The perilous life of medieval castles. A forbidden place shatters all romantic myths

Two dark rooms in Corvinilor Castle in Hunedoara, forbidden to children, shatter the romantic impression that guests of the monument might have about life in medieval castles. In reality, the daily life of the medievals was extremely harsh.

Corvinor Castle from Hunedoara. Photo by Daniel Guță. TRUTH

Life in medieval castles was not at all comfortable, and those who visit monuments such as Corvinilor Castle in Hunedoara (video) could easily be fooled by its romantic appearance into thinking that its ancient occupants lived surrounded by luxury.

At the entrance to the castle of Hunedoara, visitors, with the exception of children under the age of 12, are invited to see two dark rooms, used in the past as places where prisoners were tortured.

The dungeon in the Corvinir Castle, reserved for those condemned to death

The former prison of the castle in Hunedoara would have been built in the 16th – 17th centuries, to take the place of another, older dungeon, hidden under the hall of the Knights – a place that is said to have housed Vlad Țepeș.

A legend says that the mountain voivode, also known as Dracula, was imprisoned for seven years in a cellar of the Corvinir Castle (video).

The dungeons of the Hunedoara castle.  Photo by Daniel Guță.  TRUTH

The dungeons of the Hunedoara castle. Photo by Daniel Guță. TRUTH

“Even in the dungeon, Dracula did not leave his bad habit, as he hunted mice and had birds bought for him at the market, these animals satisfying his desire to torment“, wrote the authors of the Slavic version of “The Tale of Duke Dracula”, quoted in the volume “Vlad Ţepeş (Dracula), between legend and historical truth” (Encyclopedic Publishing House).

In the fall of 1462, Vlad Ţepeş, a former ally of Matia Corvin, was arrested by order of the king, stripped of his throne and sent into a prolonged captivity for 12 years, in Visegrad, near Buda. Some historians have argued that before being expelled, it is very possible that Vlad Ţepes stayed in the dungeon of the Corvinor Castle for a while.

In the fall of 1784, during the uprising of the serfs led by Horea, more than 100 serfs were imprisoned at the castle in Hunedoara, awaiting the death penalty. Finally, the prisoners were released.

Collage.  Vlad Țepeș and the entrance to the medieval dungeon.  Photo: Wikipedia / The Truth

Collage. Vlad Țepeș and the entrance to the medieval dungeon. Photo: Wikipedia / The Truth

The dungeon, now furnished with bars and a mannequin representing a prisoner, remained a dark place that still bears the executioner's seal, the sign of a cogwheel that was found on his palos.

The old prison retains the original door from past centuries, which did not burn down during the fire that destroyed the castle in 1854. The prison was used until the 19th century, and some documents show that two centuries ago criminals from the land of Hunedoara.

The most feared place in the castle, right at the entrance

In the immediate vicinity of the dungeon of the medieval castle, tourists can enter, through a small door, another room that can give them chills.

Descend into the two underground rooms of the castle's old torture bastion, furnished with reproductions of the most famous tools used by the medievals to mutilate prisoners and several mannequins depicting the executioners' victims.

The torture bastion was built in the 15th century. Here, the executioner from the castle was not only in charge of the capital execution, but also had the role of torturing the prisoners who were brought to him. It went as far as flaying people alive, according to the museographers at the castle. The old torture chamber of the Corvini Castle functioned until the end of the 18th century.

The bastion of torture is composed of two rooms, remodeled in 2012. The exhibition includes several of the instruments of torture, inspired by the Constitutio Criminalis Theresiana, the criminal code of Empress Maria Theresa.

The torture chamber at Corvinir Castle.  Photo by Daniel Guță.  TRUTH

The torture chamber at Corvinir Castle. Photo by Daniel Guță. TRUTH

Among the machines that can be seen in the rooms of the castle, found in the codex of Empress Maria Theresa, are vices for tightening the limbs and the body, instruments for stretching the body until it breaks, torture chairs equipped with spikes and nails, objects used for strangulation and mutilated.

The most famous victim of the dungeons of the Corvinilor Castle in Hunedoara was Ana Kendi, who lived in the castle in the 16th century at the Corvinilor Castle in Hunedoara, after marrying Ioan Torok, the nobleman who owned the castle at that time. Documents of the time showed that Ana, also called Barbara, became the victim of her husband's jealousy, who had his subjects spy on her.

Medieval instruments of torture.  Photo: Daniel Guță.  TRUTH

Medieval instruments of torture. Photo: Daniel Guță. TRUTH

Accused of infidelity, she was dragged into the dungeon and then executed by driving a nail in the head. The entire population of Hunedoara was called to attend Ana's execution and burial.

“Even the fate of the young man in love was not milder, he was condemned to be tied and dragged by a horse until death, after which he was beheaded and split into four”informs the Corvinor Castle Museum.

The documents describing Ana's story also show that in the 16th century, Corvinor Castle “benefited” from the services of an executioner.

Life in medieval castles: cold, squalor and darkness

The old dungeon in Corvinir Castle shatters the romanticism of the medieval castle, rendering a less cosmeticized picture of life in medieval castles.

Their prisoners suffered the most, but even the ordinary residents of the castles did not lead a comfortable life: the darkness, the cold and the filth turned them into horrifying places.

Built in the 15th century by the powerful Huniaz family, the Corvinor Castle in Hunedoara was a power center of the Hunedoara region, rich in natural resources that were also exploited in the Middle Ages, but also a place of refuge difficult to conquer, in during the Ottoman sieges of that period.

Despite its grandeur and the decorations with which it was endowed by the Huns, the medieval life in such a castle was not at all comfortable.

Medieval castles came alive even before sunrise, when the multitude of servants who occupied their cold and dark rooms had to take care of making the fire and preparing food for the masters.

Most of the medieval castles spread terrible miasma, some historians claim. The lack of hygiene of their tenants and the rudimentary toilets, equipped at best with a cistern in which the waste was collected, bathrooms difficult to clean due to the lack of fresh water, made the rooms of the castles places without comfort.

In some medieval castles, such as the one in Hunedoara, you can see the remains of such “toilets”, which had the drain outside the walls. Those who defecated in the castle could be seen from outside it.

Other castles have preserved “vintage” toilets, set up in compartments without privacy, with benches in which holes were made, similar to the toilets in country gardens.

Although many of the medieval castles impress even today with their grandeur, they left almost no space for the privacy of their occupants, except for some rooms intended for their masters, which could be used as bathrooms and bedrooms.

The families of the servants lived together day and night, sharing the dark and miserable rooms of the castles, to look after the welfare of the nobles.

Castles were built of stone, as places of defense against enemies, so their owners put less value on comfort.

Most castles had small windows that did not allow sunlight in, and the thick walls meant that the dark rooms, whose floors were covered with hay, could hardly be heated.

Diseases wreaked havoc in the Middle Ages

The tenants, especially the servants, bore the brunt of life in the castle. Diseases caused by cold, damp, dirt were common, and lack of treatment brought them death.

When they fell ill or were injured, the medievals could ask for help from healers, monks or barbers, but the treatment they received and the interventions they were subjected to often caused them suffering and death. Anesthetics were too little known, as were plants with antibiotic properties, and doctors were reserved for the elites.

Surgical operations were rare. The most common of them aimed to “remove bad blood” – which would have led to the revitalization of the body, trepanation – for headaches, cataract operations without anesthetics, red-hot iron cauterization of hemorrhoids, removal of stones from the urinary bladder.

Mercury was often used in the case of sexual diseases – such as syphilis -, but over time scientists noticed that patients treated with such a toxic substance died from liver and kidney damage. Years of famine, natural calamities and plague epidemics wreaked havoc on the population.

Torture, at home in medieval castles

The most gruesome rooms of medieval castles were reserved for prisoners. Lightless cellars where people were left to die and torture chambers were often included in the construction projects of majestic settlements.

Tortures were often justified as means of purifying the bodies and souls of the condemned, but the ways in which they were carried out revealed the boundless sadism of some medievals. Medieval people “in conflict with the law” or considered dangerous for the rulers had a cruel fate.

Death sentences were carried out in public squares, in the middle of crowds, and the agony of the victims was prolonged. Instruments of torture, from the most common utensils to complex machines that guaranteed a slow and painful death, were part of the arsenal of investigators, inquisitors and executioners and were used at every opportunity.

Torture was considered useful for extracting information, for forced confessions, as a punishment or method of intimidation, but also for the personal pleasure of the inquisitors.

Women were not exempt from torture, and some special tools were reserved for them. One of them was the breast puller, a device between the “claws” of which the victim's chest was placed, to be pulled out by the executioner.

Life in medieval castles, safer than outside

Despite the hardships of life, medieval castles offered security to their inhabitants. In times of war, the population that mostly lived in the surrounding villages could shelter here and withstand prolonged sieges even when outnumbered by invaders.

Castles often kept enormous amounts of food in granaries and had water cisterns inside. In case of invasion, their gates were blocked, their bridges were raised, and the numerous walls, high and thick, prevented the attackers from entering.

From the ramparts, archers could keep the armies at the gates at a distance, and some medieval castles were equipped with catapults and ballistae.

The moats around the fortresses also made it difficult to conquer the castles, even when the defense walls were destroyed. Castles were also often erected in hard-to-reach places. Some were provided with secret tunnels that could be used by their owners to escape.