Medieval Glossary

This article contains the most common medieval terminology that you’ll find throughout this site.

Allure A walkway on a wall, also known as a wall walk.

Arrow Loop Narrow A small opening built in a wall that was used by archers to fire arrows at incoming enemies while offering great protection. These were later modified to accommodate small cannons.

Bailey Defensive courtyard.

Barbican Towers defending a gateway.

Batter Additional support structures situated at the base of walls and towers.

Battlement They are defensive structures that consist of portions of the wall cut at regular intervals to provide additional defense for archers and a disadvantage for invaders.

Breastwork Improvised structure used to protect gunners or artillery. Both defenders and attackers made use of this.

Charter of Franchise A Document granting liberty to a serf. This could be granted by his lord or the king.

Chivalry A knight’s code of conduct. See Chivalry.

Coat of Arms The symbol knights used to show their family line.

Commoner – Lowest class of people, just above slaves.

Curtain Wall The first line of defense, also known as the Outer Wall. It often had towers at regular intervals and was able to accommodate numerous archers and sometimes siege engines on top.

Daub A mud or clay mixture applied over wattle in order to strengthen it.

Donjon The keep. Prisoners were usually kept at the tallest tower – the word “dungeon” comes from “donjon”.

Drawbridge Wooden platforms built to connect a gate house to the surrounding land bypassing the moat. The drawbridge’s could be lifted with a complex system of chains when required. This was usually done at night.

Dungeon The prisoners were kept and sometimes tortured here. Contrary to popular belief, the dungeon was more often located in a tower and rarely in an underground compartment.

Embrasure The lower segment of the alternate high and low parts of a Battlement. This portion was used to attack while the archer retreated to the high segment of the wall to rest or take cover.

Fealty Oath Oath by which a vassal swore loyalty to his lord. See Feudalism

Feudalism System of govern that ruled most of the Middle Ages. Read Feudalism.

Fief Land held by a vassal of a lord in return for his services, mainly military.

Forebuilding Additional building against a Keep containing the stair to the doorway, and sometimes a chapel.

Garderobe Small latrine or toilet either built into the thickness of the wall or projected out from it. It is said that garments were stored in the Garderobe in the belief that the smell and draughts would deter clothes-moths.

Gate House The complex set of towers, wall and bridges that protected each entrance of the castle.

Great Hall Main dining area for the lord and the nobility.

Hall The main room of a medieval house, used for eating.

Hauberk Coat of mail used for protective purposes. It was very heavy and expensive; hence only for nobility.

Homage Ceremony in which a vassal pledged his fealty to his lord and acknowledged his feudal obligations.

Inner Curtain The high wall which surrounds the Inner Ward of a castle. This was usually the second line of defense.

Inner Ward The place where festivities occurred – this was the open area in the middle of a castle. Some castles had wells and trees in this area.

Keep Main tower, also the last line of defense and final defensive fortification. Its fall meant the fall of the castle.

Knight The warrior who owed military service to his lord in exchange for fief (land). Knights also aspired to the ideals of loyalty, generosity and courtesy, known as Chivalry.

Lance A long wooden shaft used by knights in tournaments. They were also used during the High and Late Middle Ages for regular warfare.

Living Quarters The place where the knight, lady and other nobility lived inside a castle.

Manor Small holding with its own court and hall. Generally held by a knight. It had some defensive structures to withstand a small siege.

Merlon The higher part of alternating high and low segments of a battlement. Archers used the Merlon to cover from incoming arrows.

Moat A deep trench filled with water dug around a castle to impede an enemy’s advance.

Mortar A strong mixture of water, sand and lime used to bind stones together permanently. It was used for construction purposes.

Motte Man-made or natural spot on which a keep or donjon was built. They were chosen based on many factors, its defensive advantage being the most important.

Murder Holes Openings in walls of the gate house, used for attacking the invaders.

Newel Secret dungeon that had only one door at the top. Prisoners were simply thrown in it and left to die next to the other dead bodies.

Nobleman A wealthy man who often lived in castles and were sometimes educated.

Oubliette Concealed dungeon having a trap door in its ceiling as its only opening, where prisoners were often left to starve to death.

Palisade The palisade was a wooden wall that enclosed an area. It was generally used as a temporary defense while a stronger stone wall was built.

Postern Gate Mostly used for escape, the postern gate was a hidden castle’s exit.

Rampart Defensive stone or earth wall that surrounded the castle. This structure slowed down the attackers.

Sap The undermining of a wall by attackers. See Assaulting a Medieval Castle.

Scaffolding Temporary wooden platform constructed next to a wall or tower in order to support workers and provide room for building materials.

Serf Semi-free peasant who worked his lord’s land. See Feudalism.

Arrow-slit Narrow opening in a wall for firing arrows. It was also used to illuminate the castle.

Spiral Staircase Compact staircase often built into the walls of castles. They were built in a way to provide defenders every possible advantage, such as allowing them to fight with their right hand while the attackers were forced to use their left.

Turret A small tower, used as a look-out point, that rose above every other tower. The guards on top could often see the whole castle and much of the surrounding landscape and detect suspicious behavior.

Undercroft Cellar or basement under a building. These were very rare and expensive, big castles often had secret compartments.

Vassal A free man who held a lord’s land and to whom he paid homage and swore loyalty. See Feudalism.

Vintenar Man in charge of twenty soldiers.

Wall Walk The area atop of a wall that archers and other infantry used to defend against the invaders.

Ward Enclosed Defensive structure usually around the courtyard.