On Monday, we went to see history in action. We visited Guedelon, in the Puisaye, where a medieval castle is actually being built from scratch, using the same methods used 800 years ago. Following is information from various sources regarding the work at Guedelon.
Michel Guyot first had the idea of building a castle using medieval building techniques, following an archaeological study at Saint Fargeau castle. It is impossible to visit castles and cathedrals of the Middle Ages without wondering how these buildings were constructed, where the materials came from, how they were transported, which tools were used, or how heavy loads were hoisted. Guedelon sheds light on the secrets of the medieval stonemasons.
The site chosen was an overgrown, abandoned quarry, seemingly untouched for a thousand years. The castle would take its name from the forest in which it would stand: Guedelon. The site had all the resources needed for the construction: stone, wood, sand, clay and water.
To gather information, and to avoid mixing different building styles and historical working practices, a precise methodology has been put in place:
Examination of early 13th century castles.
Study of medieval illuminated manuscripts and stained-glass windows.
Research into contemporary historical building accounts and contracts.
In order to maintain a credible historical context the following scenario has been created: the castle is being built in the early 13th century, the start date is taken as being the year 1229 and the castle’s fictional owner is imagined to be a junior member of the Courtenay family.
The 35-strong team of builders is supported by members of the public who volunteer to work for short periods during the building season. The teams work with the hand tools of the 13th century; however 21st century health and safety standards apply (hard hats, steel toed shoes, etc.)
60,000 tons of stone are required to build the castle. 25,000 tiles will be needed to roof the castle’s great hall.
The castle consists of four towers with an inner courtyard and living quarters. You can stand in the tower and imagine aiming your bow and arrow through the narrow slits in the walls to ward off attackers.
Dressed in medieval costume, the craftsmen ply their trades around the edges of the building site. There are carpenters, masons, weavers, potters and stone hewers, not forgetting the blacksmiths who make and repair all the tools. The stone is quarried and hewn, the rope and baskets are woven, even the carts to carry the stone are constructed, just as it was done in the 13th century.
While visiting Guedelon, it became apparent to all of us just how hard the work was to build castles and cathedrals in centuries past. Hard physical labor, that lasted for decades. Some men would work their entire life building one structure. Having read Pillars of the Earth, I had a sense of this...but seeing it in action, really brought it home. I’m not sure there is anything comparable in today’s world. I’m not saying that’s good or bad...just an interesting observation.