Aerial view of the castle of Ainay le Vieil

When you think of the Middle Ages, and try to define the most characteristic element, the image of a castle comes to mind.
In fact, the term "château fort" is the one that comes most quickly to mind, even if specialists tend to qualify it because of its overly restrictive meaning. For a castle is not just a building used for warfare and defense. It's also a place to live, and this residential function has been much more important than the military one over time. But the castle is also the symbol of a class, the aristocracy, which uses it to display its power and domination.


The castle over the years

It is in the 9th and 10th centuries that we can situatethe appearance of the castle. It became the identity building of the nascent feudal society. This first period in the history of castles, from the 10th to the 12th century, was characterised by theemergence of two main types: the earth and wood castle (also known as a motte castrale or feudal mound) and the stone castle.

While the former is the most common, the latter, the prerogative of the powerful, is contemporary, contrary to the common belief that wood was first used before building in hardwood.

At the end of the 12th century, the conflict with the Plantagenets, kings of England, led to changes in the art of warfare, with the use of mercenaries who used war machines. This led to changes in the architecture of the castles, with new designs being introduced, including the use of active defence. The widespread use of the architrave (or loophole) is the most successful example of this.

At the same time, the French king Philippe-Auguste implemented a military construction policy that asserted his authority. Surrounded by specialists, he instigated a new type of castle that castellologists call the "Philippian castle" or "Philippe-Auguste" type. The Philippine type illustrates a desire to standardise military architecture: quadrangular plan flanked by towers, U-shaped ditch with masonry counterscarp, blind curtain walls, circular towers with archways, a strongly defended two-tower châtelet (knocker, portcullis, casements, side archway), a dwelling on the reverse side of the curtain walls, and a circular keep. The keep is placed at the corner and detached from the square.

In the 14th century, the desire to live more comfortably led to a better balance between defense and residence. The Hundred Years' War made fortification a major preoccupation. The defensive aspect was marked out externally by the systematic presence of machicolations, either on arches or on brackets (a new process that ensured perfect vertical flanking; older castles were updated with hoarding systems), and towers were now quadrangular to facilitate internal layout. Defense is essentially confined to the upper part and the base, where a series of archways are placed.

In the 15th century, the art of warfare underwent a revolution: the firearm. This revolution led to the slow disappearance of the fortress. Faced with the firearm, the first attempt was made to adapt, as illustrated by the architrave - a new firing mechanism that became widespread around 1400. It was in the middle of the 15th century, when the Hundred Years' War ended due to the superiority of Charles VII's artillery, that the end of the medieval castle began to appear. The power of the new weapon required an adaptation of the architecture. It was no longer possible to combine defence and residence, which had been the essence of the castle since the 10th century.

As artillery became more and more efficient, the central government began to question the usefulness of castles. Many of them were redesigned to be transformed into residences. Sometimes the defensive elements were transformed into decorative elements: drawbridges were replaced by stone bridges (as here in Ainay), etc. The trend was to demilitarise the castles, which were gradually abandoned in favour of comfortable and elegant residences for pleasure. This new wind in architecture was called the "Renaissance".


And what about the Château d'Ainay-le-Vieil?

The castle of Ainay-le-Vieil has the appearance of a plain fortress. Built in the 13th century on a site where there were earlier fortifications, the castle is located on the borders of Berry and Bourbonnais, halfway between Bourges and Montluçon.

As a vassal of the Bourbons, it remained, like them, in the thrall of the kings of France and probably owes it to this allegiance to have been so solidly built, and then to have been neither demolished nor dismantled.

The fortified complex was very extensive in terms of surface area in order to multiply the obstacles. It covered several hectares and included "high walls, double ditches, two drawbridges". An outer enclosure about 250 paces from the castle put it beyond the reach of the artillery of the time. This enclosure was itself defended by classical works: towers, barbican, châtelet... As it was, the castle had an essentially military vocation.

Ainay-le-Vieil belonged successively to the Bourbons, the des Barres, the Seuly (or Sully) who enlarged it in the 14th century, the Culants and Jacques Coeur before passing to the Bigny family in 1467 whose descendants are the current owners.

Ainay poterne chateau

For more information:

Jean Mesqui, "Les châteaux forts de la guerre à la paix", Paris, Gallimard, 1995.
Philippe Durand, "Le château fort", Paris, Editions Gisserot, 1999.
Dominique Allios, "Architecture des châteaux forts", Editions Ouest France, 2014
Jean Mesqui, "Châteaux et enceintes de la France médiévale, tome 1 et 2", Paris, Picard, 1991.