Castle, Festung, Burg

A re-run from 2015. I’m still somewhere without internet.

“Well, it’s really more of a schloß than a burg.” One of those lines that make no sense out of context, unless you speak German (or the NATO version of Deutch-lish). The building in question happened to have a medieval core with extensive Renaissance additions, to the point that it really had become more of a palace than a castle, although it still had -burg in the name. Confused yet?

The European languages I’m most familiar with, like English, have different words for a castle, a palace, and a fortress, even though there is often some overlap. Many fortresses are castles, although not all castles are fortresses. A few palaces are distinctly castle-like, even though they might not have started out that way. Some castles are also palaces, some are still fortresses, and then there’s Neuschwanstein, which probably goes into a separate category.

The castle as fortress is probably what most people think of when they read “the castle loomed over the road,” or “banners waving in the afternoon sun, the knights rode up the road toward Castle Has-a-grail.” The ur-castles in European history were fortified high points, sometimes just a dirt wall on top of a hill overlooking a road or trail or stream, where people could go if trouble came. They also became places of political power, sites for wealth displays, and all sorts of other things archaeologists and anthropologists will go on and on (and on) about. These are the hill-forts that (in south and central Europe) became the Hallstatt and La Tene oppidum sites like Manching, and that are often found underneath the walls of later fortifications. Some places-with-walls apparently go back to the Stone Ages, showing that perhaps all was not peace, love, and harmony back in the days before the modern.

The more advanced version - note the trenching. Maiden Castle is the most famous version, but this one has potential.

The more advanced version – note the trenching. Maiden Castle is the most famous version, but this one has potential.

With the motte-and-bailey you start getting what most of us think of as a castle – something with a central keep inside a defensive wall(s), preferably made of stone, possibly with moats and other external defensive measures.

Carondelet in Belgium, a water-castle.

Carondelet in Belgium, a water-castle.

Above you have the keep without any other (currently standing) walls, but quite a moat. We’d call this a castle, possibly a small fortress. Hochosterwitz, the castle-fortress I went climbing over last week, fell within this category, although it has serious defensive walls, including a set of 14 gates, each different from the others, all mutually reinforcing. There is a reason no one managed to take Hochosterwitz from its defenders.

It dominates two river valleys, plus several roads.

It dominates two river valleys, plus several roads.

We can all agree that this is a castle and a fortress. No moat, but the height above the surrounding terrain makes up for it. And the hike up is about a ten to fifteen degree slope, not something I’d really want to do in armor or on horseback on wet ground, or as people are shooting down at me or dropping nasty things like boiling water and flaming tar. This is not too far from Martin Luther’s “Mighty Fortress,” in my opinion.

Then there are palaces. Some are built into older defensive positions, combining luxury with actual military value (if you don’t look too hard). And some are just, well, very fancy and whimsical country homes once (or currently) owned by nobility (or hotel management groups, or governments, or yes.) The Schwarzenberg family’s little 19th century hunting place probably fits this one:

It does overlook the river valley, but neo-Tudor/Historicist was more important than actually being defensive. From:

It does overlook the river valley, but neo-Tudor/Historicist was more important than actually being defensive. From:

It has roots in a real castle, but the owners decided to make it into a very, very comfortable show-place. I strongly encourage you to go to the website and look at the interiors.

(In Czech, a Zamek is a palace while a hrad is a castle. Like the German Festung as compared to Schloß.)

What about fortresses that are not castles? Most of them date from the 1600s-through early 1800s, when enormous defensive constructions were very popular. Here’s a fortified town without a visible castle:

And here’s one of the ultimate Vauban-style fortifications (although see the plans for Terzin/Theresienstadt [fortress, not concentration camp] for the penultimate.):

And this is only part of the series of fortifications around the settlement, once on the border between the Habsburg Empire and Fredrick the Great's Brandenburg-Prussia.

And this is only part of the series of fortifications around the settlement, once on the border between the Habsburg Empire and Fredrick the Great’s Brandenburg-Prussia.

It’s probably a sign of a warped mind that as I hiked up Hochosterwitz, I was logging where I would put supporting, outlying fortifications. I caught most of them correctly, little sub-fortresses peeking out of the trees, bits of ruined towers here and there on the ridges around the main hill. Southern Austria was the marches for, well, since the Romans and probably before, and Carinthia is dotted with castles, most of them fortified.

Which brings us back to the Bavarian fairy-tale castle-palace of Neuschwanstein. King Ludwig built it on the site of an older, truly military castle, something you can see hints of if you look at side shots of the place and focus on the foundations. It occupies a nice position and dominates the landscape to the south. Back in the days before mountain artillery and airpower, it would have been a great place for a fortress castle. Ludwig’s confection? Palace, Schloß, zamek, pure and not-so-simple.

3 thoughts on “Castle, Festung, Burg

  1. Equivalent in English are palace, manor house, and castle. Many castles were rebuilt and added to in 15th-17th century to make manors. A couple had walls heavily reinforced and external platforms added to handle cannon and withstand bombardment. Nice blast from the past.

    With maintenance and construction costs rising, would the German Freiherren and Graffen instead sing “A Mighty Burden”? Finance and logistics destroyed with less noise than a siege.

  2. “…(or the NATO version of Deutch-lish).”

    Heh. When I was with the NATO AWACS unit, the Germans (and other nationalities) freely included English words when speaking their own language to each other, particularly technical or location-oriented words. For example, the headquarters was in Building 201, and everyone referred to it as “Building two-oh-one” regardless of the language they were speaking. The Germans also pronounced “AWACS” just like us Amis, “A-WAX”, not “Ah-Vahx”.

    Many of the German military members had been to technical training in the US, and even in Germany a great deal of technical training material was in English. My German office partner, a computer science graduate of the University of the Bundeswehr,s, had used all the same American computer science textbooks that I did.

    +One of my German officer compatriots was so fluent in American English that he did American crossword puzzles in the Stars and Stripes newspaper. His spoken English was perfectly middle American accented. Apparently this rubbed off on his German, because he told me that when he was transferred to NATO AWACS and moved into a German neighborhood, one of this new neighbors asked him how long he was going to be stationed in Germany, thinking he was an American who spoke really good German.

Comments are closed.