Saturday, February 24, 2024

Fun Facts About Medieval Stairways

I'm always writing adventures of some sort and I like to explore the intricate details of  'things' in an attempt to ground the adventure with these details. My Pintrest has a section dedicated to the anatomy and or terminology of things. Tonight, I was checking for names of stair parts. I went down a shallow rabbit hole and thought I'd share some of the things I thought were interesting. I have no idea if these are fact or fiction. 

  • Stairs were build in tight, steep spirals when castles were fortifications, before they became noble homes. 
  • Stairs were built clockwise. To give the defenders an advantage. They assumed the majority of soldiers would be right-handed. Some militaries required their men to fight ambidextrous. I've never read this before, but I think it could make an interesting nuisance.  
  • The above fact is disputed (but still cool) and some say stairways were built clockwise so folks could run their hand on the righthand wall for balance. To compensate for the too-much-grog-walk?
  • Some argue that the newel staircases are so small with no handrails that there was no room for swinging weapons (although it would be a hell of place for a dagger fight) and both combatants would fall to their deaths. A step does1d6 damage. 
  • One other point, I think the best one, if the attackers are already inside running up the stairs, the fight is lost. The attackers are now mopping up and looking for loot. 
  • Steps were built uneven. This gave defenders 'homefield' advantage as they were accustom to the idiosyncrasies of the steps and could take advantage of the situation when an attacker tripped on the uneven step. Also known as a trip step.
If you have any other fun facts about castle stairs please let me know. I was looking around and these seemed to be the ones that came up frequently. 


  1. I was on a tour of a fortified building in Ireland and the guide did mention the clockwise stairs and uneven steps being built that way with defense in mind.

  2. Fascinating stuff. However, I imagine that tight spiral staircases would hinder both attackers AND defenders...the main advantage might come simply from being ABOVE the invaders (forcing them to fight upwards). It would also seem difficult to use an armor-breaking pole arm in tight quarters.

  3. Yeah, none of that is true. It's all (as is often the case with these things) Victorian 'Just-so' stories that generations of tour guides have blindly regurgitated

    There's no primary evidence that anybody built the direction of the staircase with defence in mind, and numerous actual staircases in old castles are often the opposite direction from what the myth suggests.

    Similarly medieval 'trip steps' don't exist. Steps are actually quite hard to get consistenly level without modern tooling and framing. Combine sloppy original work with literal centuries of erosion and subsidence and you get another myth beloved of tour guides and sloppy 'Did-you-know?' articles. Because think about it. A castle is as much a high status living quarter, as a defensive structure. Often more the former. Nobody's going to build stairs that are going to injure or even crack the skull of distracted inhabitants, drunk inhabitants, children, guests and visitors etc for the 99.99% of the time it's not under siege.

  4. I imagine fantasy fortifications have stairs with random glyphs carved in them and purpose put burn marks on the wall. That's slows defenders down super quick even though it's just nonsense.

  5. I was fortunate to spend 11 years in England and 4.5 years in Germany, and I toured A LOT of castles. Its impossible to generalize about castle construction, because they were built over a period of several hundred years across most countries of Europe, and beyond. Technology, construction materials, and style varied considerably, even within castles that were updated over several hundred years.

    The classic tight spiral staircase shown in the article is just one type, which was often constructed within the walls of the castle. I've seen many that were intended for the upper-class residents that were significantly larger than this. The small, tight ones were often intended for servants or guards to move in the background, rather than in the public or family spaces.

    Also, just because one tower or corner of a castle fell to attackers, it doesn't mean the whole castle falls. Remember, most only fell after prolonged sieges, and the defenders often hung on, hoping for help from the outside. So, defending every inch to buy time was an important design feature.

  6. Oh I am SO using the TRIP step. That's a must do. Good and useful info, thanks!