, and there would be straw for them to lay on. And of course, there were dogs, usually thin breeds with gray to blue-gray fur, somewhat between a dalmatian and a greyhound in build. Cats were tolerated but not particularly liked, and although they controlled mice you’d see very fat mice about as often as you’d see squirrels in a park.

In the winter, when the hearth was going, the tapestries would hold in heat so well that the already-sweaty, muddy knights would start to reek. I seem to remember that William Marshal’s funk was legendary; he could clear a room.  He was proud of that fact.

The people I remembered living in or visiting Dover Castle in the 12th and 13th centuries acted more like the redneck side of my family than the gentrified one.  I seem to remember William Marshal in particular had an ornery sense of humor and was always eager to get attention, much like an uncle I have in this life.  If my memories are correct, The Marshal prided himself on how well he could aim his farts. He once amused us with a demonstration of how he could put out a candle by holding his nose and making a fish face while farting on it.

While this sounds like shocking behavior, it was a great relief when we simply did what we wanted behind closed doors.  We didn’t worry about putting on airs and somehow, it made having an important job to do much less stressful.  You don’t see that any more; everyone nowadays with an important job to do has to keep up appearances 24/7 and it really takes a toll.

Of course, all that testosterone from maybe a dozen Norman knights in one room could get a little bit dangerous sometimes.  There were fights now and then at our gatherings, but seldom ended with anything more than a bloody nose or a few teeth missing; nobody dished out the Thomas A Becket treatment on the dinner guests.

The thing that strikes me about history in general is how sterile the historic imagination is when it comes to capturing the ambiance of a Norman castle in the 12th century; you can read about a lot of the facts of what the furniture looked like or what went on during important conversations, and even about how dirty it might have gotten, but they can’t tell you how it felt to be there, and I struggle to describe it myself.  Dover Castle was, first and foremost, a fortified lodge for the Kings of England and their guests to crash (especially on the way to or from Normandy), but it was definitely not a royal residence as we would know it today; it was Henry II’s royal flophouse for weary, dirty, sweaty noblemen and that’s exactly how it felt.


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