If the bishop’s seat was the spiritual heart of the community, the donjon, overshadowing the public square, was its secular nucleus. On its roofs, twenty-four hours a day, stood watchmen, ready to strike the alarm bells at the first sign of attack or fire. Below them lay the council chamber, where elders gathered to confer and vote; beneath that, the city archives; and, in the cellar, the dungeon and the living quarters of the hangman, who was kept far busier than any executioner today.The next time you sit down to sketch out a pseudo-medieval, fantasy city, try making the streets a little more twisted and cramped, instead of the broad ones we’re so used to. Those looking for an aboveground “dungeon” may also want to take note.
The donjon was the last line of defense, but it was the wall, the first line of defense, which determined the propinquity inside it. The smaller its circumference, the safer (and cheaper) the wall was. Therefore land within it was invaluable, and not an inch of it could be wasted. The twisting streets were as narrow as the breadth of a man’s shoulders, and pedestrians bore bruises from collisions with one another. There was no paving; shops opened directly into the streets, which were filthy; excrement, urine, and offal were simply flung out windows.
And it was easy to get lost. Sunlight rarely reached ground level, because the second story of each building always jutted out over the first, the third over the second, and the fourth and fifth stories over those lower. At the top, at the height approaching that of the great wall, burghers could actually shake hands with neighbors across the way. Rain fell rarely on pedestrians, for which they were grateful, and little air or light, for which they weren’t. At night the town was scary. Watchmen patrolled it – once clocks arrived they would call “One o’clock and all’s well!” – and heavy chains were stretched across street entrances to foil the flight of thieves. Nevertheless rogues lurked in dark corners.
—A World Lit Only By Fire, pp. 47-48