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Medieval Castles and Their Mazes and Labyrinths

Medieval Castles and Their Mazes and Labyrinths

Labyrinths and mazes have a long and interesting history and everybody is familiar with the story of the Minotaur in the Labyrinth at Knossos. This is the famous myth of the labyrinth that people would be sacrificed into. The hero Theseus killed the Minotaur and found his way back out by following a line of string that he unwound on his way into it. 

Regardless of how true this myth is or whether the labyrinth of Knossos actually existed mazes and labyrinths hold a place of mystery and have often been integrated into the building of castles and cathedrals both indoor and outdoor. And there is a lot of speculation as to their purpose. There are actually several different theories and it is probable their purpose changed over the centuries.
One of the most important aspects of a medieval castle was security. They were built with the utmost in security and safety in mind and this is where a labyrinth or maze can further this need. It is theorized, and it makes sense, that mazes were often a way to confuse attacking forces. Soldiers entering a labyrinth could easily get disoriented and lost.
Another use of the labyrinth is shown by the labyrinth under Buda Castle in Budapest Hungary. It consists of a network of caves and tunnels that total over six miles in length. An extensive network like this served as a good hiding place in times of attack and a good place to meet in secrecy.

In the twelfth century the purpose and building of mazes changed and many churches and castles were designed with mazes that were built right into the floor or wall. These mazes were used as a way to meditate, undertake spiritual contemplation, or to simulate a pilgrimage. This type of maze or labyrinth was very popular in twelfth century Italy and France. The earliest surviving maze of this type is the labyrinth at Chatres Cathedral in France which was built into the stone floor of the cathedral around the twelfth century.
In Great Britain the style of religious maze never was very popular but they did develop their own form and style of outdoor maze that used hedges, trees, or grass. These served a variety of functions including recreation and the testing of horseback riding skills. This tradition of hedge mazes continues today and there are many castles that still have them that are open to the public. Some of the more famous ones include the Hampton Court Palace Maze and the Leeds Castle Maze.  
Turf mazes are another style of outdoor maze that was very popular in Great Britain. These were mazes or labyrinths that were created by using grass or turf and being only a few inches tall it wasn’t possible to get lost in them. They are much like a cross between hedge mazes and painted mazes. One of the more famous turf mazes that still exists today is the Saffron Walden maze located on the grounds of the ruins of Walden castle in England.
Medieval castles have a long history of being places of safety, security, and mystery and it is only natural that this mystery is furthered by the use of mazes and labyrinths. And these interesting structures had a wide variety of purposes from military to spiritual; and while not a whole lot is really known about the why of these structures it is rather fitting because mystery and secret is, after all, at the heart of every labyrinth.