An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

March 21, 2013

Castles: An Anthology

Castles: An Anthology 

Reviewed by Kellie S. Meyer (

'Oh!' cried Mrs. Skewton, with a faded little scream of rapture, 'the Castle is charming!—associations of the Middle Ages—and all that—which is so truly exquisite. . . . Such charming times! . . . So full of faith! So vigorous and forcible! So picturesque! So perfectly removed from commonplace! Oh dear! If they would only leave us a little more of the poetry of existence in these terrible days!' . . . 'Those darling byegone times . . . with their delicious fortresses, and their dear old dungeons, and their delightful places of torture, and their romantic vengeances, and their picturesque assaults and sieges, and everything that makes life truly charming! How dreadfully we have degenerated!'
— Charles Dickens, Dombey and Son, ch. 27

While Dicken’s Dombey and Son is not one of the books included in Castles: an Anthology, Mrs’ Skewton’s medievalist rhapsody may well have been the guiding principle behind the selection of the 160 items included in this online collection from the British Library, which includes archaeological treatises, antiquarian histories, images, Gothic romances and pseudo-histories featuring picturesque dungeons, sieges, knights and fair maidens. With three exceptions from the 18th-century and one from the 17th-century (Dryden’s King Arthur, 1691), all of the items in the Castles Anthology are digitized 19th-century primary sources.  The reader is therefore introduced not only to histories, images and fiction associated with medieval castles, but experiences these sources through the lens of Victorian culture and taste.  Hence the result is a fascinating glimpse of Victorian medievalisms, viewed through a 21st century interface.

The Interface: The Castles Anthology is available through the free BiblioBoard app, part of the British Library 19th-Century Historical Collection App for iPad, an initiative made possible through a partnership with the Charleston, South Carolina company BiblioLabs.  Currently available only to iPad users, beta testing has recently ended for PC platforms, promising universal access in the near future.  The Castles Anthology is one of three free offerings; otherwise, use of the app costs $2.99 a month for general access to the historical and antiquarian collection, or $9.99 for specific anthologies.   My initial resentment at having to use an iPad to access the anthologies aside, I think this price is well worth it.   As the creators of the app state, “the visual interface creates an experience that’s the next best thing to having the original item in your own hands.” My experience with the anthology bears out this assertion. In fact, access to the original 19th-century sources, many of which are so obscure they foiled any attempts to garner further information about them (either through standard internet research or more specialized research through university research databases), might even be worth the price of an iPad!   Being a parsimonious medievalist however, I shall have to wait until the app is available on a PC platform.
Contents: This very large collection is organized into eight categories: Highlights, Fiction and Poetry, Days of Chivalry, British Castles, European Castles, Books, Images, and Articles. As it is impossible to discuss all of the items, or, indeed, to even list all of their titles, the following simply attempts to provide an overview of the contents along with some comments about a few selections I found particularly intriguing. 
Highlights: Asserting that “with this collection, readers will be able to revel in a time past,” the curator of the Castles Anthology has selected six works to highlight with introductory notes. These include John Dryden’s 17th-century King Arthur, A Guide to Nottingham Castle, Churches and Castles of Mediaeval France, as well as an 18th-century collection of extant poems, songs and ballads written about Robin Hood.  Two additional entries caught my eye; the first in regards to its introduction. To wit, after pointing out a few historical facts, the curator’s introduction to A Guide to Alnwick Castle stresses how the castle acted as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films, sure to attract any fans of the books or movies.  Furthermore, the curator capitalizes on the current obsession with all things Princess Catherine (neé Kate Middleton), gushing that Alnwick, “is the majestic edifice that George Percy, Pippa Middleton’s friend and former roommate, will inherit one day.” 

Jumping from contemporary medievalisms back to the Victorian, The Particulars of the Devizes Castle Estate, 1883, provides a fascinating demonstration of 19th century real-estate chicanery. Put up for sale in 1883, the castle, including antique furniture, works of art and 120 acres of land with pleasure gardens and a farm, is described within the pamphlet as a “most complete purchase for any nobleman or lady or gentleman of taste.” Along with a brief history of the castle (constructed in 1107 with a subsequent role in both the 12th-century and 17th-century civil wars, and dismantled following the latter) the pamphlet features striking tinted photos of such highlights as the “The Ladies’ Gate”, “The Norman Arcade”, and “The Queen’s Oriel.”   These are particularly interesting because they highlight the pervading subterfuge offered throughout the pamphlet, that this edifice is an “authentic” medieval castle, when, in fact, the castle was razed in 1648, leaving only traces of the original. Rebuilt by the current owners (of whom no information is provided) the real estate agents assert that “The remains of the old Castle have been carefully preserved and restored where practicable.” The result, (bolded, italicized and in a larger typeset than the other text in a bit of graphic design worthy of 21st- century technical writers) is a castle of “Imposing Elevation in the Norman Castellated Style.”  Other statements in this style (both verbal and graphic) follow, such as how the castle is “one of the best modern examples of an Ancient Feudal Castle to be found in this country,”   Even better is the description of  a sliding panel in the Drawing Room which leads to a “Secret Chamber in the old Ivy Tower, containing a valuable collection of Ancient Pottery, Bronze Implements & other British, Roman, Saxon, Norman, Early English, & Mediaeval Antiquities, which have been found in the ruins of the old Castle.
In essence then, this pamphlet reveals how the Victorian fascination for the medieval period is not limited to its fiction, and that the medieval provided a powerful selling point. 

Fiction and Poetry features twenty four novels and poems and includes such relatively well-known works as Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent novels and Thomas Peacock’s Maid Marian and Crotchet Castle, but, rather surprisingly, does not include either Anne Radcliffe’s Mysteries of Udolfo, or Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto, though the latter is available in the Days of Chivalry section. Other titles in this section are extremely obscure, and would certainly reward further research by Victorianists.  Of special interest to medievalists is the 18th-century title, listed as The Complaint of the Black Knight by John Dart (1716).  Investigation of this work revealed a “modern” verse paraphrase of a poem mistakenly attributed to Chaucer up through the 19th century. Now known to have been written by Lydgate, this poem is a fascinating piece of Chaucerian apocrypha and provides an interesting glimpse into an 19th-century antiquarian translation.

Days of Chivalry: While the aforementioned Castle of Otranto seems somewhat oddly placed in this section (with few to none of its characters acting the least bit chivalrously!) most of its other 17 offerings securely exemplify the proclaimed parameters of works devoted to King Arthur, Robin Hood and assorted knights and dragons.  Within this collection, titles by Arthur Edward Waite and Samuel Page Widnall are especially intriguingAficionados may be familiar with Waite as the member of the occult Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and the co-creator of the Ryder-Waite Tarot deck; his Belle and the Dragon: An Elfin Comedy is a lighthearted work of fiction that is nevertheless imbued with his spiritualist beliefs.  The inclusion of Widnall’s A Mystery of Sixty Centuries, or, a Modern St. George and the Dragon in this anthology is somewhat baffling, as it has nothing to do with the medieval era at all, beyond its subtitle. Instead, it is an adventure novel along the lines of the Victorian writer H. Rider Haggard, detailing an expedition to Africa that uncovers a hidden valley with prehistoric men and pterodactyls, one of which provides the skeletal head featured on the cover as the titular “dragon”.  While certainly not medieval, this novel does point to a very early connection between medieval-themed fantasy and Victorian science fiction. 

The Days of Chivalry section also includes a few historical works such as Charles Bernard Gibson’s Historical Portraits of Irish Chieftains and Anglo-Norman Knights, and John Stuart Glennie’s Arthurian Localities. Stuart-Glennie’s work (also featured as one of the noted Highlights of the Castles Anthology) argues for the southern Scottish origins of the Arthurian legend due to the incidence of onomastic geographical features, local oral traditions, linguistic connections between the various P-Celtic languages of Great Britain (Bryttonic, Pictish and Manx) and literary connections to the “Fingalian” tradition espoused by MacPherson’s Ossian Cycle. This work thus participates in the larger race theory discussions prevalent amongst the Victorian antiquarians of this time.  With plenty of references to antiquarian standards such as Skene’s Four Ancient Books of Wales, this work is a wonderful source for Cultural Studies scholars interested in how the various nations of Great Britain constructed their nationalities based on their interpretations of the early medieval Picts, Welsh, Brittons, Celts and Anglo-Saxons. 

British Castles contains numerous 19th-century images as well as regional anthologies of ancestral castles and homes in Britain.  In addition, over 60 tourist pamphlets, guidebooks, “companion” books and archaeological treatises provide information to the reader interested in specific castles.  The Official and Royal Guide to Windsor Castle, a tourist pamphlet featuring 10 pages of advertisements from royally appointed/endorsed merchants was particularly enlightening as a snapshot of Victorian high society.  While ads for silk mercers, court dressmakers, milliners, and importers of oriental carpets and antique rugs might be expected, ads for Barlock Typewriters and Perry & Companies’ Electric Light Fittings and Chandeliers reflect the surprising pervasiveness of these technologies in 1895, and provide an unexpected modern portrait of Victorian royal life in contrast to the medieval historical content of the pamphlet.
European Castles contains only four entries, one of them a post card of Carcassone Castle.  The Churches and Castles of Medieval France, The Castle of Vincigliata and Heidelberg and its Castle round out the collection.

Books: This section reproduces all of the books from the entire anthology.

Images:  This section reproduces twenty 19th-century postcard images of British Castles (some unknown), most of which are also available in the British Castles section.

Articles:  This section seems largely superfluous as it lists only one article, “Castles of Old England” which is also reproduced in the British Castles section.

Navigability:  At times, the visual organization of tabs is somewhat problematic.  Upon initial viewing, there appear to be four main divisions of content: Fiction and Poetry (novels and poems featuring castles), Days of Chivalry (Fiction and nonfiction featuring King Arthur, Robin Hood, and assorted knights and dragons), British Castles (historical and descriptive guides to castles in Great Britain, and European Castles (historical and descriptive guides to castles on the Continent). Immediately below these tabs are a second set of tabs (along with accompanying photographs) that due to their placement seem to be subcategories of the four collections.  For instance, Highlights appears directly beneath Fiction and Poetry, Books is placed beneath Days of Chivalry, Images is under British Castles, and Articles is located under European Castles.  These tabs are not, however, subtopics, but instead are discrete categories of their own. 
For instance, Highlights features items specially selected from the entire anthology by the curator not just from the Fiction and Poetry section. Books and Images are likewise not subcategories of the collections listed above them (Days of Chivalry and British Castles), but instead contain all of the books and images from the entire collection.  While this is not really a problem in regards to the images, this organization creates a bit of confusion for the books, as there is no way to differentiate between fiction and nonfiction.  While some titles are obviously nonfiction (such as An Archaeological Description of Saltwood Castle, or An Illustrated Guide to Dudley Castle) others are not so obvious from their titles, or even, upon exploration, their contents.  For instance, Castle Cornet (with the intriguing subtitle; Or, the Island’s Trouble in the Troublous Times; which is visible only upon “opening” the book) appears to be a fictionalized account of the siege of the castle during the English Civil War.  Upon further exploration, the work is also found under British Castles, misplaced perhaps, since the works in this section of the anthology are supposed to be histories and historical guides. Other genre- bending pseudo-histories, such as A Famous Castle: Reminiscences of the Lovely Dolly Munroe, pepper this category.   

The final lower-level tab, Articles located under European Castles, is also misleading as it contains only one article, Charles Turner, “The Castles of Old England” contained in The Monthly Illustrator, 4:12 (1894): 26-32, which is likewise reproduced in British Castles.
Overall then, in terms of its navigability, the Castles anthology is somewhat confusing and with the exception of Highlights,  the lower-level tabs are unnecessary as they simply duplicate what is already found in the other, more straightforwardly-labeled and organized collections. Indeed, certain items are completely miscategorized or missing, such as forgetting to list the Particulars of Devizes Castle in British Castles or including the Chronicles of Castle Amelroy (a Dutch castle) in British Castles rather than in the European Castles

Analysis:  This collection is simultaneously captivating and frustrating.  The sheer amount of sources is fabulous, though its organization is quixotic. Access to 19th-century editions in a format as close as possible to actually holding the books in your own hands is an invaluable experience and allows for visceral thrills such as seeing handwritten notes in the margins and frontispieces, presumably by the librarians or the original owners of the books.  One hardly knows where to begin with the surfeit of stories, histories, and images offered.  From a scholarly point of view, the wealth of sources is eye-opening and could easily lead to numerous new research opportunities. My initial attempts at such research proved titillating but difficult as the vast majority of titles are so obscure they foiled any attempts to garner further information about them.  Particularly interesting were the plethora of what seemed to be rather lurid Gothic romances, all written in the late 19th-century, which might belie the common assertion that the British Gothic genre had ceased to dominate by the mid-19th-century. (At least one new relatively recent work by Fred Botting and Dale Townshend, Gothic: Critical Concepts in Literary and Cultural Studies, New York: Routledge, 2004, reevaluates this claim, at least in terms of vampire stories).  The inclusion of so many of these romances in the Castles Anthology may point to a greater popularity of the genre than previously believed, and opens up new research avenues into Victorian reading tastes, though of course, the scholar should remember that just because a book is contained in the British Library archives does not mean it was widely published, circulated or read.  
Issues with organization and subject inclusion or exclusion are likely due to factors relating to the relatively new creation and exponential growth of the app creator, BiblioLabs, a hybrid software-media company that, according to its own website ( “works with leading information organizations around the world to promote widespread access to rare and interesting materials in innovative ways,” and which, in 2012, was named the 7th fastest growing media company by Inc. 500.  In addition to partnering with the British Library, Bibliolabs is also working with such institutions as the Biblioteca Nacional de Columbia and the Louisiana State Museum, as well as offering its services to university libraries wishing to create their own anthologies.  Further investigation reveals that the curation of the digital anthologies lies with the company’s own “subject-matter experts.” It is unclear if this was the situation in regards to the British Library selections, but may explain some of the incongruities within the Castles Anthology.  In any case, criticisms pale in comparison with the obvious advantages of placing such a wealth of resources into the hands of the general public and scholars alike, and any bumps are liable to be smoothed as the BiblioBoard app continues to be developed. 

Kellie S. Meyer
Georgia Institute of Technology