Book Review: Castle Builders by Malcolm Baillie-Hislop

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author and/or publisher. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Castle Builders: Approaches to Castle Design and Construction in the Middle Ages is very interesting but also a specialist book masquerading as a generalist introduction to medieval castle building.  That is not to say this is not a good book, it is, but it assumes a level of knowledge of architectural forms and techniques on the part of the reader that eliminates it from the category of general introduction as claimed on the inner flap.

The book itself to begin with.  There are 237 pages of text, an afterword, a glossary, reference list, notes, and an index.  The book is also copiously illustrated with both color photos of the castles discussed and often plans and diagrams.

Let me get my critique out of the way first.  Unfortunately, the glossary is only 1 ½ pages long and includes only very brief definitions of the architectural features copiously referenced throughout the book and some are not even defined at all.  For example, a corbel, (a projection jutting out from a wall to support a structure above it, i.e. those knobs that stick out of a wall that often support projecting arches on old buildings-see illustration), is not defined at all and I would challenge you to ask the average person walking down the street what a corbel is, even giving them some context, and find even 1 in 10 people who know what a corbel is.  The corbel is the most striking omission from the glossary but even those terms included have only the most cursory definition such that a layman is likely to have difficulty understanding the definition itself, much less what the definition is referring too.

All that being said, if you want to gain an understanding of what design and artistic considerations most likely went into constructing a castle, this is the book for you.  There is a great detail in the description of the elements both within a castle and the factors that went into consideration when choosing the site.  The organization is mostly chronological starting with the (relatively) simple Motte & Bailey type castles of the 9th-10th centuries and progressing to the culmination of defensive castle construction in the 15ht and early 16th centuries when effective castle building was made essentially impossible due to technological advances in firearms and the massive capital required to build fortifications to withstand them.

There are many illustrations, almost one to every page with very well written captions.  The book focuses mainly on castles in England although some notable castles in France are discussed as well such as Richard I’s Chateau Gaillard.  Another interesting facet of the book is the attempt to trace the work of the master masons and architects who were commissioned to design and build castles throughout England.  It is interesting to find out the ways in which each builder had almost trademark style elements that he took with him from project to project.

If you are looking for a detailed examination and description of castle building techniques that is written with an exquisite eye for detail, then this is the book for you.  If you want an intro to the subject written for the layman unfamiliar with the elements of building and masonry construction, then this should be your second volume.  The author has done an outstanding job of describing castle construction but it is not for the unfamiliar.  This is not so much a history book as an architectural style/history book.

An excellent book but not for the first-time reader of the subject unless they want to be discouraged.  I would recommend this to someone somewhat familiar with architectural terms or who is not afraid to stop and look up the unfamiliar in another work before continuing.


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