Building French medieval castles...

Samantha David digs out her 13th-century work clothes for a spot of stone-masonry at a living history site

23 July 2018
By Samantha David

Guédelon is a fully-functioning medieval construction site – a chantier médiéval – where a 13th-century fortified castle is being built using only methods and tools available from that era. There is no steam traction, no electricity, no power tools, satellite imaging, cranes... and no computers. They don’t even use biros – and there is no mobile network or wifi, either.

The project was dreamt up in 1995 by a group of archaeologists and historians with a special interest in castles.

Setting up the project was hard; getting funding, getting permissions, convincing people the project was even achievable.

But a site was finally purchased near the village of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, in Yonne (Bourgogne), about an hour south-west of Auxerre. It had everything the team needed: water, wood, clay, and stone. Work first began on the barns which would house the administration blocks, ticket offices and reception areas for the site.

It was soon realised that the project would run aground if it was established as a charity or NGO. Building a medieval castle is not cheap.

The aim therefore was to make the project self-supporting as soon as possible.Today the site welcomes 300,000 visitors a year (200,000 of them school children) and ticket sales (along with the proceeds of the café, restaurant and the shop) cover the costs of materials and salaries.

As a business, the construction site has to respect modern health and safety rules, so everyone on site wears steel tipped boots, stone masons wear protective eye masks, and the site itself is secured to modern standards.

“We try to make them as unobtrusive as possible,” said communications officer Sarah Preston. “But if you look carefully, the wooden scaffolding is held together by modern steel bolts. Wooden pegs would be just as secure but the inspectors insist.”

 

Health and safety

The site gets frequent health and safety inspections, and had difficulty getting permission to use what is affectionately called the “squirrel wheel” (inset) – a massive wooden treadmill that people walk in to power a wooden “crane” which lifts crates of stones to the top of the walls.

“The inspector said it was damaging to human dignity, and in the end she only changed her mind when the masons themselves petitioned her for permission to use it, because otherwise they’d have had to carry the stones up the ladders in hods on their backs. So she relented.”

Construction of the castle began 20 years ago. In that time the curtain walls surrounding the courtyard and the living quarters of the castle have been completed. There is a well in the courtyard, too, which would have been vital for any fortified structure in the 13th century. Construction now focuses on the gatehouse and the towers at each corner of the courtyard.

It has not all been plain sailing. “Nobody really knew how to build a medieval castle at the beginning,” said Ms Preston. “We’ve had to discover the details as we went along.

“For example, you can still see the keystones sticking out of the curtain wall where we planned to construct a chapel but we abandoned the idea, and we think that must have happened a lot.

“You think you’ll construct it one way, and you end up doing something else.”

The builders have spent a lot of time and energy keeping the castle dry, and getting rainwater to run away from it. So much so that the water storage system under one of the towers, is actually dry.

“We’ll have to sort it out at some point,” said Ms Preston.

Another learning curve was in the bridges constructed over the dry moat surrounding the castle. “We used around 600 hand-forged nails in the first bridge, but we hardly used any in the second one. By that time we’d worked out how to do it without them because making nails is really time consuming!”

 

Creating a local lord

In order to give the castle some context, the year 1228 was chosen as the year that construction began, a year of peace and prosperity in that part of France.

A local seigneur was invented, with his own history. Guilbert was a vassal of Jean de Toucy, himself a vassal of King Louis IV of France. Guilbert is not fabulously wealthy, but has been granted permission to construct a residential fortified castle.

Guilbert does not have the cash to build anything enormous or very posh. That is why he has to abandon the idea of a separate building for the chapel and install it in one of the towers, instead.

“In a way we’re probably building it with too much care,” said Ms Preston.

“At the time, a castle of this size would have been built in a more rough-and-ready way. Artisans would have been paid piece rate rather than salaried and there probably would have been more hurry to complete it. But we’re learning as we go along, and trying to do our best.”

What is strange about Guédelon, is that when you walk through newly constructed rooms, halls and corridors, when you climb the stairs and gaze down from the battlements, there is no sense of being in a new building.

It feels thoroughly medieval, just like any other old stone castle you’ve visited. It even smells old. “Once it’s complete, it’ll be interesting to see how it can be lived in, how we can weatherproof the windows and heat it,” said Ms Preston. 

The business has about 70 full-time employees, 40 of whom are actively involved in the construction. Helping
out are 600 volunteer ‘bâtisseurs’ who each spend a week on the site.

“We limit it to a week because we receive thousands of requests every year and we simply can’t satisfy all of them.

Bâtisseurs come from all over the world; they’re men and women of all ages, with all kinds of backgrounds and levels of experience. It is not necessary to have any building skills at all. Just to be fit, ready to learn, and able to work as part of a group.”

 

Invitation to build

Invited to go along and join in, effectively becoming a bâtisseur for a few days, I jumped at the chance. I was thrilled with my medieval outfit and could not wait to get started.

My face fell, however, when I was assigned to the stone cutting workshop.

I was certain I was incapable of making the slightest impression on a lump of stone. It turned out I was wrong. The mason in charge did not bat an eyelid when I pulled a doubtful face.

He explained the implements, showed me how to use them and off I went, chipping away at a massive piece of rock.

It was fine and I was not the only woman dressing stone either; it turns out it is not so much about brute strength but more about stamina and technique.

The stonemasons are a jolly lot, always laughing and joking as they chip and bash. By lunchtime, when the bell rang, I was covered in dust and ready to eat an ox, especially as the aroma of frying onions had been drifting over the site all morning.

The site has lots of visitors wandering around, and the actual workshops are just casually roped off. So stepping over the rope and walking through the visitors towards the kitchens in my dusty tabard made me feel like a real builder.

After lunch (big bowls of boeuf Bourguignon, thick slices of bread made in the castle oven, and a massive hunk of cheese) it was back to work and I couldn’t wait to get back to my stone. I certainly did not want anyone else finishing it off.

Each side needs to be dressed (chipped smooth) and as luck would have it, the side I was dressing was to be an external one, always visible. (No, the stone cutters do not just randomly produce stones, each one is made for a specific position on the plan.)

So I chipped away all afternoon – determined to get it finished – and by the time the bell rang at six to signal down tools, it was finished. Slightly wonky with a dimple in the middle, but finished all the same, and the boss was pleased.

The next day I was assigned to the carpentry workshop and managed to get blisters hacking away at four pieces of wood to make a sloping-sided box for the stonemasons to use.

The dovetail joints had all been marked out, it was just a matter (note that word ‘just’) of cutting along the pencil marks and slotting it all together. Except the marks weren’t exactly aligned and it was only hand tools and the box had to be solid... erase the word ‘just’!

That 13th-century artisan look

By lunchtime I was covered in sawdust and chiselling away like a pro. I felt like I had been part of the construction crew forever, peacefully concentrating on the tiny detail of a joint on a box. I even had some minor cuts and bruises, along with grubby broken nails, to make me feel like an even more authentic historic artisan.

The workshops are rough, open-sided wooden constructions put together with branches and rope. Wooden tiles keep most of the weather out. Around them, trees provide shade and underfoot is bare trodden earth. There is no noise, no drills or mechanical diggers.

Modern items like plastic water bottles are hidden away, there are no bright colours, no phones, no distractions. But the work is tiring, especially if you are not used to doing manual labour every day. I went back to the youth hostel where I was staying completely exhausted every night and slept like a baby.

And on the last day, I wandered over to see how the gatehouse was coming along. This will be the fortified entrance to the courtyard, and is the focus of work this summer.

And there, just beside where the wooden gates will eventually be fixed, was my stone. It will be there forever, just at head height, the stone I dressed, my tiny contribution to history; slightly wonky, with a dimple in the middle.

 

Samantha David stayed in the newly refurbished “Auberge de Treigny” one of the closest youth hostels to Guédelon where beds start at €18pp per night. (www.lauberge-de-treigny.fr)

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