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At first glance, this looks to be just another coffee table book with pretty pictures. And it is that, but there’s more to it. For one thing, there’s more castles featured than the usual ones of the UK and Germany. It covers most of Europe and even Crusader castles in Syria. And each castle features multiple photos as well as several paragraphs about their history, which contains a remarkable amount of information.
There’s a nice overview to start things off, reminding us that castles served as fortresses and discussing various architectural features, such as “murder holes” placed in ceilings of entryways, where soldiers could pick off enemies as they came through narrow foyers. And the unfortunate fact that castles became obsolete due to advances in weaponry and mobility in warfare.
The bulk of the book is devoted to a sampling of castles divided by geographical region. Even though I have read quite a bit about the subject in general and some specific castles, I still learned a lot. For instance, I was surprised that Holland still has 200 castles “..in various states of repair, of the 2,000 that flourished in medieval times.” Some of the fortresses on European rivers also served as toll stations for nautical traffic.
While most castles are museums today, some have other functions, such as medical conference centers (Leeds, UK), a youth hostel (Stahleck, Germany), a wine museum and vitner’s center (Aigle, Switzerland) and natural science college (Katz, Germany).
There’s even a short chapter on “America’s Castles”, which are mostly huge modern mansions for wealthy families modeled on Continental buildings. But the one authentic castle in the U.S. is Castillo De San Marco, built in 1672 when Florida was a Spanish territory.
The only flaw in this excellent book is a couple of prejudiced comments made in the section on the castles of Spain, some of which were built during Moorish rule. He praises the Moors intricate architecture and design skills, but also refers to “hordes” of Muslims and “Arab fanatics”.
There are plenty of photos, both black and white, which work well for pictures of armories and exterior grey stone. And color is used for decorative interiors and dramatic outside views. The pictures are exceptional and a large part of what makes this book appealing to both beginners and seasoned readers on the subject of castles.
Hamlyn Publishing Group Limited 1981 128 pp. ISBN 0-517-34726-1