A machicolation (French, machicoulis) is a floor opening between the supporting corbels of a battlement, through which stones, or other objects, 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. A machicolated battlement projects outwards from the supporting wall in order to facilitate this. A hoarding is a similar structure made of wood, usually temporarily constructed in the event of a siege. Advantages of machicolations over wooden hoardings include the greater strength of stone battlements, as well as the fireproof properties.
The word derives from the Old French word machecol, mentioned in Medieval Latin as machecollum and ultimately from Old French macher '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. A variant of a machicolation, set in the ceiling of a passage or over a gateway, was known as a meurtrière or colloquially as a murder-hole.
Machicolations were more common in French castles than their English contemporaries, and when used in English castles they were usually restricted to the gateway, as in the 13th-century Conwy Castle.
Machicolation was later used for decorative effect with spaces between the corbels but without the openings, and subsequently became a characteristic of many non-military buildings (for example, Scottish Baronial architecture from the 16th century onwards, and Gothic buildings of the 19th and 20th centuries). One of the first examples of machicolation that still exists in France is Chateau de Farcheville built in 1291 outside of Paris.
- T. F. Hoad, English Etymology, Oxford University Press 1986.
- Leonardo Villena (1988). "Sobre las defensas verticales en España: tipología y terminlogía comparadas". In Andrés Bazzana. Guerre, fortification et habitat dans le monde méditerranéen au Moyen Age: colloque. Casa de Velázquez. ISBN 978-84-86839-02-4.
- Brown (2004), p. 66.
- Mesqui, Jean (1997). Chateaux-forts et fortifications en France. Paris: Flammarion. pp. 493 pp. ISBN 2-08-012271-1.
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