Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Guédelon, constructing a 13th century castle in 21st century France

About an hour and a half south of Paris in rural Burgundy (Bourgogne) is an amazing construction site known as Guédelon. They are building a castle using the tools and technology that would have been used in the thirteenth century.

Finding Guédelon is not altogether easy because it is off the beaten path, although there are many iconic signs posted along the roads with arrows to help reassure travelers that they are nearing their destination.

I first heard of Guédelon via a blog post written by an American blogger married to a Frenchman and lives in France. I had been planning my travel itinerary and when I saw her post knew that I had to consider adding that as a stop. As luck would have it, my friend Cindy Pavlinac was planning her own trip to France several months in advance of my own and she would be only an hour or two away from Guédelon. After telling her about this place, she agreed to do some advance research for me and after she returned told me enthusiastically that it would be well worth my stop.

As I paid for our admission tickets, a woman asked if my husband and I would like a guided tour. I did my best to respond in the affirmative if it was in English. She then surprised me when she switched immediately to English and asked where I was from. I had her repeat the question and then stumbled as I said, “California.” She replied, “I’m from Colorado.”

At that point, I felt as if the sky opened and sunshine rained down on me. Julie left the admissions window for a few minutes to answer some questions and gave us an overview of the site, but she did not have the time to do a full tour. (There was another window for admission tickets that was open, so she was not abandoning her post.)

Julie was enthusiastic about the project as well as the history of castles as she had learned from being a part of this experimental archaeology. Between her discussion, the book Guédelon: Fanatics for a fortress and the DVD Guédelon: Ils bâtissent un château fort provide the sources of my information about Guédelon. (The book and DVD were purchased in their gift shop, but are either scarce or non-existent in the U.S. Be aware on the Amazon link for the book there are only two copies available and only one is in English.)

Guédelon is the brainchild of Michel Guyot who had restored castles, but had always dreamed of building one. The epiphany came to him one night over drinks with friends at his restored castle in Saint Fargeau. By morning he realized that it would be a works program that would employ people in the process and that admission tickets from the public would cover the costs of construction.

He quickly found a partner in Maryline Martin.

She is the project manager and whose energy and drive became an unstoppable force of nature which led to the first subsidy grant ever by the Canal+ Foundation. Their CEO, Pierre Lescure, is quoted as saying about Martin and Guyot, “They’re mad! They’re really mad.” [i]

Madness is another word for passion and that is what started and sustains Guédelon. The estimated length of construction for this project is twenty-five years and they are now in their eleventh year.

Strategic lines of sight for defensive purposes while an important consideration during the Middle Ages was not what determined their choice of sites to build. Nor was proximity to a major city or mass transportation a factor, because it is in a rural area where you can only get there by car or possibly chartered bus. Instead, they focused on finding land which would have all the necessary natural resources. The construction site near Treigny is designed to be self-sufficient and everything that they use is crafted there: stone, sand, lime, clay, a forest, and the stone is ferruginous so it provides the iron necessary to produce the tools.

Inspiration for the architectural designs for the site came from thirteenth century castles built during the reign of Philippe Auguste and the plans were drafted by Jacques Moulin, architect-in-chief of Historic Monuments.

Here is a scale model of what the castle will look like upon completion:

Florian Renucci started out as a stone cutter, but within two years he became Guédelon’s site manager and is involved in every aspect of construction. On the DVD, he refers to this project as cultural heritage embodied by stone.

Speaking of stone, here are stone cutters at work:

They select rock from the quarry and split the stones by focusing their hammers on the different colored grains in the stone which denote weak points. Watching their back breaking labor makes me truly appreciate how difficult all the stone buildings were to make prior to the invention of power tools.

It also reinforced the idea that I heard repeatedly in France that when stone buildings, ramparts, etc., entered into a state of ruin that the locals began re-using the stone and treating it as their private “stone quarry.” The medieval village of Carcassone was pillaged for its stone by the villagers who lived in the modern village.

In America we are only now beginning to discuss re-using material from old houses which are being torn down, but it is an age old concept for Europeans.

Here is a handcart that was crafted by the carpenters to transport some of the rock that was hewn by the stone cutters.

Large loads are placed in a cart and pulled by one of Guédelon’s two workhorses.

The rough hewn stones are brought to the stone masons who chisel the stone to fit the dimensions necessary. Certain specialized stones are carved for barrel arches, windows and doorways, while other stones are simply needed for the walls.

Here you can see the stone mason’s cottage where there are various forms hung above his head. On the left foreground you can see stone steps that will be a part of a circular staircase as well as stones that will be part of an archway. I thought it was interesting to notice that the flooring of the cottage needed repair, but it appears that the carpenters are too busy creating scaffolds than replacing floorboards.

Another marvel that was created by the stone cutters and stone masons was a single capstone used for the well. It is one large piece of stone and it will never be subjected to weakness or stress that is inherent with stones held together with mortar.

The finished stones are given marks by the stone masons and then transported to the work site itself and are laid in their proper place by the masons.

To lift the heavy loads up at the top of the construction site they use an old “human hamster wheel” whose design dates back to the time of the Romans.

The tools used are crafted by blacksmiths who repair several sets of tools from stone cutters and stone masons on a daily basis. It is said on the worksite that without the blacksmith there would be no tools.

The lead blacksmith is Thierry Darques who came to the job trained as a journalist. He jokes about the abrupt change in careers, but loves working with his hands. He was one of the first to join the project and apprenticed with master blacksmith Olivier Loiseau. He studies old manuscripts to see images of tools from the age and tries his best to copy them using the tools in his forge.[ii] The blacksmiths also forge the nails used in construction.

This bridge is made of wood from 57 oak trees and 670 hand forged nails.[iii]

They also do not use modern measuring equipment at the site. Instead they use the three tools found in a 13th century book: a stick, their feet and a cord.

In the video Alain Louis demonstrates the six measurements on a stick. The first measure is of four fingers grasping the stick (without the thumb) and is known as the hand’s breadth. The second measure was of the fingers being extended (still without the thumb). The third measure was the span spread that included the thumb. The fourth measure is the length of his foot. The fifth measure was the “L” or the distance between the tips of your fingers to the end of your elbow, also known as a cubit. The sixth measure was the diameter of the stick should be the size of the width of your thumb.

He also did a nifty demonstration with the cord having thirteen regularly placed knots in it. As he shifted the cord around it, he showed the school children rudimentary mathematics.

The work site has other trained artisans including:

● wood cutters who fell the trees in the forest

● carpenters who fashion the wood for wagons, scaffolds, and create wood shingles

● the rope maker who takes raw hemp grown in the forest and processes the fiber into rope

● basket weavers who take willow and wicker to create baskets that carry small rocks as well as mortar

● the mortar makers

● the tile maker who takes clay and soaks it in water to remove all the trapped air, shapes it into either roof or floor tiles, (sometimes adding dye to color the tile), drying it and then firing it in a kiln

● the dye maker

Here is one of the diagrams used in the planning of the castle:

And here one of the completed vaulted ceilings:

Guédelon has several technical advisors who visit the site periodically to ensure that the methodology is being done in as authentic a manner as is possible, (especially when certain knowledge of techniques was never written down but passed down from master to apprentice and so it is a matter of supposition.)

One of the advisors is an art historian from Lyon University, Nicolas Reveryon. He mentioned in the DVD that he was skeptical about the project at first because he felt that there are plenty of castles in ruin in France and did not understand the need to build another. However, he and his colleague Anne Baud, who is an archaeologist have been convinced at Guédelon’s importance because it has allowed them to test some of their hypotheses and they have found some answers to their own questions about working procedures on a medieval site.

For example there is this quote:

Thanks to the Guédelon site, Nicolas Reveyron and his colleagues have been able to verify that manure is by far the best protection against rain and frost for the wall crests, and they finally have scientific certainty that the vertical black discontinuities found in cathedrals correspond to pauses in construction. To date, no written evidence existed to explain these construction details.[iv]

Here you can see the vertical lines in the walls, as well as moss. The previous vaulted ceiling also has readily visible lines. Later the castle will be plastered to properly seal the mortar as well as covering over the unsightly blemishes that came with construction over time.

Guédelon is now the biggest employer in the Yonne Department with fifty employees. The are also about sixty regular volunteers who help out whenever they can and an even larger number of occasional volunteers who spend a week or two of their summer holiday assisting in the construction.

The site opened to the public in 1998 and in its first year had 50,000 visitors. It now has upwards of a quarter million tourists each year and its receipts from admissions, concessions and merchandise allows it to be self-sustaining.

Julie told us that a month before our visit that Rick Steves and his camera crew had come to the site. I have not yet seen it on PBS, nor any mention of this on his website, but I predict once this episode is viewed by Americans who are planning on traveling to France that the attendance will skyrocket.

Oh and here’s a picture of Julie and myself.

The old “build it and they will come” mantra has proven to be correct. In fact, Guyot felt that seeing the construction of a castle would be more exciting for tourism than visiting a castle which had already been built.

Americans who are reading this post might be thinking something along the lines of “Why doesn’t someone do that here? We have all kinds of Renaissance Faires and chapters of the Society for Creative Anachronism. Surely there would be support for a castle building project in the U.S.

In fact, there is a group who wants to do just that and it has been the subject of posts by medievalist bloggers such as Heroic Dreams, Richard Scott Nokes, and Matthew Gabriele. Medieval World, USA wants to build not only a castle, but an entire medieval village.

I spoke recently by phone to Roger Gomez and during our discussion I urged him to visit Guédelon and learn from their triumphs as well as their mistakes.

He then told me of their own board of advisors having the expertise of a professor of Medieval Literature from Colorado State University, an architect, and a CPA. They are a not for profit organization and are hoping soon to become recognized as a 501C3 non-profit organization. Unfortunately they have not found anyone like Maryline Martin to spearhead their effort. They need either a rainmaker or a sugardaddy/momma to fund buying land for their project as well as provide the start up capital necessary to begin construction.

Roger told me that he has four different business plans depending on how they achieve their capital. His preference is to follow Guédelon’s lead and use medieval construction techniques to create their vision of a medieval world. However, if they get corporate sponsorship that requires on rapid construction to complete the site on 21st century timetables, he will still insist on the integrity of the site.

He wants visitors to not be able to tell where things have been constructed in a faux manner. He wanted the look and feel of authenticity for the time period. (But maybe not the smells.)

Roger referred to this as an assembled heritage landscape and compared it to living history sites such as Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and Plimouth Plantation in Massachussetts.

I asked about getting financial support from the various Ren Faires that are held each year, but so far there has not been an organized effort on their behalf. He said that if one million people who love the Middle Ages donated just $20 then they would have the money they needed.

Think about that. Instead of squandering $20 on a cheesy souvenir T-shirt at the next Ren Faire you attend, you could help support the initial funding of an American version of Guédelon. All you have to do is donate here.

Or you could become mad like Maryline Martin and Michel Guyot, and make this project happen here by pouring your heart and soul into this dream as well.

Here are some links to articles about Guédelon that I came across as I was researching for this blog post.

Interesting thing of the day

San Diego Union Tribune

A New York Times article

Burgundy Today

You can also find montage videos of Guédelonon YouTube. Here is one that is nice.

[i] Philippe Minard and François Folcher, Guédelon: Fanatics for a Fortress, (Geneva, Switzerland: Aubanel), 2003, p. 14.

[ii] Ibid., p. 98.

[iii] Ibid., p. 38.

[iv] Ibid., p. 134.


Steve Morrison said...

Thanks for stopping by! I'm happy to know a fellow Ariostian--let me know how your book progresses!

L.C.McCabe said...


My pleasure and thank you for reciprocating.

Hopefully I shall have some good news in the next few months in my search for representation. Then the fun begins with the hunt for a publisher.


Cecilestj said...

Hello Lisa !

Thanks a lot for this article on Guedelon !

See you soon on facebook...

Best regards
Cécile Sautejeau

L.C.McCabe said...


Thank you for your kind words. I am glad you liked my post.

I just sent you an invitation to become friends on Facebook.

Au revoir!


Patrick Gracewood said...

Thank you for the post. A friend, knowing my love of Romanesque art loaned me the small book she got at Guedelon. But it wasn't enough. Found your site with better photos and linked to your post from my sculpture blog. Amazing work, it gives me courage.

Dagdamor said...

What a great article! In some ways this was more informative than what I found on Guedelon's own site. I found the PBS program you mentioned. It doesn't focus on the castle, but on the structure of French cathedrals. There is a brief four minute segment on Guedelon and the beginning of the program, and they use scenes of the workers throughout, but its primarily about Gothic churches.

Anonymous said...

excellent location. Carry on doing