Castle and Landscape in Denmark. A Topography of Power

Rainer Atzbach, Jørgen H.J. Fenger, Kasper T. Høgsberg

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It is not possible to formulate a final result of the ongoing project "Topography of Power" housed at Aarhus University, but it makes sense to formulate several hypotheses that form the point of departure for further research. The interpretation of a viewshed within a range of 2.5 to 3 km has proved fruitful:

a) The idea and ideal of an aristocratic landscape is evident in Denmark. The cases of Kalø and Højby Castle reveal the close relationship between a room with a view and the space around the curtain wall. This wall must not be the outer limit for castle research. In detail, it is quite difficult to identify the relationship and the chronology between a castle and the external elements of its landscape. This landscape underwent significant changes throughout the passing centuries. Regarding the castle or noble estate as the stable element of inertia (in the sense used by Robert Dodgshon), it is worth studying visible elements in the cultural landscape. These elements may be linked to the castle, even though it is difficult to identify the original type of relationship between these elements and this core. .

b) The visibility of a castle corresponds to its social status. There is no rule without an exception (Gurre Castle, a royal castle with a limited view), and changing ownership, feudal obligations and the development of the surrounding landscape may alter the original setting. Finally, a lower-ranking knight may have acted as a reeve at a formerly royal castle with a gorgeous view when it already lay in ruins. A side aspect of this correlation between topography and social status is the fact that the absolute height of a tower or a parapet walk does not matter in terms of control: any position higher than 4 m provides a sufficient view of the surrounding of a castle. The view is far more dependent on the chosen topography than of the buildings erected on it.

c) The sun’s position was important for all housing sites and their topography. The tendency to orient houses with the long side, windows and entrance towards the sunny south has been practised since the Neolithic era, whereas annex buildings, the gable end and stables tended to be exposed to the cold Western wind. This simple rule was observed not only by farmers, but also by lords when they built their estates. It is worth studying in detail the extent to which the landscape south of a castle tended to encompass the most important – or most ornate – elements of a dominion.

d) Castles tended to be connected to parish churches (presumably with the sepulture of the local lord's family). Moreover, there was a tendency for major castles to be connected to major routes and to the borders of shires. The last aspect lacks an explanation. In terms of fortification, it does not make sense to put a garrison at one border, neglecting the others. Perhaps this positioning was due to the fact that it is easier to administer juridical functions in more than one shire when sitting at its border, close to a crossing, than when sitting at the centre of a shire.

e) There was a tendency to exclusivity or splendid isolation of castle settings. Although it was important to keep an eye on one's own appurtenances and to control the surrounding area, it was not regarded as suitable to gaze at the peer's house. This could be motivated by a growing respect for "privacy" or - in medieval terms – "freedom", i.e. a secluded sphere of own right. This illustrates the importance of visual borders, and that there should be a distinction between what is local and what is horizon. The local viewsheds respected one another’s boundaries to such a degree that it seems very unlikely that this is a chance by-product of other forces. In conjunction with the tendency for the estates to be primarily placed centrally or to the north in the local viewshed, it seems clear that the immediate and direct visibility of a family's seat within the framework of the own property played a significant role in the selection of a location for an estate.

If the foregoing hypotheses are correct, it should be possible to determine and reconstruct the aristocratic landscape surrounding an estate. However, this aristocratic landscape is immaterial and most likely an expression of cultural norms and desires, rather than a direct manifestation of specific land rights. Thus, the local viewshed may be used to delineate sites and to inspect elements around a noble estate. Moreover, an analysis of the topography may be used to identify the status, function, and appurtenances of an anonymous castle that is not documented in written sources.

Of course, the topography of power is not confined to the horizon of viewsheds. The Middle Ages were a period of fragmented appurtenances consisting of land, privileges, and numerous interpersonal connections, which would have been invisible even from the highest point of view. Nevertheless, beyond the traditional archaeological study of contexts and objects, an integrated approach to their role and position in the topography offers new insights into the past.
TidsskriftZeitschrift für Archäologie des Mittelalters
Sider (fra-til)193-214
Antal sider22
StatusUdgivet - 2018


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