7 ingenious inventions of the Middle Ages

For hundreds of years stories from the Middle Ages have inspired generations - from the Sword in the Stone to Game of Thrones. But historic England was more than just kings and queens, castles and warcraft.

Welcome to medieval England, a period that introduced us to some of the most revolutionary solutions to society's greatest challenges including hygiene and defence. Here's a list of seven of the top inventions - how many surprise you?

Brougham Castle

1. Getting defensive

Castles are probably the most famous invention of the Middle Ages. Medieval people lavished tremendous ingenuity on their design, making them progressively deadlier to attackers and safer and more pleasant for castle-dwellers.

The Normans built the first castles in England. The earliest were cleverly planned for rapid construction - simple earthwork mounds and ditches, defended by palisades of sharp timber stakes. Very soon as we see on Totnes Castle's steep-sided mound, stone walls replaced timber palisades, and mighty rectangular stone keeps as at Rochester Castle, made castles stronger and easier to live in. Ingenious castle-builders also experimented with innovatively-shaped keeps, as at Conisbrough Castle.

Next they switched to tower-studded outer walls like those at Framlingham Castle, or the two circuits of inner and outer walls which made Dover Castle the strongest fortress in England. Others concentrated on powerful gatehouses like Brougham Castle's, often equipped with portcullises to trap attackers and 'murder-holes' for dropping nasties on their heads. Meanwhile, castle-builders steadily made themselves more comfortable as well as more secure; Warkworth Castle's keep contains everything a luxury-loving medieval baron could dream of, from wine-cellars and kitchens to chapel, great hall and bedchambers.

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A jousting knight

2. Knights in shining armour

Knights - armoured men on horseback - were the most iconic invention of the Middle Ages. The arrival of Norman knights in 1066 signalled the start of the medieval period, and over the next 450 years their armour and weapons were ingeniously updated to make them more powerful and less vulnerable fighting machines.

Used to fighting on foot, Harold Godwinson's English army at the Battle of Hastings had never encountered mounted knights before, and despite valiant resistance couldn't withstand them. During the following 200 years the open-faced helmets, kite-shaped shields and mail shirts of Norman knights developed into stronger and more elaborate armour. You can see effigies of 13th-century knights at Furness Abbey. They wear helmets completely covering their heads, and their faces couldn't be recognised. So another medieval invention, heraldry, assigned each knight his own unique heraldic 'arms', devices painted on his shield, banner and surcoat to instantly identify him in battle.

Weighty chain mail was gradually replaced by lighter yet stronger steel plate armour: the knight in Farleigh Hungerford Castle chapel wears a mixture of the types. Fear of the deadly longbow made later medieval knights abandon their vulnerable horses in battle; they fought on foot in complete plate armour, encased from head to toe in shining steel.

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Firing arrows at Kenilworth Castle

3. Weapons of mass production

The most feared English weapon of the Middle Ages was the longbow. With a range of well over 200 metres, this 'medieval machine gun', could shoot at least six arrows a minute. Since bows date from prehistoric times, it wasn't exactly a new invention. But really powerful longbows apparently developed on the Welsh borders from the late 12th century. Their greatest triumph was the Battle of Agincourt (1415), when English archers were chiefly responsible for French casualties of 10,000, compared to a few hundred English.

The longbow's success depended on strength and training. Few people today could even draw a medieval 'war bow', something medieval archers regularly practiced from early boyhood.

The gunpowder-powered cannon which developed in the later medieval period were more ingeniously-made, but could be more dangerous to users, since they regularly exploded. They were also very difficult to move about. Although used in some sieges (as of Dunstanburgh Castle), early cannons were more effective inside castles, shooting through 'gunports' as in Carisbrooke Castle's gatehouse. Towards the end of the middle ages Berry Pomeroy Castle had gunports angled to mow down attackers in wide swathes, while nearby Dartmouth Castle pioneered heavy 'ship-sinking' guns. Steadily growing safer for users and deadlier to enemies, cannons were the weapons of the future.

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A garderobe at Dover Castle

4. Toilet talk

Going to the toilet and washing are basic human needs. Living before the invention of flushing toilets, efficient sewerage systems and instant hot water, medieval people devised some ingenious ways of coping without them.

In most castles and manor houses, the usual toilet was the 'garderobe'. This was a tiny room with a seat pierced by a hole through which the waste dropped into a moat or straight onto the ground. An unfortunate servant nicknamed 'the gong [dung] farmer' had the smelly job of clearing it away. You can inspect (but not try out!) garderobes at many of our sites, including Aydon Castle and Peveril Castle.

Many monasteries, however, developed a more efficient means of sewage disposal, building their communal toilets above streams or specially created watercourses which (hopefully) carried away the 'product'. You can see communal monastic toilets at Muchelney Abbey and Castle Acre Priory, and drainage channels at many sites including Rievaulx Abbey - which also has a sink where the monks did their laundry.

Water for washing would normally be brought from wells by servants. But a few castles, mansions and monasteries boasted cold water piped either from streams or rainwater tanks on the roof; at Conisbrough Castle, rainwater fed sinks in the lord's and lady's chambers in the keep.

5. Fortunes in Fleece

Medieval England's prosperity was founded on wool and woollen cloth. Even today, the Lord Chancellor sits in the House of Lords on the symbolic 'Woolsack', a cloth cushion stuffed with wool. Monasteries like Rievaulx Abbey and Thornton Abbey grew rich through the tens of thousands of sheep they kept, whose wool helped to ransom Richard the Lionheart from his enemies in 1194. Individual wool merchants also became immensely wealthy; Laurence of Ludlow, who built Stokesay Castle, even lent money to King Edward I.

Being a successful wool merchant demanded both good business sense and ingenuity. Because remote roads were impassable to carts, wool from moorland sheep had to be transported to collection centres on packhorses, using narrow packhorse bridges like Bow Bridge near Furness Abbey. Then it had to be exported abroad for weaving into cloth.

England began large-scale production of its own cloth, thanks to two ingenious inventions. One was the improved weaving loom, the other the mechanical 'fulling mill', which used hammers powered by water-wheels to cleanse and thicken woven cloth - things previously done by beating with clubs or treading with feet. By the end of the Middle Ages, all of Europe was wearing English cloth.

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Image taken from a fresco by Tommaso da Modena, circa 1350 © Interfoto / Alamy Stock Photo

6. Creating a spectacle

If you had poor eyesight before the Middle Ages, you just had to put up with it. Then, in about 1286, an unknown person in Italy invented spectacles. At first they tried to keep the discovery secret. But before 1300 a friar from Pisa, Alessandro della Spina, was making spectacles for everyone who wanted them, and his business boomed.

The ground quartz magnifying lenses of this incredible innovation could help people with long as well as short sight. They were set in bone frames with arms linked by a rivet, so that they gripped your nose. But they didn't have side arms to tuck behind your ears, so generally had to be held on.

We don't know exactly when spectacles first came to England. They're shown in a stained glass window of about 1420 in All Saints church, North Street, York, and archaeologists have discovered fragments of medieval bone spectacle frames at Battle Abbey, and under the choir stalls at Hailes Abbey. It's not surprising these were found in places where monks spent their lives reading and writing. But spectacles have also transformed the lives of countless others down the centuries: along with printed books - which enormously increased demand for them - they're one of the truly great medieval discoveries.

Image taken from a fresco by Tommaso da Modena, circa 1350 © Interfoto / Alamy Stock Photo

A medieval printing press © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

7. Hold the press

Until the end of the Middle Ages, all books were produced by hand - there was simply no alternative. The finest books were (literally) written by monks, and most large monasteries - including St Augustine's Abbey, Canterbury, where writing materials have been found - had scriptoria (writing rooms). Paper was rare in England until around 1450, so books were written on scraped animal skins, called parchment or vellum, using pens made of metal or bone or quills from the feathers of a goose or swan.

Manuscripts (which means 'written by hand') 'illuminated' in rich colours, like the famous Anglo-Saxon Gospels made at Lindisfarne Priory, could be very beautiful, but took years to complete; producing even ordinary books was very time consuming, and therefore very expensive.

All this changed when the printing press - using movable type of individual letters which could be arranged to form words - was invented in Germany in about 1439. William Caxton, a rich English merchant, managed to acquire a press and bring it to London, where he printed his first book - Chaucer's Canterbury Tales - in 1476. By 1492 he'd published editions of over 100 different books. Printed books could be produced many times cheaper, far more quickly and in infinitely greater numbers than hand-written manuscripts. The 'information revolution' which transformed the world had begun.

A medieval printing press © Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

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