February 5, 2017

New word learned: Machicolation.

"A machicolation (from the French: mâchicoulis, German: Maschikuli, Italian: piombatoio) is a floor opening between the supporting corbels of a battlement, through which stones or other material, such as boiling water or boiling cooking oil, could be dropped on attackers at the base of a defensive wall."
The design was adopted in the Middle Ages in Europe when Norman crusaders returned from the Holy Land....

The word derives from the Old French word machecol, mentioned in Medieval Latin as machecollum, probably from Old French machier 'crush', 'wound' and col 'neck'. Machicolate is only recorded in the 18th century in English, but a verb machicollāre is attested in Anglo-Latin. The Spanish word denoting this structure, matacán, is similarly composed from "matar canes" meaning roughly "killing dogs", the latter being a reference to infidels.

26 comments:

Ann Althouse said...

I learned this word from a crossword puzzle.

AllenS said...

What was the word you put down?

AllenS said...

... or, what was the word the crossword puzzle used to get to this word?

Laslo Spatula said...

Machicolation.

I thought I ordered one of those at Starbucks once.

I am Laslo/

Greek Donkey said...

Is this essentially how President Trump's uses Twitter?

Big Mike said...

Crossword puzzle, ha! You and Meade are remodeling your house to stand up to Breitbart-inspired, masked rioters led by a 4' 8" gnome with a scraggly beard.

Fritz said...

You know, if you haven't learned a word by age 65, you probably don't need it.

Wilbur said...

I estimate I use that word in conversation at least once a week.

Tank said...

I learned this word in France at a castle. Then I forgot it. It's not a word you often need.

Tank said...

Well, except for Wilbur then LOL.

tcrosse said...

What is the proper boiling cooking oil to drop on invading barbarians ? A good peanut oil has a high smoke point, yet a neutral canola oil can be light and refreshing. Of course, an artisanal Extra Virgin Olive Oil with good color and fruity notes is always sure to please your guests.

jaydub said...

The Moors built forts (Alkazabas) and fortified palaces (Alkazars) all over Spain with these features built into the gates. The constructions also allowed defenders stationed just within and above the gates to concentrate fire on the invaders below. Most of the entry ways also prevented direct entry through the gates by forcing anyone entering throught the outer gate to make one or two switchbacks in a narrow passageway enroute to the inner gate. This served the dual purpose of stringing out the invaders in a single file to give the archers, above, a more open shot while also providing a longer pathway to drop stones and boiling oil on the invaders. You can still see this feature in the Alkazar in Sevilla if you look closely enough, and in all of the remaining alkazabas in the former frontier towns (towns with names ending in "de la Frontera," like Jerez de la Frontera or Arcos de la Frontera) in Adalusia. These forts are facinating, but except for the Alkazar in Sevilla, largely overlooked by most tourists.

Crimso said...

Sometimes referred to as "murder holes."

Livermoron said...

Yes, 'murder holes' is the common English term. You see these in castles everywhere.

Another interesting facet of designing defenses is the fact that the inner spiral staircases of castle 'keeps' and defensive towers almost always twist from left to right. This design forces attackers ascending the stairwell to fight with their left hands. Early example of ergonomic design.

And if you think that this design feature could be defeated by having your lead elements made up exclusively of southpaws; remember that it was considered evil to be left-handed (see the origin of the word 'sinister') in those days. Lefties were forced to be righties.

buwaya said...

Machicolations can be quite decorative.
The overhang with a repeating pattern of masonry supports surmounted by battlements adds interest to the top of what would be a blank wall.

The whole affair is part of the popular idea of medieval castle look, in spite of the fact that lots of the real ones never had them.

You will see this stereotyped design as a purely decorative item in all sorts of later architecture, to make something castle-like.

Mitch H. said...

I think murder holes may be something different from these beasts. You usually find murder holes in the ceilings of the interior corridors of the gate that an attacking force can arrive in after forcing the first gate, but then find themselves in a new killing zone. I've seen these myself in the ruins of the citadel of Byblos. I don't think that castle had machicolations, though. None that I noticed, anyrate, although there were some classic examples of the crusaders using Roman column sections as fill for their curtain walls.

Marc Puckett said...

Machicollare, according to the entry in Du Cange's Glossarium mediae et infimae latinitatis, is a verb used in the Latin paperwork by which the English kings granted permission for such fortresses to be built-- it's allowed that you 'machicolate' i.e. build a castle with these defensive features.

It is interesting that the French seem to have constructed a verb (attested from the first third or half of the 14th c) useful for describing the killing of all sorts of attackers while the Spanish made one specifically with the infidels in mind? one would have to see the dates &c but presumably the Spanish word derives not only from the crusading wars but from the wars of the Reconquest? perhaps not. Interesting also that the word matacán nowadays is a synomyn for strychnine.

Livermoron said...

I've seen murder holes as you describe Mitch. I have also seen murder holes that overhang recessed gates. Perhaps there is a technical nomenclature more specific to one than the other...of that I plead ignorance.

buwaya said...

The point of machicolations of the sort that would run along the tops of walls and towers is to be able to fire upon, or drop things on, sappers at the base of the wall or in the ditch(moat). It is the old problem of defending a wall, how to eliminate dead ground, a place where the defenders cant get at the attackers, and where they are safe to work. This is a principal danger to the fortress as any wall can be destroyed through undermining at its base.
Thats how this really was done, not by battering rams or catapults.
The attacker wants the wall down, to make a breach, because the cinematic escalade with ladders and siege towers was dangerous and usually a desperation move.
Thats why almost every other element of fortress design was created, such as flanking towers and moats, to keep besiegers from finding or using dead ground.

buwaya said...

Its also interesting how such a word can expand to explain an awful lot of human history.
Events are often dominated by technical details like this, the value of fortresses, and their walls, and dead ground, and the ways to eliminate it, and the means available to counteract the design elements, and etc in a circle.
On the other side, the effect of fortresses on politics and power, and how this channeled civilization.
I call this the horseshoe nail theory of history, how it tends to turn on some technical circumstance, or one persons whim, what professors usually want to consider trivial details. It does not sit well with ideas of large patterns of history, the Annales or Toynbee.
Highly recommended, Christopher Duffy, "Siege Warfare: The Fortress in the Early Modern World". It explains a lot, for instance, about why so many European cities are the way they are, the simple facts of pick-and-shovel work and dead ground, which problem did not go away with cannons.

Livermoron said...

I've read that the thick, uncrenellated, adobe walls of the Alamo did not allow the defenders to shoot down upon the attacking Mexicans without having to expose themselves to the attackers' fire. As a result here was a huge dead ground all around the Alamo. Some machicolations would've been useful to Messrs. Travis, Bowie, Crockett et al.

tcrosse said...

A smaller form of the machicolation was used as a privy, although it would expose the sensitive underside of the user to the invading forces.

Livermoron said...

tcrosse: in German those toilets are called 'Plumpsklos'. 'Klo' = toilet. 'Plumps' is onomatopoetic. In the Middle Ages, they were used on medieval multi-story homes. In towns, they would overhang a shared alleyway that was strewn with hay. The befouled hay would then be gathered up and replaced every few days. Although it wasn't supposed to happen, the feces-laden hay would be sold to local tanners who would use it to treat hides.

John Taylor said...

I should be in the other thread, but I'd like to avoid politics for a moment...so I'll take this as just the New Word thread...

I came across my new word(s) in a bit written about the Seattle judge... pretty bold of the writer to drop in some Latin, but I was happy for it - the writer described the judges legal basis as: Ipse dixit (Latin for "he himself said it") is an assertion without proof; or a dogmatic expression of opinion.

Wiki: The fallacy of defending a proposition by baldly asserting that it is "just how it is" distorts the argument by opting out of it entirely: the claimant declares an issue to be intrinsic, and not changeable.

Basically, just coz you said it, doesn't make it so...

Also intersting to note that Lincoln made us of this quite a bit in an 1858 exchange...

Okie, I return the boiling olive oil back to you...

Wilbur said...

buwaya said...

"Events are often dominated by technical details like this, the value of fortresses, and their walls, and dead ground, and the ways to eliminate it, and the means available to counteract the design elements, and etc in a circle.
On the other side, the effect of fortresses on politics and power, and how this channeled civilization.
I call this the horseshoe nail theory of history, how it tends to turn on some technical circumstance, or one persons whim, what professors usually want to consider trivial details. It does not sit well with ideas of large patterns of history, the Annales or Toynbee."

I'm not a particularly philosophical sort, but an interesting theory I've picked up from baseball sabermetric thinker and writer, Bill James (not to suggest he came up with the theory), at his website (billjamesonline.com) is that events and the world in general are infinitely complex, and thus incapable of complete understanding by our finite abilities to understand. This is true of baseball and similarly of human affairs in general. Cause and effect exist, but we can never know everything about it.

Rex said...

The proper type of oil to use is obviously Smith & Wesson Oil.