Monday, January 13, 2014

Conwy Castle and the Guide to Medieval Europe

Conwy Castle, Conwy, Wales, UK
Something strange came over me when I visited a castle in Wales last summer. It was on June 22, and I had been travelling in the British Isles for the previous seven days, but this was my first full day on the Welsh side of the Irish Sea, and I woke in the Castle Hotel (not an actual castle, though quite historic in its own right) inside the medieval walls of the town of Conwy (pronounced Conway). The Castle Hotel stands just down the street from Conwy Castle, built lightening-fast (by medieval standards) from 1283-1289 by England's King Edward I.

View from the Conwy Castle of the Town and the River Conwy.
Conwy Castle is unique because it not only stands as one of the best examples of late 13th-early14th century military architecture in Europe, but it is also in unusually good shape for being a fortress built by occupational forces (the English) in contested territory (Wales). Though the castle endured a siege and did change hands more than once throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, it sustained very little structural damage, was never extensively remodeled, and is remarkably well preserved today. Thus, the castle retains a strong sense of its own medievalness.

This is what struck me as I explored the corridors and climbed the towers of Conway Castle on that Saturday in June: the castle felt entirely medieval, with just enough signage to be informative, but not so much to be intrusive, just enough restoration to give a sense of its original purpose and finesse, but not so much as to feel staged or kitschy. I found it easy to imagine how the various chambers and wards might have looked in the castle's heyday, the straw strewn wood floors and tapestried walls and fire lit halls bustling with soldiers and servants, and occasionally visited by the king himself. I looked out the archer's perches high in the towers and wished I was there a couple hundred years ago so I could try shooting my own English longbow through the narrow arrow-loops at imagined adversaries down below.

Tower view of the inner and outer wards of Conwy Castle.
This fantastic experience of the medievalness of Conwy Castle stayed in my mind for the rest of my trip, but the other castles I visited afterward did not offer the same sort of transportation back to the middle ages like Conway did. The other castles had been updated and destroyed and rebuilt and added onto, until the only thing medieval that remained was the foundation, or the stories of what had happened there five hundred years ago. It wasn't the same. I wanted that Conwy Castle experience, and I knew there were lots of other well preserved medieval places to be found, but I didn't know where to find them. Plus, many places advertised as "medieval" frankly struck me as none such thing; their medievalness had been long ago remodeled or redesigned and was lost forever.

I came to the conclusion that I wanted to find a guide book for those truly medieval places, not the ones that were once medieval but are now a better monument to Renaissance or Victorian architecture and culture, but a book that pointed out the castles, towns, or other sites which still retain their medieval nature. But no such guide exists. The closest I could find is Richard Barber's 1984 book, The Penguin Guide to Medieval Europe, certainly a densely informative book from an acclaimed author, but not quite the Here's-Why-It's-Medieval-and-Here's-How-to-Get-There kind of guide which I imagined.

Since I couldn't find the kind of guide I was looking for, I'm going to write a Guide to Medieval Europe, myself, or even better, a series of geographically oriented guides, divided by country or region.

This is a huge undertaking. It will not be easy and it will not happen fast. I probably won't even get to the writing stages for a few years yet, but I know I'm not the only one who would make use of, say, a guide to medieval Scotland which not only lists and describes various truly medieval sites, but also includes practical, trip-planning info such as where to stay, how to get there, accessibility, and much more. It's the kind of guide I wish existed, and since it doesn't, I want to offer my bid to fill that void.

So in the meantime, what will I be doing? I'll be gathering lots and lots of information and tips and doing lots of research. Then I will set off to actually visit the places I want to write about, and then I'll set about writing. I'll need all the help I can get throughout the process though. Let me be the first to admit that I don't know everything about the Middle Ages, and no matter how much research I do, or even if I earn a PhD someday, I never will know everything about the Middle Ages. I've only visited a tiny corner of Europe and only seen a handful of the hundreds of medieval sites Europe has to offer. If you have any suggestions on sites, museums, or castles I should include, or any other questions or ideas, please say so in the comments!

(All photos are the property of Deanna Leiber. Do not use them without permission.)

No comments:

Post a Comment