Unknown France

Building a Castle… by Hand!

Deep in the forests of Burgundy, a team of artisans is hard at work on a construction project unlike any other: to build a castle using only 13th-century tools! Twenty-five years in the making, this work in progress is now the most visited tourist destination in the Yonne département.
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Construction of the Château de Guédelon began in 1997. © Guédelon

Laying eyes on this incredible architectural feat, one visitor jokingly exclaims, “Montjoie! Saint-Denis!” This famous line delivered by Jean Reno in the 1993 French comedy Les Visiteurs was the battle cry of the French royal army in the Middle Ages. But the expression takes on a whole new meaning at Guédelon. In the movie, the two protagonists time-travel from the Middle Ages into the future, suddenly finding themselves in modern society. At Guédelon, however, it’s the other way around. Strolling around, we spot a gaggle of free-roaming geese, listen to the steady tapping of the stonecutter’s chisel, stop to admire a woodworker busy at his craft and wearing a hooded smock tied at the waist with a long cord – it is us who have time traveled eight centuries into the past.

Aside from a few items of safety equipment, there are no signs of modernity. None of the forty employees – or œuvriers, a local portmanteau word combining œuvre (work of art) and ouvrier (worker) – go so far as communicating with one another in Old French, but they have honed their skills in traditional construction techniques. “In addition to being skilled artisans, the mason, painter, and stonecutter need to be able to explain to visitors what they do,” says site director Florian Renucci as he shows us the tool he’s holding: a long wooden ruler with thumb-length markings. Guédelon attracts some 300,000 visitors each year between April and November, which has allowed the project to be financially self-sufficient.

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A nearby quarry provides the sandstone used to build the castle. © Guédelon
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On the construction site, the workers use only methods and tools used between the late 12th and early 14th centuries, like this treadwheel crane. © Guédelon
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The paints used to decorate the walls of the castle are obtained by grinding natural pigments contained in the ground. © Guédelon

The workers are often trained on the job, and each one has a true passion for the Middle Ages. They are relearning lost skills. Charlotte Andrault, for instance, is a weaver who makes scarves for the staff and the shop. As her fabrics soak in a bubbling cauldron, she tells us how difficult it is to find information about 13th-century dyeing techniques, which were passed down for the most part by word of mouth. Nearby, her husband Philippe Picard shows a group of curious, wide-eyed children how he operates a large bellows to fan the fire of his forge. A boilermaker by training, he quit his job in the nuclear industry eight years ago to join the team at Guédelon.

A Hive of Activity

Why build a castle using only methods and tools employed between the late 12th and early 14th centuries? The idea arose in the late 1990s, when the remains of a medieval castle were discovered during an archaeological study beneath a Renaissance château in the town of Saint-Fargeau, about six miles from Guédelon. At the end of their report, the historians presented a drawing of the entire building and one brief but all-important sentence: “It would be fascinating to reconstruct Saint-Fargeau.”

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The castle’s manor house, completed in 2016, and the medicinal herb garden. © Guédelon

Jacques Moulin, chief architect of France’s historic monuments, finalized the blueprints for the castle in 1997, and a dozen eager participants began clearing ground in the Guédelon forest. The raw materials needed to build the castle – stone for the walls, timber for the frame, sand for the mortar, clay for the roof tiles, natural earth pigments for the paints – are sourced directly from the 35-acre building site. A scientific committee comprising historians, archaeologists, and castellologists supervises the project and ensures that only the most authentic techniques are used.

The manor house is now completed, as is the chapel tower, most of the castle’s defensive walls, and a section of the donjon. But what will happen when the project is all over? The site director grins: “Our 13th-century ancestors would have had this castle finished in twelve years. We’ve been working on it now for twenty-five years, and it’ll be at least another twelve before we’re done. Our workers routinely stop to talk to visitors, and we’re constantly coming up with new ideas – the adventure is far from over!”

 

Article published in the June 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.

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