Teaching Resources on Castles (Reviews of K-12 Materials)

Amy West
Museum Educator, Higgins Armory Museum
Worcester, MA

What Were Castles For? Phil Roxbee Cox. Usborne Starting Point History Series. London: Usborne Publishing, 1994. ISBN 0-7460-1341-8

This book has simple, accessible text, and accurate and entertaining drawings. It is at its best when discussing the castle itself. Some of the text simplifies things to the point of being inaccurate at times: for example, when discussing horses, it fails to mention that horses gave armies not just distance but also speed. And it limits the period of the Middle Ages to 1000-1500, thus excluding the early medieval period. Also when mentioning how the moat might prevent tunneling, it doesn’t explain why someone would be tunneling (undermining). The illustrations of the keep and then the later domestic range of buildings in the inner bailey are nice contrasts. The discussion of hunting is pretty good, except that it ignores the fact that there were places where peasants could in fact hunt without being punished. The information about knights’ horses is wrong: “they were not big and chunky.” This is a common misconception; these horses also had to be fast and agile, so they were basically a heavy hunter: strong, but not chunky. The information about armor is again simplified to the point of inaccuracy: I would use another text for this information. Again, when discussing knighthood, there is inaccuracy – the book states that “men from ordinary families” could not become knights, but as documented in the Gies book, that is not universally true. The discussion of weapons is good. The discussion of the feast starts off well, mentioning that there was a lot of variation. Again, the discussion of the feast has people eating salted meat throughout the winter: only if they had to; otherwise they would simply eat a freshly slaughtered animal. And it mentions using lard on bread, but of course, they had butter back then and would use that first. Again, here I would use another text, perhaps the Medieval Cookbook, to supplement and correct. In its discussion of the village, closely allied with the castle, the book continues the modern perception of life in a medieval village being constantly threatened by “hungry wolves in winter and thieves on the road.” If it were as unsafe as portrayed, then how did villages survive over time? The fact is that there was some protection just in being in a village, and there were people who were responsible for looking out for the safety of villages. The discussion of the medieval walled town is actually pretty good, except that it ignores the fact that castles also were built to protect towns (after the town was already there), and ignores the fire-protection given by tiled roofs. The discussion of the monastery completely ignores nuns. The information about the joust is very good. The information about a siege is good, but ignores something more important than food holding out: water.

Castle. Christopher Gravett. Dorling- Kindersley Eyewitness Books series. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. ISBN 0-679-86000-2

This is an excellent book. It is an excellent accompaniment to Life in a Medieval Castle. Its two-page chapters cover the development and changes of castles over time, in various places, the defensive and domestic range portions of the castle, people and daily life within the castle, and also castle construction. The illustrations are the major draw of the book: they are photographs of period artifacts, illustrations, and, occasionally, reconstructions. But the text is valuable too. The introductory block of large-type text gives the broader information and themes while the smaller text explains each individual illustration. The text is amazingly accurate and informative. While the text is more suited for an older age group, this book is an essential resource for the teacher and the younger student.

Castle Life. Althea. Cambridge: Dinosaur Publications. 1976. ISBN 0-85122-124-6

An older book, but just right for early readers. It has very simple text that is still accurate. The drawings are clean, simple drawings that imitate the medieval style. The clothing, armor, and castle depicted are all from the 1200s and are not a mish-mash of periods.

Castles, Pyramids and Palaces. Caroline Youn & Colin King. Usborne Beginner’s Knowledge series. London: Usborne Publishing, 1989. ISBN0-7460-0463-X

An excellent book focusing on the construction of buildings from the ancient world through the modern. The text is simple for the early and independent reader, and is still fairly accurate despite being a bit dated (1989). It has a broad reach in terms of time and place, but does go into some detail on some basics such as what cement, mortar, and concrete are. There are nice details of architectural elements such as arches and buttresses, and depictions of materials and tools. It is not as detailed about the process of building a castle as Macauly’s Castle, but gives information sufficient and appropriate for the early grades, and is a good starting point for discussing castle architecture. My only quibble with the accuracy of the content is that it labels as a shell keep what is more accurately just a curtain wall.

Pendragon Castle. Panorama Pop-Up. New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 1982. ISBN 0-03-062976-7

This is a nice 3-D view of the domestic parts of a castle. The information in the book is a bit inaccurate: the biggest error is having a prison below the Great Hall. Typically storerooms were there. Those cellars were sometimes used as a prison long after the Middle Ages. Also the information about armor is incorrect. But otherwise is a good way for students to have a visual idea of the Great Hall, chambers, kitchen, and stable

I Wonder Why Castles Had Moats. Philip Steele. NY: Kingfisher, 1994. ISBN 0-7534-5070-4

This is a book that will be accessible to the early and independent readers, but again the text is often simplified to the point of being inaccurate so it should be used with caution. For example, it states “most people thought the world was flat” in the Middle Ages. Most educated people, in fact, knew that the world was indeed round – it was the uneducated populace that might have thought otherwise. Again, it perpetuates the misconception of prisoners languishing in castle dungeons. Its discussion of the moat doesn’t even mention its prevention of undermining or sapping the castle walls by besiegers. Its mention of toilets in towns completely ignores the fact that many houses had outhouses and that the towns had gutters to carry waste away. The best aspect of the book is that it has a wide reach – mentioning places and things from Africa, Asia, and the Americas as well as Europe. But that also means that it gives everything a very superficial treatment. The best parts of the book are the drawings showing the process of arming a knight and a Samurai, and the table of Roman, Hindi, Modern Arabic, Medieval European, and Modern numerals.

Books for the Teacher

Life in a Medieval Castle. Joseph & Frances Gies. New York: Harper & Row, 1974.

ISBN 0-06090674-X

Recommended chapters: The Castle Comes to England, The Castle as a House, The Household, A Day in the Castle, The Castle at War, The Decline of the Castle. The book focuses on the castle in England in the 1200s, the High Middle Ages, and centers around a very well known figure, William Marshal. It draws on primary sources of the period, but also looks to literary texts and draws on some French material as well. While a good general text for the non-specialist, there are some errors and outdated information in the book. For example, the information about armor in the Making of a Knight is not accurate, and some of the traditions discusses in the Castle Year are not documented from the medieval period. Keep in mind that this is basically a snapshot of a particular period and a particular place: the Middle Ages covered a large time span and a wide geography.

Castles and Fortresses. Robin S. Oggins. New York: Friedman Group, 1994. ISBN 1-56799-095-9

This is an excellent coffee-table book to use as a companion to Life in a Medieval Castle, but it also stands on its own. The short introductory text at the opening of each chapter is concise, accurate, and focuses on the historical forces affecting the various regions during the European Middle Ages and Renaissance. The chapters focusing on Spain, Italy, Germany, Northern Europe, and the Crusader regions are excellent in illuminating some of the major differences between these areas and the more commonly taught English and French regions.This is also an excellent book for the students to look through for larger architectural details and some additional interior views. This works well also as a supplement to the D-K book Castle for the student. They will see both larger and detail views of castles shown in Castle; Castles, Pyramids and Palaces; the transparencies; and the posters.

What It Feels like to Be a Building. Forrest Wilson. Washington, D.C.: The Preservation Press, 1988. ISBN 0-89133-147-6

A book for both teacher and student. It demonstrates both visually and physically architectural elements and physical forces in buildings. It focuses on the forces of push, pull, squash, squeeze, droop, tug, bend and brace. Using line drawings depicting both the architectural element (such as a corbel) and a human figure, it shows the role that that element plays in supporting the structure. Each page has a large illustration and a line or two of text so that it can be read to a class, read by an independent reader, or used by a non-reader to see the parallels. Large spreads show the elements as parts of common medieval structures as houses, castles, and cathedrals. The examples with human figures would be an excellent starting point for demonstrations for students to play out being columns, arches, buttresses, or corbels, for example.


The Middle Ages: The Peasants’ Revolt and The Castle.

On the second half of this tape is a short video (20 minutes) of a tour of Warwick Castle. Depending on the class, this video may be appropriate for first and second graders. The narrator shows the defensive structures of the castle as well as the living quarters. The only violent or scary bits are a shot of the narrator pretending to have been hit by an arrow, a mention of the trebuchet being used to hurl dead animals into the castle, and a shot of a knight being hit by an arrow. The video starts off with an excellent use of models to show the development of castles from motte and bailey to shell keep to the concentric castle. Then there is a tour of the defensive structures where the narrator demonstrates the use of crenels and machiolations. There are models of siege engines and a quick tour of the living quarters. The bit where the narrator mentions hanging one’s clothes in the garderobe to keep moths away is of questionable accuracy: more likely the name comes from being a small room. There is a middle section discussing changes in warfare which may lose younger children, and then the video concludes with some footage of jousting. If not appropriate for the class, the video will definitely benefit a teacher unfamiliar with the material. If showing the video to the class, be sure that the tape is queued up to the beginning of The Castle section: the first part of the tape is definitely not suited for younger students.


I am in the process of preparing loan boxes of materials to lend out to teachers teaching particular medieval topics. So far I have completed the Castle Life loan box for grades Pre-K to 2. In each box there is a Guide to the Materials and Suggested Activities. I am seeking teachers with experience teaching these grades to review this Guide and give me feedback on its usefulness, helpfulness, and age-appropriateness. Boxes for the upper elementary grades are also being developed, so reviewers for Guides for those grades are also welcome. The Guides and loan boxes are keyed to the Massachusetts curriculum, but teachers from other states are welcome to review the Guides.

Original Citation: Scientia Scholae, Volume 2, Issue 1, August 2003

NOTE: Links have been corrected and/or deleted.  The original “look and feel”  of the journal has been preserved as much as possible, but the original logos have also been removed.  No editing to the actual texts has been done since their original publication.

TEAMS: Teaching Association for Medieval Studies