Europe in the Middle Ages
Life in Medieval Castles
Castle de Coucy
Medieval Castles > Life in Medieval Castles > Pierrefonds Castle
Renaud of Montauban, besieged like Ogier, bled his horse Bayard to give food to his starving children, but when a secret passage offered them freedom, it was Bayard first of all who was led into the underground gallery. Cavalier, chivalry - the names themselves tell a story, and upon the chess board so dear to the castle dweller, the horse-head represents the knight. "Strike at the horses," said Charles of Anjou at Benevent, winning the fight and the contempt of the nobles, for the horse was the knight's other self, the saddle his bat-tlefield, and he dismounted from it a victor or fell from it a corpse.
When Pierrefonds was built the long-robed cavaliers had passed away, and mercenary troopers in tights and doublets clanked into the courtyard returning from raid or skirmish, while the women and lads poured out to meet them, to count the booty, and to tend the wounded. Or maybe the horsemen came in stately visit or in princely "progress" from point to point, escorting a friendly lord or some fighting bishop like him of Winchester, who threatened "if the Pope takes my mitre, let him look to it, I will clap a helmet on my head." More often, daily indeed, it was the hunt that clattered out over the drawbridge, lords and ladies, children and all, joyously galloping, with their mediaeval epitome of brute creation, their beloved triad of horse, hound, and hawk. For come good or ill, the mediaeval man must hunt, and in peace or war he would fly his falcon.
Edward the Prince might invade France "with bacinet on head," his father, Edward the King, would follow him "with bird on fist," the crows hardly settling upon the battlefield before the falcon rose into the air. But the longest day's hunt had its end, and before dark lord and lady passed up the winding staircase of the donjon where lay their own apartments.
We can enter my ladies' chamber without touching the bronze doorknocker, or disturbing the page in waiting, for this room is at once oratory, sitting-room, dining-room, boudoir, and bed-chamber, where privacy is neither expected nor desired. Here the
bower maidens, girls of noble birth who have left their homes to attend their feudal superior, embroider, gossip, and tell their beads, under the strict surveillance of Dame Alienor, a severe duenna. Here the chatelaine with her children about her sits by the fire-side in winter, in the deep embrasured window-seats in summer. Here, in a well-lighted corner, the chaplain, not one of those easy-going priests who could gallop through a hunting mass in a small quarter of an hour while my lord, only half awake, pulled on his boots and buckled his belt, but a learned clerk, has his lectern, and bends over the tomes. Near him and well out of the range of Dame Alienor's sharp glances, two young people play chess, she with her little dog curled up on her lap, he with his pet hawk hooded and
belled on his fist. His great hound lies on the hearth, while its fellow, with forepaws on the window-seat, is amusing himself after the fashion of most castle folk by watching the passers by. The
room is very lofty and lighted by two long windows; the ceiling is of wood, carved, painted, and gilded, with beams resting upon angel-headed brackets. The double-sashed windows, behind their carved shutters, are filled with painted glass; and their deep embra-
sures in the thick wall, benched and cushioned, were a favorite seat throughout the Middle Ages. Here, half concealed behind the curtains, lovers whisper together, for looking out of the window was one of "the fifteen joys of the castle," paying court to the damsels another, and from some scenes in the old romances we may believe that both could be enjoyed at once.
Sometimes a knight or a squire riding by to chase or tourney saw a lovely fair head framed in a gray, ivy-wreathed casement, and returned by the same road -for all bachelors were not as insensible
as Gerbert of Metz, who, when his cousin Garin cried, "Look, Gerbert, by our Lady, what a lovely face!" did not even glance up at the window where Rosamond sat, "white as the flower de luce,"
but answered, "What a fine beast my horse is." Gerbert would have looked more readily at the painted frieze upon the chamber wall where in contemporary costume Arthur and the knights and ladies of the round table ride in long procession against a deep-blue back-
ground. Below hang tapestries, worked by the chatelaine and her women, representing months of labor, and setting forth in rich frames of flowers, shields, and devices the loves of Tristan and
Isolde, for the Baroness is sentimental and romantic, and like all the learned and polite of her time has wept and dreamed over Gottfried von Strassburg's wonderful tale of lawless love.
This tapestry, masking the doors and tempering the draughts and the chill of the stone walls, was also a convenient hiding-place, carefully examined before a secret was told or confidences were
exchanged, for the dying Queen Elizabeth was not the only one who thrust at the arras with a sword, nor Hamlet the first who found a human rat there.
The tiled floor, enamelled in red and blue, is covered with rugs, Persian or Saracenic, the skins of wild beasts, and piles of cushions, laced and embroidered with curious devices-here lies a child's toy, a soldier doll, there a lady's ivory reel.
and everywhere rushes are strewn, fresh cut from the lake. Ranged along the wall are huge carved dower-chests serving as seats, and clothes-presses filled with fine Holland linen, rich clothing,
and the splendid hangings of silk and gold brocade which decorate the rooms on gala days. Between two doors stands the dresser, with its prescribed allowance of shelves, two if our hostess be a baroness, three if a countess, five if she wears upon her surcoat the blazon of a queen-shelves splendid with goblets, beakers, and flagons, vases for comfits and spices and plate of gold and epamel, all of which were carried to the great hall when the feast was spread there. Opposite the dresser is a long low cabinet, panelled withlittle pictures and exquisite with wrought steel hinges and locks, this is the Baron's treasurehouse; its keys hang at his lady's girdle and never quit her side. Bertrand du Guesclin would have found it harder to force than his mother's chest when he paid his men at arms with the old lady's savings and she "son argent regreta." Within are family papers, the great seal, whereon the knight gallops fully armed, jewel caskets, a little ready money, best and most precious of all a gold reliquary shaped like a miniature cathedral, where-in are piously preserved a tooth of St. Elizabeth, some hairs from the beard of St. George, and a bit of the identical mantle with which St. Martin clothed the beggar.
This is the palladium of the castle; has it not already on one momentous occasion so heartened up the soldiers that after seeing and kissing it, they made the famous sally which raised the siege; and has it not also, when placed upon his pillow, cured the Baron of the tertian ague that he brought back from the dikes of Flanders-such facts convince the most skeptical, and skepticism was not common in those days of faith, when nevertheless certain balms prepared by the ladies after the prescriptions of Master Peter of Pavia and other learned leeches were not disdained. Just beyond the treasure cabinet, so that her protection may perhaps extend to its contents, is a fair ivory image of Our Blessed Lady gleaming whitely from the gorgeous and dusky color below it; before it burns a silver lamp, and a jar of lilies is set beside the hassock and the Hours. Raised upon a dais, curtained, canopied, covered with fine linen, heaped with pillows, furs, and brocaded coverlets, its four posts, where the evangelists watch amid a medley of birds, beasts, and flowers, reaching to the beamed ceiling, the bed of our Baron is a formidable piece of furniture and would dwarf a room less noble in its proportions.
In the fifteenth century it even became bigger, and after some high ceremonial often held a dozen gentlemen all arow and honored by the special distinction of sleeping with their host and peer. There, after tilting and feasting all day, they lay story-telling,boasting, and, to use their expressive mediaeval word, gabbing (gabants) till daylight, not at all crowded in a bed so big that a special officer
beat it nightly with his wand before the prince retired, lest an assassin should hide within its covers. Between the windows is the huge fireplace, its heavy chimney piece a stone bower of leaves, flowers, and birds, among which two strange heraldic beasts ramp
upon either side of the Baron's painted scutcheon. Below in the fire-place a man could stand upright, a whole tree be burned at once upon the tall fire-irons.
Willow screens of all sizes protect the face or body from the heat, and there are baskets, too, of willow in which the feet may be warmed without scorching the silken hose. The fire on the hearth was the beloved companion of castle folk during the longevenings of the cold season. Hearth and altar were concrete realities to the mediaeval baron, and one was not more sacred than the other, so many associations, so many tender and sacred memories gathered about the fireside. There the first born, the heir, was bathed, wrapped in his swaddling clothes, and swathed in stiff bands by the good wives -there the child leaning on his mother's knee heard the story of Roland, sobbed with rage at Ganelon's treason, breathed fast at the story of Roncesvaux, as its details of neighing horses, of sword-strokes dinning upon the armor, of mailed bodies falling with ringing thud to the earth, was told with mediaeval minuteness by those who described what they had seen and heard in actual fight. More than once, clenching his little fist, he cried as did Clovis at the story of the crucifixion: "Oh, why was I not there with my men at arms !" There, too, the mother talked to him as she plied her distaff, of Caesar, Hector, Alexander, and the nine champions-useful information, as he found on the next feast day when the town was hung with tapestries and he recognized his heroes, every one of them, Alexander his favorite, on account of Bucephalus, first of all.
There, too, on a little stool beside the mass priest's desk he learned his lessons; and the strong young fingers found the pen harder to wield than the lance. As a youth, with all the assembled household, he had sat around the red mass of glowing coals, late into the night, listening to the tales of the jongleurs, envoys from fairyland to a credulous and imaginative race of warriors, who declared a perpetual truce of God with these wandering minstrels. Oh, those wonderful evenings when at the touch of the enehanter the golden gates of fiction swung open and revealed a new world to his spell-bound auditors, a world where it was always spring-time, where every woman was a princess and had golden hair, where dragons were provided for the especial glory of young knights, and a man might have a battle every day in the week-the glittering, unrealworld from whence a strange company passed into the firelight. There rode the sons of Aymon, featureless, visored, and all four on one horse. Lancelot and Guinevere, Tristan and Isolde, golden locked and flower crowned, with trailing sleeves and gorgeous clinging vestments, strolled by. Guillaume Fierabras galloped past, bleeding from his fifteen wounds, to tell his sovereign that Heathenesse had triumphed at Aliscans.
Godfrey of Bouillon led his crusaders to the assault, crying, "Do not fear deathnay, seek it." And with the heroes of legend and history rode a train from fairyland, Morgan the fay, Oberon the
dwarf, the sorceress of the Venusberg, the fairy wife of Thomas of Ercildoune, the Melusina of the Rhine legends, and a crowd of Kobolds, Brownies, Nixies, Undines, Sylphs, and Vampyres, all those
shapes fair or foul that danced in the moonlight, sang in the rivers, flew through the forest, darted among the blazing logs, haunted the church-yards, and lurked in the mines, daunting "the dauntless mind of infancy " and putting even the knight's courage to the proof. By the fireside, too, was heard the gossip of the traveller, the adventures of holy Palmers, Pilgrims, and Crusaders, who could have said, with the Count of Soissons to the Sire de Joinville at the battle of Mansourah, " Senneschal, lessons crier et braire cette quenaille-Et par la Creffe Dieu, encore parlerons nous, vous et moi, de cette journee en chambre devant dames." It is a long way from the bed-chamber to the chapel-through half-a-dozen smaller chambers, down the great staircase and across the court-so that a yawning page has time to tie more than one point on his way thither to early mass.
The chapel is our lady's especial care. Here every morning mass is said, with chalice and pyx graven with quaint Byzantine figures, brought back by some crusading ancestor from the sack of Constantinople. The daylight struggles through panes of painted glass, and a galaxy of gold and silver lamps shines before the altar. The largest was vowed to our Blessed Lady by the Baron's
mother, if her son should return alive from the English wars, and when he came home after Poitiers with only a cloth-yard shaft in his shoulder, the dame's first care, in spite of harried lands and diminished revenue, was to pay her debt to the mother in heaven who had remembered the mother on earth. Although on feast days the family go in gay procession to the parish church, sometimes a baptism or a churching or a high mass is celebrated in the chapel, and only last year the Baron's oldest son kept his vigil at arms there, and passed the night kneeling before the altar, keeping guard over his armor, the armor he was to wear on the morrow for the first time. By the beginning of the sixteenth century it was time to bid good-bye at once to our knight and his castle, donjon-towers, chapel and all. The feudal fortress had become an anachronism - the gunner's linstock was an enchanter's wand, before which the castle vanished; for a half century more the huge towers panted under the blows of artillery; then opened wide window lungs to the air. From eaves to base of the donjon a segment of masonry was cut away and stained casements stood one above another in their framework of late Gothic. Warwick and Kenilworth and a hundred English castles set perpendicular tracery in their frowning Norman walls. Francis I threw down the tower of the Louvre. The nobles followed his example. The springtime which the feudal lord had sought in orchard and forest invaded the castle, and the Renascence, the Reawakening, stood triumphant over the dead Middle Ages.
There has been no room in this section to consider the ideas and ideals of the Middle Ages, the strange mixture of ignorance, superstition, shrewdness, valor, and poetical fancy that buzzed under the helmet of the feudal noble, and found vent in conquest and penance, tournament and amulet, fabulous history and fantastical legends, for the romance of mediaevalism would fill volumes. We have only had time to pay a short visit to the castle, and as we bid it farewell and look back upon its inmate-standing among his horses and dogs, with falcon on wrist and sword on thigh, we see in him a being of 'a very chequered complexion' of character, not to be regarded as an extinct phenomenon but as a natural and a useful instrument.
An autocrat by necessity, a tyrant often by inclination-something
of a robber and much of a brute, he was also often a fine gentleman and at times a true hero, like his own sword, hard and sharp, but tempered to the hilt. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the knight was merged in the courtier and the diplomat. Sidney and
Bayard were exceptions reverenced by all Europe; for the real preux chevaliers we turn to the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Through four hundred years the abbey had sheltered civilization from the Barbarian, but the celibate monk could not spread it. The knight
graved upon his sword-blade the Christian virtues, mercy to the weak, and defence of the helpless together with the more secular virtues of fortitude and courage, and he enforced them with its edge. In an age when all men were violent, his code of honor was an unmixed good. In. both England and France, between king and priest, the patriot noble often, like a new Brennus, threw his heavy sword into the scale upon the side of the public weal; and in England it was not until when, in the wars of the Roses, the sword of the baron was broken at Tewksbury and Barnet Field, that the Tudor kings built upon a submissive church a despotism which necessitated the great rebellion. Thus we may look back with gratitude at the splendid pomp of mediveval days, faded now and unsubstantial as the worm-eaten tapestries that pictured it; and at the life that once filled the castles which on Rhine and Thames and Seine still rise in their armor of ivy and mist like the ghosts of the old Paladins.