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The general features of Early Medieval fortified settlements

What did Early Medieval fortified settlements look like?
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Our first written evidence for a defensive line in the Alps, is from a fifth century administrative document called the Notitia Dignitatum, which mentions a Tractus Italiae circa Alpes under the command of a leader called the comes Italiae. This defensive line was a system of fortifications made up, as shown in the document, of linear barriers called clausure and castles. Written sources suggest that the impetus for castle building came from the state and that they had a preeminent military function. Although in 440, the Emperor Valentinian III decreed that citizens also had to defend themselves. This continued even in the Gothic period.
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As Cassiodorus, writing in the sixth century, records that the local people were involved in the foundation of such castles in Northern Italy. This first stage of fortifications therefore, did not affect all territories. Nor were fortifications distributed evenly within regions. In addition to protecting ancient cities with new walls, it was concerned also with defending road, river, and lake communication routes. This is confirmed by the characteristics of the fortifications of Northern Italy known from archaeology. Large castra were founded on mountain plateaus or an isolated hills, on peninsulas and islands of lakes in the pre-Alps such as Sirmione or San Giulio d’Orta.
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They were established, not only along the main land and water routes, but also in the center of a territory with economic resources to be defended. Their size, sometimes extraordinarily large, about 50 hectares in the case of Monte Barro suggests that they were intended not only to house a garrison, but also in case of danger, the population and animals of the territory. The impressive defense works of different types of castles, of which the tower of Torba in Castelseprio is still so well preserved, indicate the roles played by the Roman state and the aristocracies in this massive process of fortification. The role of state authorities and aristocracies is key to the understanding of the phenomenon of late antique castles in Italy.
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Although we must also take into consideration their interactions with the ecclesiastical hierarchy, which founded the churches in these castles and oversaw the religious care of the surrounding population. Inscriptions and numerous examples of prestigious churches also confirm the interest of ecclesiastical hierarchies in the castles of the Alpine foothills. This often became the more or less temporary residences of bishops who preferred a secluded fortress to the cities, both in life and death. In contrast with the extensive documentation offered by written and epigraphic sources and churches, direct archaeological evidence of aristocracies in castles is much more sparse. The most important include grave goods and some residential buildings.
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For example, the so-called small palace at Monte Barro, or here in Castelseprio, the building termed the tower house.
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Between the end of the sixth and seventh centuries, the rich grave goods found in Lombard burials confirm the presence of people of high rank. Tombs with rich grave goods from the first half of the seventh century have come to light in the castrum of Monselice. Promoted for strategic purposes by the state authority, castles had an impact on the hierarchy of the settlements, emerging in late antiquity as new population and power centers between cities and territories. And very often they were chosen as residences by people linked to power.

In the previous step, you shared possible examples of Early Medieval fortified settlements all over Europe.

Now, in this video, we’ll take a closer look at these settlements, particularly their purposes, general characteristics, and evolution. We will also talk about the role of aristocracies in the establishment of such settlements.

After watching, feel free to share your questions, insights, or sentiments in the Comments section.
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Enlightening the Dark Ages: Early Medieval Archaeology in Italy

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