Saturday, June 4, 2011 Saint Fargeau and Guédelon Forest
Saturday dawned with partially sunny skies. Perfect for a cycling outing. I contemplated my day's plans over breakfast.
Journal Excerpt: Saturday morning breakfast, June 4, 2011 Saint Fargeau at the Hotel Les Grande Chenes
→ bike shorts
Questions for the workmen at Guédelon:
1. How long does the seal between mortar and stone last? Would it ever dry up and crack—fall away as powder?
2. What kind of stone?
3. What is the mortar made of? Typical materials of 13th century? Or were other materials used? Limestone? Were other stones quarried other places such as Poitou?
5. 2nd floor? When?
6. Fire places? When? Where? In conjunction to upstairs?
7. Chimneys – what happened to smoke before they are in use?
I was on my way to the 13th-century. The year 1242 to be exact. I had not prepared much for my visit. I assumed I would learn all I needed to by listening and asking questions once there .
The way to the Chantier Medieval de Guédelon was not direct if I was to avoid highways. It would be about a 3-mile ride along single-lane dirt and paved roads. The main route was a two-lane road and well traveled, but once I turned onto it, I would have only another half mile to ride before reaching the site. The bike had a basket over the handle bars. I stowed my water bottle and purse in it and took off.
By the time I got to the main drag leading up to the castle, I was tired, hot, and sweaty. But the roadway was lined on both sides with parked cars, so the traffic was not moving very fast. There was no bike parking, but I chose a parking lot fairly close to the museum and gift shop and locked my bike to the fence. I bought the ticket that would grant me entrance to the castle grounds themselves.
I walked around the castle first, looking at it from all perspectives. It was still obviously under construction and would be for another 13 years as planned. They'd started work in 1998. I crossed the bridge over the ditch dug out for the moat. A tower stood at my right. It was stone-and-mortared about 10 feet up from the bottom of the ditch. The top 6 feet or so were wood construction and formed the frame for the stonemasons. It was cool to see the structure in progress.
Who are these fools who decided to build a 13th century castle with contemporary methods and tools? It was a decision by Michel Guyot, the owner of the Saint Fargeau chateau. After he had done an architectural analysis of his fortress, which had been burned and rebuilt in the 17th century, he discovered the original 13th century castle walls underneath the 17th century brick. He thought about rebuilding the chateau in all it's original glory, then got excited about the idea of the building of a castle from scratch and all that was entailed. How would we ever know what it took? That's when he decided that that was what he was going to do with his millions. He got together with Maryline Martin and she got the project moving. She brought in master stone mason Florian Renucci, and they made it happen. Florian drew up the master plan modeled on three castles from the Philip Ausgustus castle-building period, which included the Saint Fargeau chateau.
First Maryline had to find a site, and the old quarry hidden in the forests of the Burgundy countryside was perfect. It was remote, there was plenty of area to set up and keep the project and all it's work areas productive, and the stone from which it would be made was right there. The only downside was that it was a sandstone quarry. Sandstone is generally harder than limestone and can be near to impossible to excavate from the ground. The darker the blue shades in the sandstone, the harder it is. Quarrymen look for dark red shaded stone. These stones are easier to quarry, and are generally of good quality.
Florian and Maryline decided to bring limestone in from another site to fill out the softer stone supply. The limestone would be used for alternating with sandstone in arches (which was a common 13th-century practice), and for surrounding doors and windows. They gave themselves 25 years to finish the work. And they named the castle after the forest in which it would reside: Guédelon. To prevent anachronisms in the construction of the castle, they created an historical context: the month and year that the castle was started was set as May 1229. Louis IX was the boy king, and it was a relatively peaceful and prosperous time in France. The owners created a fictitious lord to own Guédelon: born in 1199, he is a younger member of the Courtenay family. A poorer lord, he married into a wealthy local family, descendants of a minor branch of the Toucy clan. The Guédelon land was part of the dowry. And, because of his military service, the lord was granted the right to "crenellate" or to build a castle. As I walked the perimeter of Guédelon, it was the year 1242. And I believed it.
Two towers on either side of the residence were under construction, but open to the public. I walked up the dark stairs of the larger tower and stumbled to the top, feeling my way with my hands. I am slightly claustrophobic, but I didn't think the winding stone steps of a castle tower would bring it on. By the time I arrived at the top of the platform, I was ready for fresh air and sunshine.
The interior of the residence was also being worked on. The upstairs loft had joists installed where the floor would be laid for the lord's solar. My favorite part of the residence was the window seat over the front door of the castle. The seats looked out through a “two light” window, which is a window with two divisions, or lights, separated by a vertical post. It was the place with the most light. The wooden seats just needed cushions. It was the only corner obviously designed for comfort, it seemed.
My second favorite part of the castle was the kitchen because it made it look lived in. Inside was a woman baking bread and pies which made the past really come alive. And now I was hungry.
I walked the grounds taking in the work sites of the craftspeople and artisans. The laborers work on site from March to November. They also act as tour guides from April to October. In the off-season they can't actually work but still get paid. Most workers I saw that day were men. I saw three women: the cook in the kitchen and two women horse handlers. The horse handlers drove the carts that hauled stone and wood to the building site, and rubbed down and fed the horses after they finished a shift.
I discovered later that there were at least two tiers of laborers on site, just as there would have been on the construction site of a medieval castle. The masons, stonecutters, and carpenters were "freemen" and received a daily wage or yearly salary (sometimes both depending on the totality and variety of the work the did, whether piecemeal or project level). The other laborers were peasants living and working on the land owned by the lord and receiving his protection in exchange for their labor.
I enjoyed watching the workhorses playing in the paddocks. One nonchalantly shared his field with a burro. The animals had plenty of exercise and fresh air. And they seemed happy. I also found pigs by the rope maker's shack. Of course they were rolling in the mud!
The Dyer's cottage and garden's were beautiful. The bundles of dyed threads hanging outside in the sun were an echo of the purples, greens, yellows, and blues of the flowers and herbs in the garden. No one was inside the cottage working, but large wood barrels sat on the wooden floor with smaller buckets and canisters nearby waiting for the workers' return. Shelves were lined with undyed wool thread. I later found out that the dyer at the cottage also supplied the color used to paint the interior walls of the castle, which happened sometime after my visit.
I returned to the main thoroughfare and found the blacksmith's shop. I watched a young man in medieval dress pound a piece of hot iron into shape over a very hot fire. His skin glistened with sweat and his muscles tightened with every swing. (I later discovered his name is Martin Claudel, and he has recently retired from Guédelon to start his own business as a traditional toolmaker.) The wall behind him was hung with tools he and his fellow blacksmiths had made or repaired for the stonecutters, woodcutters, masons, and carpenters. This was the biggest responsibility of the blacksmith on a work site: making tools and keeping tools in good shape so that the other laborers could keep working. Other responsibilities included making strapwork for doors and gates to protect them from enemy blows. All the workers at Guédelon not only wore period dress, but took their roles very seriously. They, in effect, had traveled back to the 13th century to work on a castle.
I watched a man make rope. I now know his name is Yvon Herouart. He spoke only in French, but the process was very active and interesting. It took a lot of room, too. He strung the initial fibers from one end of his shack's courtyard to the other and wound them with a crank. Then he took that thin rope and wound it in the crank with another like rope he had already made. He continued this process until he had a very thick rope. I was transfixed as he walked and talked continually winding his rope.
I was so intrigued, I did some reading about the technique later. Turns out, the procedure he was using is called “rope walking,” Rope walking or making is a lengthy (no pun intended) process during which long strings of fibers from materials such as sisal, hemp, linen, and cotton are stretched the length of the rope walk (up to 300 yards and more) and wound together by a hand crank. Typically, they use three of these lengths at a time. The new “rope” is then restrung along the walk with other ropes that have been made the same way to be wound again. This process is continued until a rope of the thickness and strength required is completed. Rope walking was a popular technique for making stout rope from the 13th century through the 18th century. You can still find rope walks today. In England, Chatham Docks on the Medway River has a rope walk that is a quarter mile long, and workers rode bicycles to get from one end to the other. One of these days I would love to visit it.
I wandered some more through the site, taking pictures. When I reviewed them later, I missed the importance of some of the shots, so they never made it to my Facebook page or my slideshow. For example, now that I have read the book on Guédelon, I understand that the pile of bricks the wagon is parked in front of in the following photo is actually the tiler's oven or kiln.
Soon I was exhausted. I headed to the site tavern where they served roasted meats (pork?), potatoes, bread, and vegetables. And ale.
Journal Excerpt: Saturday afternoon, June 4, 2011, at the Guédelon site tavern: Taking some notes while finishing my lunch of smoked meats, coarse bread, and root vegetables. Everyone here speaks French and I did not have an opportunity to ask a question. My, it's hot. Wonder if removing the pant legs (of my hiking trousers) will help.
Metalwork-- the holes in the beams across the ceiling, tools hang from them.
The sandstone has moss all over it even as it is in the wall. Turned to the outside.
Tower Stair-- very narrow and dark chamber in tower – very dark with just slits for light. Although the windows are a wedge with the narrow end to the outside. So the light diffuses into the chamber?
My trip back to the hotel was long but uneventful. I tried a short cut across a field and along a single track that went up a hill, but it turned out the ground was too rough to ride, so I had to get out and walk my bike. Eventually, I returned to the main road. I was very tired when I got to my room. After typing up some of my notes, I crashed.
It was true that I did not get answers to all my questions, but I did see and learn a lot. Later, I studied the subject on my own, and came to understand so much more. Perhaps if I had visited Guédelon later in the season when there were more English-speaking tourists and therefore English-speaking guides, I would have been overwhelmed by too much information. Maybe I would have had to fight my way through crowds to see anything. So, all-in-all, the trip was successful.
Editor's note: The building at Guédelon has continued, and in the last six years they have made some great progress, especially on the interior of the residence. This includes finishing the lord's solar and painting the interior walls with a lovely floral design. If you want to learn more about Guédelon, you can check out their website. Also there is a really cool video which shows the same blacksmith that I saw, Martin Claudel, plus includes an updated aerial view of the castle. And, there is a sister castle being built by the same man, Michel Guyot, in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, which I would love to visit.
Rope making on the Medieval Blog
BBC Two's “Secrets of the Castle with Ruth, Peter, and Tom,” including interview with Martin Claudel
Guedelon: A Castle in the Making, Martin, Maryline and Renucci, Florian, QUEST-FRANCE, copyright 2010.