Private Quarters at Goodrich Castle. The Solar, which Joan de Valence probably designed. © Buildingstones
Private Quarters at Goodrich Castle. The Solar, which Joan de Valence probably designed. © Buildingstones

Gender, Heritage and Medieval Castles

Castles are for boys. Overwhelmingly the tourism industry makes these sites available as playgrounds for the gendered stereotypes of wannabe knights and admiring and blushing damsels. How should we remedy this state of affairs?

Beyond the Martial Façade: gender, heritage and medieval castles
By Karen Dempsey, Roberta Gilchrist, Jeremy Ashbee, Stefan Sagrott and Samantha Stones
International Journal of Heritage Studies. Published online: 02 Jul 2019

Goodrich Castle Source: twitter
Playing Games at Goodrich Castle. Source: Twitter

Visiting any medieval castle, gendered bias becomes immediately apparent. Likely, the centrepiece is the battleground in the courtyard with the soldiers demonstrating sword-fighting with knights attempting to joust their opponents. Meanwhile, females, as well as tourists, are relegated to the tribunes. The experience is so familiar that we seldom question the setup. This challenge has been met in a thoughtful article, recently published in the International Journal of Heritage Studies.

One explanation is that until the late 20th century, castles were the primary working ground for heritage specialists engaged in architectural authenticity and preservation. At the turn of the millennium, the discipline of castle-studies may have moved towards exploring how people were involved in designing, building and living in the castles and utilizing them as centres of administration as well as potent visible and occasionally heavily fortified statements of power and status.

One of the challenges, however, has been that these studies came to reflect the heavily biased source material – archaeological as well as written. From finds of weapons to records of payment to the entourage, the focus remained on the martial façade and the administrative functions of castles. Part of this state of affairs reflects the temporary character of most castle stays. Travelling from one site to the next, medieval lords, ladies and their retinues lived itinerant lives brought their pots, pans, textiles, and treasures along. One result is the sparse or even empty archaeological horizons, which they left behind.

This poses a real challenge since 49% of 2968 visitors to properties cared for by the Historic Environment Scotland, in a survey said they wished to know more about everyday life in the castle – material culture (clothes and food), living and working (crafts), and social issues (crime, travelling, landscape and weather).Topics, which cannot be explored without taking not of the presence of gendered as well as social differences.

A recent workshop gathering heritage practitioners, as well as museum people from different institutions, initiated a conversation on how to remedy this gender bias. As part of this project, three studies were carried out focusing on castles in Scotland, The Goodrich Castle in England at the occupancy of Joan de Valance († 1307), and finally the castle at Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight, associated with Isabella de Fortuna († 1293). Especially the case study of Goodrich Castle demonstrates how far it is possible to outline a more generous and inclusive presentation of a site.

This noted, though, we should not forget that the official presentation on the website (2019) do not push this dimension forward. Instead, we are enticed by a special feature called “Castle under Siege”!

This is particularly odd since Goodrich Castle in Herefordshire is not only remarkable for its preservation or its Civil War history. Rather, the valuable accounts from 1295 – 97, detailing the life of the Countess Joan de Valence, allow us to engage with the detailed and fascinating biography of a chatelain at the end of the 13th century. The accounts record the daily life and expenditures as well as the activities of her entourage. This material was recently used in in a card-game, letting members of a family group play different members of the household. But how should the different role-playing characters be depicted on their cards? Should, for instance, Roger de Inkpenne present himself dressed as a knight and holding his banner? This question led to numerous dilemmas questioning the such clichés.

Drawing of Roger de Inkpenne © Ilaria Urbaniti and English Heritage
Drawing of Roger de Inkpenne © Ilaria Urbaniti and English Heritage

Apparently, though, the people in control of the website is unaware of this. On the website, we can read that “When William de Valence, a French nobleman, rebuilt the castle in the late 13th century, he created one of the most up-to-date castles of his day. Its impressive defences enclosed residential buildings of great complexity and sophistication”.

But was he the only responsible person? Did Joan de Valence not oversee this project? Since her husband was occupied elsewhere during the building phase, which took place between 1270 – 90. from 1270 to 72 he was on a crusade, and between 1274 -75 he was on royal business, 1277 in Wales, overseas 1278 -79, and again 1283, we may presume she at least oversaw the project. In fact, she deliberately chose Goodrich as her seat of widowhood, indicating that this was her preferred “home”. We may well ask – in view of the present research – why the administrators of Goodrich has not changed the front-stage presentation from its bland “castly” type to a more precise and authentic story? Since the story of Joan de Valence is so well documented!

These studies highlight different aspects concerning authenticity, social status, invisibility and bias between genders as well as inside the broader social milieu. The question raised is not just how to “make women visible” but also to address issues of social difference. The overall question posed is: What makes a ‘good gendered interpretation’ at a public heritage site?

The three studies presented here together with their accompanying reflections do not present the reader with a fully developed manual. However, they do offer up several considerations worth exploring. As such, the present article provides much needed inspiration for local heritage work in the “castle industry” in Europe.


Goodrich Castle