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Definition of Medieval Terms

Updated on November 1, 2012

Reading about knights in shining armor, medieval times, and the history of castles can be truly engaging, but there are terms used that are not commonly known.

After all, what does it mean for a castle to be slighted? What exactly is a barbican? How do you pronounce trebuchet? What is the ranking order of nobility?

Here you will find the definitions of some of those terms, which will make your reading experience much more enjoyable.

Emperor/Empress - Sovereign ruler of an Empire. Today, only Japan has a ruling Emperor.

King/Queen - Ruler of a realm or kingdom. The wife of a king is usually a queen consort with no real power, and the husband of a queen is usually the king consort, though more commonly called a prince consort, with no real power. On rare occasions women have been crowned king instead of queen, such as the female King Jadwiga of Poland. The title can also be ceremonially given, where the king has limited power. In some areas, Grand Prince is loosely translated as King.

Archduke/Archduchess - Higher than a duke, but lower than king. A rarely used title by those subject to the former Holy Roman Empire. The position in the noble rank changes depending on the person, so it is difficult to define exactly. Today, Austrian citizens of noble lineage are forbidden to use their aristocratic titles.

Grand Duke/Grand Duchess - Generally used only in Western European countries, the grand duke was higher than a duke. The title was also used to differentiate between the ruling prince, and the children of the king/queen.

Prince/Princess - Usually the offspring of the ruling monarchy, but can also be a title bestowed upon a member of the nobility.

Infante/Infanta - Used in the Middle Age kingdom of Spain and Portugal as the title of the children and grandchildren of the king. (Infante is pronounced in-fan-tee)

Duke/Duchess - Ruler of a territory, called the duchy or dukedom. Usually ranked highest below the monarchy. While a prince is ranked higher, many princes carry co-titles of duke, or have that title bestowed upon them when they come of age or marry. The female form is duchess, however, some women have been given the title of duke.

Marquis/Marquise - Also called Marquess/Marchioness, was a heredity rank above the earl and below the duke. In the early Middle Ages, the Margrave was a marquis who had the military responsibility to protect the border area he controlled. The title of margrave eventually disappeared and only marquis was used. (Marquis is pronounced mar-kee in French and mar-kwis in English, and Marquess is also pronounced mar-kwis).

Earl/Count/Countess - The rank of the earl depended on the area. Basically meaning chieftain, the earl was sometimes the equivalent of a duke. A count is an equivalent rank and countess is the wife of an earl or a count. In the United Kingdom today, the earl is below a marquis and above a viscount, and can be the courtesy title of the eldest son of a duke. During the Roman Empire, a count was appointed by the king or duke and given military or administrative duties.

Viscount/Viscountess - Usually a courtesy title, the viscount was below a count/earl and above a baron. Sometimes the title of viscount was given to the eldest son of an earl or marquis. (Viscount is pronounced Vye-count)

Baron/Baroness - Introduced by William I to distinguish between those who pledged their loyalty to him, the baron was the lowest ranked of the nobility. In Scotland, a baron is a title of feudal heritage and comes with no power or responsibility. The lowest ranked noble title in Scotland is the Lord of Parliament, which is equivalent to the English baron.

Motte and Bailey

Motte and Bailey was a fortification where a keep or large tower was built on the Motte, a natural or artificial mound. It would overlook the Bailey, a courtyard type area surrounded by a wall. The wall was typically built of wood, although some were later reinforced with stone. The Bailey usually contained buildings necessary for running the castle, such as the servant quarters, blacksmith, mill, and so forth.

Palisade - This was the name of the wooden wall surrounding the Bailey. If the wooden fence was rebuilt in stone, it was called a Curtain Wall.

Curtain Wall - This was a stone wall built around the Bailey or Courtyard to provide a strong defense. The Curtain Wall usually linked together castle towers like a curtain, hence the name.

Windsor Castle is a good example of a Motte with a Bailey on either side.

The Keep - This structure was usually the strongest and most fortified part of the castle. Called a Donjon in French which is derived from Dungeon, the Keep often contained the dungeon. The keep is in most instances, the central part of the castle, and because of its strength, usually housed the living quarters.

The Great Hall - This was typically the largest room of a castle, manor, or palace. This is sometimes simply referred to as the Hall.

Barrel Vault - This is a cylindrical roof giving the room a barrel shape. Château de Vitré has a good example of a Barrel Vault.

Battlement - These were commonly built atop a tower of castle wall for defense. The battlement, also called crenelation, consisted of the parapet which is the short wall into which was cut the crenels also called embrasures. The merlons were the solid parts of the parapet between the crenels. For several examples of battlements, look at these Spainsh castles.

Belvedere - Meaning beautiful view in Italian, this is a raised area that provides a good view. This could be built as a turret, cupola, raised pavilion, or gallery.

Buttress - A structure built against a wall to provide extra support. The Flying Buttress is a support structure with an arch. This is typical of Gothic architecture, and is more commonly used on cathedrals.

Corbel - A small supporting structure. These are commonly seen supporting the parapet, a part of the battlement. Here is an example of a corbel supporting a balcony.

Crenels/Crenelations - The cut out sections of the wall (parapet) on the battlement.

Cupola - The dome structure atop a building. For an example, look at the golden cupolas on the Grand Kremlin Palace. (Cupola is pronounced cue'-puh-luh).

Embattled/Crenelated - This is a fortification with battlements.

Embrasure - See Crenels above.

Finial - The ornamentation atop a spire, merlon, cupola, or any such structure. The finial may also be on the side, corner or edge of a building. Legend has it that the original function of a finial was to deter witches from landing on a roof.

Footings - Bottom of a wall.

Fresco - Paintings on a plaster wall or ceiling.

Garderobe - A small private room for valuables. In some instances, the privy is called a garderobe. The privy was a primitive toilet with a hole over a cesspit.

Loophole - A narrow opening in a wall, usually to allow archers to defend the castle. Also called arrow slit or arrow loop. The crosslet loop or arbalestina was a loophole in the shape of a cross which gave the archer more range. Later, the crosslet loop became more decorative as a symbol of Christianity. Crosslet loops can be easily seen in Hever Castle.

Machicolation - Opening in the castle walls, commonly between the crenels, for the purpose of defense. Stones, hot oil, and other such objects can be showered upon those close to the castle walls. (Pronounced mah-chick'-o-la-shun).

Merlons - Solid part of the parapet between the crenels or embrasures.

Murder Holes - Similar to machicolations, these were holes commonly found in the ceilings of outer passageways of a fortification. Stones, hot oil, and other such objects can be showered upon the enemy.

Nave - Main hall of the chapel.

Oilette - A hole at the end of a loophole.

Oubliette - Meaning forgotten place, this was a place in the dungeon that was only accessible by a small hatch in the ceiling. The oubliette was generally reserved for prisoners who were to be starved to death. Basically, they were put here and forgotten. Pronounced (Oo-blee-et').

Castle Architecture P through W

Parapet - Small defensive wall of the battlement. (Pronounced par'-a-pet)

Pinnacle - Small decorative ornamentation akin to the finial. Popular in Gothic architecture, the pinnacle was the small spire that was commonly put atop the buttress, cupola, or turret. The pinnacle was sometimes topped with a statue or cross. The finial was usually made of stone, and the pinnacle was often made of metal or reinforced with metal. Johannisburg Castle has a great example of pinnacles.

Postern - A small castle door that was usually out of view so the inhabitants can escape without being seen.

Quadrangle - Inner courtyard.

Relieving Arch - Also called Discharging Arch, this was an arch built above a window or entranceway to disperse the weight.

Romanesque - An architectural style characterized by its semi-circular arches, thick walls, small windows and large towers.

Scallops - Carvings in a semi-circular design, like a shell.

Turret - Small tower, usually round. Nueschwanstein is a good example with its many turrets.

Vault - Roof made of stone.

Wall Stair -Staircase built into a wall.

Wicket - Small door set into the main door of the castle. This was so a person can enter and exit without opening the usually large castle door.

Terms of Castle Defense and Attack

Barbican - A fortified gatehouse, tower, or other structure defending the entrance way to the castle. The barbican was usually built away from the main castle structure and connected to the castle by the thick castle walls.

Casemates/Casements - A room specifically for artillery. Sometimes this was a vaulted room large enough for a cannon. This could be found within the fortress itself, or a tunnel with strong doors. The tunnel casemate was especially important for the storage of volatile items.

Curtain Wall - See definition in Motte and Bailey above.

Embattled - Having battlements. At times, the owner had to get permission to embattle his castle.

Forebuilding - A structure built specifically to guard the Keep itself.

Gatehouse - Large structure built to protect the entrance to the castle. Some served as the castle barbican.

Loophole/Arrow Slit - See definition in Castle Architecture F through O above.

Mantlet - A portable shelter or shield for the purpose of protection from arrows.

Machicolations and Murder Holes - See Castle Architecture F through O above.

Portcullis - A large heavy metal grill that can be raised or lowered at certain entrances to the castle. The large castle gate of the main entrance usually had tow of these devices. When attacked by the enemy, the portcullis closer to the castle would be lowered first, followed by the other, thereby trapping the enemy between the two. Hot oil, burning wood, and other such materials would then be showered upon them through the murder holes.

Rampart - Any type of wall surrounding the castle for defense. Also called Defensive Wall.

Slighted - To be deliberately destroyed or dismantled.

Trebuchet - A catapult type device used to attack a fortification from a distance. The trebuchet would hurl large heavy boulders at the castle. (Pronounced two ways: treb'-you-shet OR treb'-you-shay)

Castellan - Caretaker of the castle.

Courtesan - Mistress of the monarch or wealthy nobleman.

Jester - A person hired by the court to entertain. The Court Jester was given license to cajole the monarchy and guests. He was usually dressed in colorful clothes and wore a hat with long floppy points to resemble the ears of a donkey.

Lady's Maid - The personal female servant of a female member of royalty or woman who could afford to employ one.

Monarch - Person who rules the land until death or abdication. The monarch may be absolute with almost limitless ruling power, or ceremonial, with limited or no power.

Peasant - Someone who worked the land. The peasants owed a percentage of their earnings from their harvest to the ruling monarch, the religious authority (usually the bishop), and in some cases, the knights who protected them. This usually left the peasant with only about 15% of their earnings from the land.

Town Crier - The Town Crier, or Bellman was the person who made announcements to the people of the land. Written proclomations would have little effect since most people of medieval times could not read, so news and Royal Proclamations were spoken or read by this person. The Crier is usually portrayed as male, but women also held this role.

Valet - The Valet, or Varlet, was the personal male servant of a male member of royalty or any gentleman who could afford to employ one.

Other Medieval Terms

Brigandine - Small pieces of metal sewn onto a garment for use as light-weight armor.

Gabardine - A long, flowing cloak with hanging sleeves worn by both men and women.

Hue and Cry - A requirement for all the people of the village to chase down a criminal making as much noise as possible, usually by yelling and blowing horns. The noise was to alert others towards the location of the fleeing criminal.

Jus Primae Noctis (First Night) - When a serf marries, his lord has the right to sleep with the bride unless the serf pays a fee.

Mead - A type of wine made by fermenting honey and adding spices.

Peck - About two dry gallons, not liquid gallons.

Stone - A unit of weight equal to about 14 pounds.

Tartan - The plaid design which represented a certain Scottish clan.

Comments are appreciated...

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    • profile image

      othellos 4 years ago

      Really beautiful lens with lots of interesting content. A learning experience indeed:=)

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      What's your definition of chemise?

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      JimDickens 5 years ago

      I suggest reading Ellis Peter's series of books about Cadfael. They are rich with references and the language of this period

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      Delia 7 years ago

      nice clean lens...5* ...will lensroll this lens to my "when I lived in a Castle" and to my "family Crest" lens

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      anonymous 8 years ago

      This is really helpful!

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      julieannbrady 8 years ago

      Love that picture of Vlad as it graces one or two of my lenses -- I knew there was a reason I liked your lenses so much -- it is the medieval connection!