bits by luke

Build stone castles

A stone castle houses a stable, some sentry towers, a dungeon, a great hall, battlements, a barracks, and maybe a palace, or any number of other medieval niceties. Many of these structures take quite a while to build, and some can be quite complicated. Isn’t the easier solution to construct basic mud structures instead? Mud can form a stable. Mud can stack a tower or reinforce a dungeon or raise a barracks. This would certainly be faster, require less planning, and be more amenable to change; after all, mud can be easily reformed or scraped away. Artisans aren’t even required to procure and architect the masonry because mud huts are elementary enough for any journeyman to tackle. In light of all the time, energy, and cost saving measures, why do we not see more mud castles?

Consider that mud has a fairly finite limit in structural integrity. Large, multiple-story structures made of mud don’t exist because, beyond a certain size, such structures would crumble. At some inflection point, any attempt to add to or change an existing mud structure will inflict breakage. If one is fortunate, the breaks occur only on the mud structure under construction. If unfortunate, the structure is intertwined in the support systems of others and breakage happens everywhere at random.

The only possible way to construct an entirely mud castle is to scale down each structure. And here lies the crucial point: diminished size coincides with diminished effectiveness. A downsized great hall can no longer feast a village. A small mud battlement can no longer defend the perimeter. A compact mud stable cannot no longer contain the full array of beasts. What then, is the purpose of a having a castle at all?

While a castle that is too small is ineffective, there exists an inescapable cost to a larger castle: complexity. Feeding a handful of denizens can be done on a whim. Feeding a legion of soldiers, peasants, and craftsmen, however, requires dedicated cooks and coordinated meal times and hunting parties. Stabling some horses requires a single stablehand. Stabling a team of horses requires stablemasters, shoemakers, muckrakers, breakers, and breeders. Defending a mud wall requires a handful of soldiers. Defending a battlement requires a garrison with blacksmiths, smelters, fletchers, and commanders. The demands of a fully operational castle do not scale linearly, but instead experience a rather steep curve.

If we accept that castles are ineffective under a certain size, that we cannot build sizable castles from mud, and that larger castles introduce unavoidable complexity, we must also accept the associated consequences. Stone is harder to form than mud and requires the deft hand of an artisan. Architecting a castle requires substantial time and energy. Supporting the complex interactions of inhabitants is a never-ending commitment.

A castle’s needs are guaranteed to change as time passes. When those changes arrive, a well-constructed, well-architected, and well-understood castle can adapt. Where a collection of mud huts must be razed and started anew, a castle can repurpose structures, extend boundaries, and retrain behaviors.

When the rains come, and the winds blow, and the invaders attack, I know where I would rather live. (In case you missed it, I’m talking about software.)