The Nirvana Fallacy in Castle Studies

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Categories: Ancient, Medieval, Modern
a keep and church on a foothill over a town in the valley on a foggy day, September 2020
A tower house of unusual size over the old silver-mining town of Schwaz, Tirol.

All kinds of historians commit fallacies, but I often read work in the field of castle studies which commits a specific one. It goes like this: “if a site’s defenses (as visible in the archaeological record) were imperfect, the defenses (which actually existed) were useless and merely for show.” This is related to false dilemmas, the Nirvana Fallacy, and “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” It is linked to the fashion among some Anglo intellectuals for declaring that human life is really governed by arbitrary social conventions and nothing so coarse as contact with the external physical world.

A very common type of fort in the Old World is a tower house: build a nice tall stone house with no openings in the ground floor, give it a strong door and plenty of fighting positions, and live in that. Back in 2011, a D. Berryman noted that many tower houses could be stronger: they could have iron grilles over the gate to stop fire, more and better firing positions and machiolations for pouring water on the gate and murder holes to attack anyone who breaks into the lobby, a gate raised above ground floor so anyone who wants to enter has to climb the steps and turn, and so on. Berryman had some volunteers try to break down a gate with a ram and burn it with fire, and found that they could break down the gate in five minutes and burn it down in 40 minutes. Concludes Berryman:

this experiment shows that tower-houses could not have withstood an organised attack from a team of experienced raiders and a tower-house’s defensibility was not as effective as its apparent defensive features might suggest. … Tower-houses have many features that appear defensive in nature, but they could only have been used to defend the tower as a last resort. This experiment has shown that a simple, and typical, tower-house was not designed to be exclusively or primarily defensive

One problem with this kind of argument is that not all fortifications are equally visible archaeologically. A hedge or palisade or a fieldstone wall is much harder to see than an ashlar wall. Earthworks are harder to date than stone buildings with a nice foundation inscription or coins in the mortar. Archaeologists rarely have resources to excavate a whole site, so if you see gaps in the defenses in a drawing of a site, that might just mean that the archaeologists did not excavate that sector. When you look at a gate which was last replaced in 1920, there is no way to tell whether the last time the castle was threatened the gate was covered in iron, or thick hides, or just paint. The iron-covered door would have been much more resistant to fire than the wooden one! Useful materials like iron were recycled as soon as they were no longer needed. But there is a bigger problem with the assumptions behind this argument.

Aughnanure Castle, care of (many other excellent photos and drawings there!)

Have a look at Aughnanure Castle in Galway. It is a stone tower house with a stone curtain wall which has been removed. So we don’t have to worry so much about what is missing (although 500 year old stone buildings do get renovated every so often, such as when someone put in those large windows on the upper stories). Imagine that it is freshly whitewashed and that the roof and the protruding firing positions are lined with frightened people. And imagine trying to swing that ram at the door for five minutes while those people shoot at you with arquebuses and pistols and crossbows and darts, and drop everything from fist-sized stones to boulders that take two strong people to lift. Those extensions over the corners of the third floor have firing slits placed to cover the gate from both sides, and the battlements are six tall stories above you. There should be plenty of people inside who can load the guns and span the crossbows and carry up fresh stones and water, because everyone inside that tower knows what you will do if you get in. Now imagine trying to get that fire set against the door in that hail of shot, while the people on top the tower dump a rain barrel out the machiolation over the door whenever they see smoke below. Remember that you have to bring up all the fuel and pile it one armful at a time, and each time you come and each time you go the people in the tower are taking aim. Does that sound easy?

There is a famous account of an attack like this in Xenophon’s Anabasis (7.8.13-19). Asidates held out in his tower from midnight to shortly after dawn, and that was enough to save him and his people. If you read the Paston Letters or the settler accounts of King Philip’s War you can read many stories of attacks like this. But we all have the experience of buying a bike lock and knowing that a thief with a backpack full of tools can cut it in a few minutes. Bike locks don’t work by being invulnerable and unpickable, they work by slowing down the thief enough that he decides that stealing this particular bike in broad daylight would be too risky. Maybe the thief steals someone else’s bike or razor blades or smart phone instead, but that is not your problem.

If there are enough of you, and you are good shots and have plenty of ammunition, and you don’t mind a few of you dying, you can probably get in to a tower house. The basic method was old in Sargon’s day: shoot so thick and fast that nobody can raise their head above the parapet and live, make a hole in the house, and rush in. And if you have time to set up great ordinance or catapults without someone interrupting, you can knock the tower to pieces from a distance. But if you are not highly motivated to take this house in particular, you will probably go do horrible things to someone else, or just spent some time making noises and shooting before you go home. A determined attacker with enough time and resources can take any fort ever built. But even half-hearted fortifications can buy time or convince people to go bother someone else. Of course fortifications are also ways of showing off your wealth and power and capacity for violence. But an imperfect fortification is still a valuable defense.

Further Reading:

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(scheduled 20 July 2021)

4 thoughts on “The Nirvana Fallacy in Castle Studies

  1. russell1200 says:

    You have to live in the tower house. And presumably the people building them knew the relative risk of someone attacking the tower house. So having a (stout) entrance that is convenient to every day living would be acceptable if tower houses were rarely attacked if they were in a state of readiness.

    I say readiness, because the typical way for people to get past uncomplicated local defense is trickery.

    You mentioned King Philip’s War. In that war there were numerous instances where the Natives would t ambush the Colonials in the early morning as they first went out to do their choirs. Another common tactic they used at the start of a conflict is to appear in friendship and then use surprise to attack when the colonials were unprepared. It was a pretty typical way to start the war. In the fighting against the Shawnee, the Settlers often used centralized block houses which the community could retire to. So long as they were on alert, I gather the feeling was that this was doable. The key was being alert, and in this case not having a massive amount of wealth you were trying to protect in place.

    I think in general, people avoid attacking fortified compounds when the defenders are ready for them.

    1. admin says:

      The Hittite Instructions for Commanders of Border Posts warn about sending out scouts before you open the gates in the morning in case some visitors are planning a surprise party.

      One of Berryman’s points was that an easy way to make a tower house stronger was to put the door up a stairway so there was no room to use a ram or set a fire, and he is right, but in a world without electricity or running water, that means every gallon of water and every donkey-load of firewood and every bushel of barley has to be carried up that staircase then down into the cellar … is it worth the bother? Probably depends on where you live.

  2. Andrew H says:

    Excellent post. And if Tower Houses were so easy to take why did people keep building them? They were not stupid in the past -unlike maybe some academics 🙂

    1. admin says:

      And people do sometimes want to feel like they live in a castle, but if it just has to feel like a castle it usually has more openings and flimsier construction. Many of these castles and tower houses had extra doors and windows put in as life got safer.

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