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Mâchicoulis, Piombatoio
Machicolation Of Wejter Tower.jpg
A box-machicolation of the Tal-Wejter Tower, in Birkirkara, Malta
General information
Location Europe, Middle East and North Africa
Technical details
MaterialStone, sometimes wood

A machicolation (French : mâchicoulis) 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. [1] A smaller version found on smaller structures is called a box-machicolation.



Bab Kisan (Kisan Gate), now the facade of the Chapel of Saint Paul in Damascus, with a box-machicolation above the main entrance Damascus-Bab Kisan.jpg
Bab Kisan (Kisan Gate), now the façade of the Chapel of Saint Paul in Damascus, with a box-machicolation above the main entrance

The word derives from the Old French word machecol, mentioned in Medieval Latin as machecollum, probably from Old French machier [2] 'crush', 'wound' and col 'neck'. Machicolate is only recorded in the 18th century in English, but a verb machicollāre is attested in Anglo-Latin. [3] [ page needed ]

Both the Spanish and Portuguese words denoting this structure (matacán and mata-cães, respectively), are similarly composed from "matar canes" meaning roughly "killing dogs", the latter word being a slur referring to infidels. [4] [ page needed ]

In Italy and countries which were influenced by the Italian language, such as Malta, it was known as piombatoio. [5]

Similar to a machicolation is a smaller version which opens similar to an enclosed balcony, generally from a tower rather than a larger structure. This is called a box-machicolation. [6]

Description and use

Illustration of machicolations in use Machicolations (PSF).png
Illustration of machicolations in use
15th century machicolations at Craigmillar Castle in Scotland. Craigmillar machicolations.jpg
15th century machicolations at Craigmillar Castle in Scotland.

The design of a machicoulis (sometimes called drop box) originates from the Middle East, where they are usually found on defensive walls. The original Arabian design is rather small, and similar to the domestic wooden balcony known as mashrabiya. [7]

However, different from the domestic balcony, for defense purposes the Middle-East version of the machicoulis prominently features a wide opening at the bottom. The opening allows the dropping of hot water, oil and other material intended to cause harm to the enemy below. The otherwise enclosed opening adapted from that of a closed balcony also provides cover from enemy attack while using it. [7] [8]

Machicolations were more common in French castles than English, where they were usually restricted to the gateway, as in the 13th-century Conwy Castle. [9] One of the first examples of machicolation that still exists in northern France is Château de Farcheville built in 1291 outside Paris. [10]

The origins are from Syria and the Crusaders brought their design to Europe. [11] Machicolations were a common feature in many towers in Rhodes, which were built by the Knights Hospitallers. [5] After the Knights were given rule over Malta, machicolations also became a common feature on rural buildings, until the 18th century. Buildings with machicolations include Cavalier Tower, Gauci Tower, the Captain's Tower, Birkirkara Tower and Tal-Wejter Tower. [6]

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 and fire resistance of stone. [12]

Post-medieval use

Decorative machicolation at Penrhyn Castle in Wales, which was built between 1822 and 1837. Penrhyn Castle (7374208000).jpg
Decorative machicolation at Penrhyn Castle in Wales, which was built between 1822 and 1837.

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. [13] [lower-alpha 1]

See also


  1. For example, Scottish baronial architecture from the 16th century onwards; and Neo-Gothic buildings of the 19th and 20th centuries.

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