Photo: Jim Frederick; Spring Point Light

Machicolation: Architectural term meaning, literally, “neck smasher.” But it’s not what you think.

I actually don’t know what you think, when you picture an architectural item called a “neck smasher.” Here’s what I thought: My friend Jim Fredrick made this elegant photo of Spring Point Lighthouse. I wondered if the pendants on those brackets had a name. (They’re just “finials.”)

Then I wondered if those were eave brackets, or corbels. Which naturally led me to machicolations.

Back in the day–the Medieval day–crusaders of one persuasion or the other would sometimes chip at the base of your castle wall, or prance around down there shooting flaming arrows into your domicile. What to do?

Architects of the day hence added a tier at the top of the wall, a tier which cantilevered out on supporting corbels like an upside-down wedding cake. They left holes in the floor of this new tier. Through these holes defenders could now drop great, big rocks onto the necks of the pests below. The Spanish called the holes matarcane, something like “for killing dogs,” aka infidels.

Machicolation galleries were lovely to look at, utility and terminology notwithstanding. Thus they have been carried forward into modern architecture–particularly military architecture, and lighthouses. Alas, most of them now lack the actual machicolations.


Gallery machicolations atop tower; note “box machicolations” and/or latrine atop wall to left. [PD] Wikimedia