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  • Writer's pictureAdrian J. Boas

On a Necessary Vulnerability

Outer northern gate and inner gate tower, both with machicoulis

Several years ago, I obtained a dried lotus flower, and through a bit of research on the internet managed to find out how to geminate the seeds that it contained and raise several lotus plants. The thing about embryonic lotus plants is that they are so well sealed by their iron-hard covering that they cannot be germinated without breaking through it. In order to do this, I spent some time carefully drilling a small hole into the thick black surface of each seed. This allowed the water to enter into the interior and to soften the covering to the point where the aroused seedling, its roots and leaf stem, could break through. The advantage of its thick and hard covering is that it enables the lotus seeds to survive in a dormant state for extremely lengthy periods. In 1996 a 1,300-year-old lotus seed recovered from a lake in north-eastern China was successfully germinated. The ability of the lotus seed covering to protect the living plant is remarkable, but it comes at a cost, for, as long as it protects the seed, it also prevents its germination.

Every cloud has a silver lining, or perhaps, in this case, every silver lining has a cloud. It is sometimes difficult to avoid using clichés, and another one that is used on occasion when describing an effectiveness of a castle defensive system is that it is "a hard nut to crack". The whole point of a fortification is that those inside are safe from intrusion. But what can you do? A castle is not much use if you can't get in or out of it. It needs to have a gate, and a gate is a weakness. Indeed, the gate is the weakest element in a fortification, but it is also one that cannot be avoided.

So, what could be done to detract from the dangers that a gate entailed? One method that evolved early in the history of fortification and by the Roman/Byzantine periods had become a basic technique, was to replace direct access from the exterior with an indirect entrance, usually created by adding an external tower, entered via an outer portal on a side other than directly opposite the gate, thereby necessitating the enterer to turn 90 degrees within the tower to reach the interior. This would prevent him from bursting directly through, and slow down the attack. Other early means of strengthening gates included the covering of wooden doors with metal to prevent their being set alight, applying heavy wooden bolts and beams on the interior to make it difficult to force the gate, the construction of external projecting towers on one or two sides of a gate from which, via firing positions on the roof and embrasures, the defenders could attack and assailants. And there was the portcullis, the Roman cataracta, an iron or wooden grill that could be lowered or dropped before the gate to shut assailants in and enable the defenders to attack them from above or through embrasures on the sides.

Two contributions introduced to gates in the crusader castles appear to have originated in the East, in Islamic and Armenian fortifications. They are expressions of the Frankish competence in taking the best of what they observed around them and adapting it, often in a more developed and sophisticated manner, for their own use. From Islamic fortifications they introduced the machicoulis (balcony or slot opening above a gate, from which rocks, heated liquids or other materials could be dropped on assailants). It appears to have originated in early Islamic architecture, was adapted in Armenian fortification, and makes a prominent appearance in Frankish fortresses and city defences (as in the above photograph at Montfort). The most extensive and varied use of machicolation is in the Hospitaller castle of Crac des Chevaliers, where they appear not only above gates but along the length of curtain walls, although today many of these are regarded as being post-Crusader (Mamluk) enhancements.

The other major introduction in defending gates appears to have been adapted from the Armenian fortifications. This is the use of complex, sometimes labyrinthine entrances. These can combine several gates, convoluted open and roofed passageways and false passages; all this defended by fortified elements such as moats and drawbridges, arrow embrasures, portcullises, machicolations and murder holes (openings in the roofs of passageways). The aim is to make any attempt at breaking through require the assailant to expose himself and run the gauntlet of numerous defensive elements and positions. The Hospitallers appear to have been particularly adept in this, and among the finest examples are the entrance complexes at Bethgibelin, Belvoir and Crac des Chevaliers.

The route of entry into Bethgibelin castle

For all these enhancements the gate remained a weakness, and although the existence of several gateways may be of convenience to the occupants of a fortress in peacetime, when under threat it was sometimes deemed best to dispense of any that could be done without. In 2016 we exposed a gate in the outer defences on the southern side of Montfort Castle. It had been blocked some years prior to the final siege in 1271, perhaps just prior to the first siege in 1266. This was the side of the castle that faced the enemy positions in both sieges, the side that bore the brunt of the attacks, and the side by which, in 1271, the Mamluk forces finally broke into the castle.

Blocked gate (left) on Montfort's southern outer defences (the side that faced the brunt of the attacks in 1266 and 1271)

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