Medieval castles are striking and popular ruins, visited by thousands upon thousands of local people, school groups and tourists each year across the UK; environs for education and entertainment. In the context of this Archaeodeath blog, I am interested in how these medieval ruins are not only conserved, managed and interpreted as traces of medieval (and sometimes also pre-medieval and post-medieval) pasts for visitors, but also how they allow visitors to conjure the dead. I don’t mean this in a spiritualist sense, but in regards to the visitor’s imagination as they explore the ruins of medieval elite fortified residences.
In particular, I am interested in how castles accrue specific social memories about the dead. In increasing numbers of instances, castles constitute environments for formal, commemorative memorials and memorial dimensions linked to the dead. Imagining the medieval dead can achieved by exploring the ruins; sally ports, moats, halls, gatehouses, towers and their spiral stairs. By looking out windows and imagining lived space within the shell and fragments that survive, we can bring back the dead through our imagination.
This sense of imagining living can also take the form of ‘meeting’ the medieval dead through images and voices of medieval people, either historical personages or fictional characters. Through heritage displays, audio guides and sometimes audio-visual displays, one is transported to the Middle Ages and given specific guides for the visitor into the medieval past. A Denbigh Castle, these take the form of three cartoon kids.
Another way of connected to the medieval dead is through installations of art and materials that require modern bodies to relive imagined medieval pasts. These might be toys as foci within castles, as at Chirk Castle, or as at Nevern Castle where a throne operates as a focus within the open-air bailey to provide a material focus in the absence of surviving wooden and stone walls.
However, sometimes they take on the form of specific kinds of memorial art and material culture by which the medieval dead are commemorated. Memorials to specific individuals cast within frameworks of modern commemorative culture; statues, monoliths and the like. For example, I have previously discussed the statue within Llandovery Castle.
In further cases, they take the form of anonymous figures, deployed to create links to the past where the precise identity of the individual is lost, or veiled one or more interpretative jumps behind the art. In doing so, they are cenotaphic ways of conjuring not a single historical personage, but a vague but powerful allusion to various pasts and various people. One might give as an example, the wooden sculpted soldier within Conwy Castle. This anonymity might be taken to indicate that these are not ‘commemorative’ and therefore not about memory. However, they prompt play for kids and families – facilitate touching, climbing, sitting and photo opportunities. In doing so, this art prompt engagement for those of all ages with something tangible and human-like other than simply the walls.
I have already looked at the gates and environs of Cilgerran Castle in memorial terms, focusing on Cilgerran’s heritage toilets and war memorial by the castle gates. I have also mentioned it in day 3 of my Heritage Jam. Yet my recent visit also noted a further way in which space is populated with a cenotaphic, anonymous statue that serves as a focal point for photo opportunities, child’s play and sparks the imagination of the martial elite in the Middle Ages. This slightly sinister wicker statue looms over all who enter the inner ward of Cilgerran. Is it simply a generic sculpture, or does it serve to bring back the castle dead: a tangible apparition of both fictive and historical pasts? Or is it more a statement about the role of the castle as a focus of both past and present generations’ imaginings of martial deeds and fortified living?