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Medieval fortifications were developed in connection with the weapons that opposed them. Some of the common fortification terms include:

  • Battlement - a defensive low wall between chest-height and head-height), in which rectangular gaps or indentations occur at intervals to allow for the discharge of arrows or other missiles from within the defenses. These gaps are termed "crenels" (also known as carnels, embrasures, or wheelers), and the building operation of embattling a previously unbroken parapet is termed crenellation.

  • Barbican are a fortified outpost or gateway, such as an outer defense to a city or castle, or any tower situated over a gate or bridge which was used for defensive purposes. Usually barbicans were situated outside the main line of defenses and connected to the city walls with a walled road.

  • Castle is a type of fortified structure common in Europe and the Middle East during the Middle Ages. Over approximately 900 years that castles were built they took on a great many forms with many different features, although some, such as curtain walls and arrow slits, were commonplace.

  • Citadel is a fortress protecting a town, sometimes incorporating a castle. The term derives from the same Latin root as the word "city", civis, meaning citizen. In a fortification with bastions, the citadel is the strongest part of the system, sometimes well inside the outer walls and bastions, but often forming part of the outer wall for the sake of economy. It is positioned to be the last line of defense should the enemy breach the other components of the fortification system. A citadel is also a term of the third part of a medieval castle, with higher walls than the rest. It was to be the last line of defense before the keep itself.

  • City wall may only be crossed by entering the appropriate city gate and are often supplemented with towers. In the Middle Ages, the right of a settlement to build a defensive wall was a privilege, and was usually granted by the so-called "right of crenellation" on a medieval fortification. The practice of building these massive walls, though having its origins in prehistory, was refined during the rise of city-states, and energetic wall-building continued into the medieval period and beyond in certain parts of Europe.

  • Curtain wall is the defensive wall surrounding the bailey of a medieval castle and may also be a defensive wall between two bastions of a castle or fortress in post-medieval fortifications. In earlier designs of castles the curtain walls were often built to a considerable height and were fronted by a ditch or moat to make assault difficult.

  • Drawbridge is a type of movable bridge typically associated with the entrance of a castle surrounded by a moat. The term is often used to describe all different types of movable bridges, like bascule bridges and lift bridges.

  • Gate or gateway is a point of entry to a space enclosed by walls. Gates prevent or control the entry or exit of individuals. Other terms for gate include "yett" and port. The word derives from the old Norse "gata", meaning road or path, and originally referred to the gap in the wall or fence, rather than the barrier which closed it.

  • Moat is a deep, broad ditch, either dry or filled with water, that surrounds a castle, other building or town.

  • Motte-and-bailey is a fortification with a wooden or stone keep situated on a raised earthwork called a motte, accompanied by an enclosed courtyard, or bailey, surrounded by a protective ditch and palisade. Relatively easy to build with unskilled, often forced labour, but still militarily formidable.

  • Murder hole or "meurtrière" is a hole in the ceiling of a gateway or passageway in a fortification through which the defenders could fire, throw or pour harmful substances, such as rocks, arrows, scalding water, hot sand, quicklime, tar, or boiling oil, down on attackers. They also allowed water to be poured onto fires started within the gate passage. Similar holes, called machicolations, were often located in the curtain walls of castles, fortified manor houses and city walls. The parapet would project over corbels so that holes would be located over the exterior face of the wall, allowing the defenders to target attackers at the base of the wall.

  • Portcullis is a fortified the entrances to many medieval castles, acting as a last line of defense during time of attack or siege. Each portcullis was mounted in vertical grooves in castle walls and could be raised or lowered quickly by means of chains or ropes attached to an internal winch. There would often be two portcullises to the main entrance. The one closer to the inside would be closed first and then the one farther away. This was used to trap the enemy and often, burning wood or fire-heated sand would be dropped onto them from the roof or murder-holes. There were often arrow slits in the sides of the walls, enabling archers and crossbowmen to eliminate a trapped group of attackers.

Last updated: Monday October 29, 2012

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