Hey, it's good to see that someone else here knows about this! I wrote the piece below for a local paper, following a work-visit to this site a couple years ago. It was such a beautiful and amazing experience....
The year is A.D. 1234, deep in the heart of medieval France. It is the eighth year of the reign of Louis IX, grandson of Phillip Augustus, victor of Bouvines. In the depths of an oak forest in Burgandy, the sharp sounds of iron on stone, neighing horses, and crashing trees set birds aflight from the treetops. A clearing is evident, and within this hollow forest square, scores of master builders, apprentices, and labourers toil under the hot afternoon sun. Muscle proves harder than bedrock, as large slabs of stone are quarried, cut, and slowly transformed into the thick walls and circular towers of a nascent castle. The local Baron, whose purse pays for this labour, stands in his saddle as he guides his horse around the construction site, and impatiently reminds his entourage that until the walls are higher, they are all at risk of being overrun by the neighbouring lord, whose roving soldiers had already made incursions into the area. Men-at-arms stand guard behind makeshift wooden palisades that spike the tops of the low stone walls, ready to repulse any raid on the unfinished castle.
All of a sudden, a low-level roar disturbs the relative calm, as French Mirage jet fighters streak past the worksite and remind us that we belong to a very different military age. The reverie ends and the year is now A.D. 2003, in Burgandy, France, where the spectacle of a fully functioning medieval construction site greets tens of thousands of visitors a year. This is the “Chantier Mediéval de Guédelon”, a project whose goal over a 25 year period is to build a French medieval castle, using only the methods, tools, and techniques that were available in the 13th century. Currently in its seventh year, this project is the brainchild of Mr. Michel Guyot, who, as owner of a nearby chateau, was constantly asked by visitors “how did they build such things back then?”. His response was to initiate Guédelon as a 10 hectare scientific experiment, where tradesmen, historians, and archaeologists could come together to try and answer this question.
If Saint Louis’ reign brought unprecedented peace and prosperity to France, it is in no small measure due to his policy of curbing private feudal warfare – a policy that was begun by Philip Augustus in order to help foster political stability at a time when France’s enemies were plenty. Around A.D. 1200, Phillipian architects assembled into one model all of the best and most effective features of defensive architecture that were then known throughout Europe. The resulting prototype was the Louvre in Paris, which became the first “chateau-fort phillipien”. Consisting of a draw-bridged entryway flanked by twin towers, with protruding towers placed at wall angles to give cross-fire ability along the walls, the Phillipian castle was also distinguished by having the taller and stronger keep tower incorporated into the outer walls. In older designs, the keep was constructed in the middle of the castle’s courtyard. By being part of the wall, the keep could now be used by defenders to fire directly upon the enemy, and, if the walls were breached, it would not stand in the way of the murderous crossfire that would be unleashed into the center of the courtyard from all four corners of the castle. This design proved so effective in medieval warfare that a Phillipian castle could be held by just a handful of men against many times their number. Combined with Philip Augustus’ policy of providing this castle’s architectural plans free of charge to whoever wanted them, the Phillipian castle became the most popular type of defensive architecture present amongst the fiefdoms of northern France. Due to their virtually impregnable nature, in the 13th century, private feudal warfare all but ceased as it was judged no longer worthwhile trying to take over a neighbouring rival’s possessions.
Adherence to the rule of only using the methods and tools of the 13th century is strict, and a visit to the Guédelon construction site is the closest anyone will get to stepping into a time machine. All of the men and women workers dress in medieval garb, and painstakingly go through the labours of 800 years ago. Quarrymen slowly break the hard slabs of ferruginous sandstone with wedges, hammers, and chisels hand-forged by a blacksmith, who obtains the metal for these tools by smelting that same rock. Stonecutters hew the rock into the shapes required for the various towers, staircases, waterspouts, and arches. Ropes are hand-made with hemp fibers, and are wound so tightly that a cord the thickness of a finger can be used to pull a load of one tonne, or lift 500 kg. Basket weavers make the containers that are filled with quicklime mortar for the masons on the wall. Wood-cutters fell tall oak trees, which carpenters then transform into tool-handles, wheelbarrows, pulleys, scaffolding, arch-frames, doors, floors, beams, squirrel-cage cranes, and bridges (a total of 53 oak trees and two months of work were required to build the main bridge into the castle). The potter makes period eating and drinking vessels from a clay deposit near the site, and fires them in a medieval style kiln that sends flames shooting two meters into the air for 17 hours, as temperatures inside reach in excess of 1100 °C. On the outskirts of the construction site, in the woods, a full-scale peasant’s village is built, containing animals and all.
During all this work, much experimentation is required to faithfully reproduce results that imitate those seen in the archaeological record, and in this manner our knowledge of how exactly large architectural structures were built in the Middle Ages has increased dramatically. A visiting castleologist from England, come to verify the authenticity of the Guédelon building site for a few days, was so impressed and astounded at what he saw that he ended up staying and working there for three weeks. Although castles originally did not take 25 years to build, at Guédelon progress is in part limited by only having 50 full-time workers, and in part purposefully delayed by the sheer volume of public interest (and visits) it generates. The site is very interactive, with schoolgroups and tourists allowed to roam freely about and speak to the working tradesmen, who generally operate in roped-off activity areas.
If you are a medieval enthusiast, historian, archaeologist, or tradesperson interested in how our ancestors built the magnificent structures that they did, Guédelon is well worth a visit. If you speak French, you can even sign on as a volunteer and actually work there. I spent 11 days there last year working in the quarry and with the stonecutters, and the experience was exhilerating as it was tough. And, after you’ve decided you’ve bled enough, you can always load up on some good cheap Burgundy wine, and go on a tour of the real castles that abound in the region.
For more information, visit the Guédelon website at http://www.guedelon.org