Why you should care

Because we’re talking mortar-making magic.

Years ago, my husband began dragging me to European castles. Like so many others, he has a thing for medieval keeps, moats and dungeons. More than 1,000 of them were built a century after the Norman Conquest alone, many of which still stand — some occupied, some mere remnants. What’s missing from all of these symbols of former aristocratic glory is a pulse — a community filled with decadence, despair, determination, decorum or even debauchery.

But deep in the heart of the French countryside, I found a medieval castle teeming with life. When my husband and I arrived, the men on-site were drenched in sweat as they stood back to admire their handiwork. Clad in linen tunics cinched with rope and leather belts, they used a wooden triangle and plumb line to ensure the wall they were building was straight. Eschewing modern tools like drills, levels and electricity, these workers are part of a decades-long project to build France’s first authentically made medieval castle in the modern era.

With the very people [that] society was throwing on the scrap heap … I could build a castle.

Maryline Martin, CEO

Named after the surrounding forest, Guédelon castle is a two-hour drive south of Paris. The concept was inspired by a late-1990s archaeological survey that revealed a medieval fortress once stood within the walls of nearby Saint-Fargeau castle. Saint-Fargeau’s owner, Michel Guyot, suggested to Maryline Martin — Guédelon’s CEO — that it would be interesting to build “a castle from scratch.” This led to the first stone being laid in 1997, on the site of an abandoned quarry, the start of a 25-year process of learning the art of castle-making.

For Martin, it was also a chance to supply the local community with an interesting sight, and jobs. “For me, Guédelon is an act of provocation,” she says, pointing to her work with a group of long-term unemployed people to show that “with the very people [that] society was throwing on the scrap heap … I could build a castle.” The laborers have resurrected ancient building techniques, turning this provocation into plinths, plaster and parapets.

The result is a growing example of a 13th-century enclosure castle, with four walls, four corner towers, a great hall and a gatehouse. Masons cut the locally quarried stone, while a 70-strong team builds the structure using only medieval-style implements and methods. Visitors, meanwhile, get to watch the action, learning how quarrymen, stonemasons, woodcutters, carpenters, blacksmiths, tile-makers, carters and rope-makers worked in the Middle Ages. This revival of ancient handicraft “is experimental archaeology in action,” says Sarah Preston, Guédelon’s press officer. The castle-under-construction draws 300,000 visitors a year — tickets cost 12 euros for adults and 10 euros for children — and tourists can enjoy stone carving and clay workshops, as well as occasional theme days featuring smelting, lime burning, bread baking or wood turning. Those looking to really get their hands dirty can take classes and join the site for three to seven days to help with construction.

And after the last tapestry is hung? The site will remain dedicated to experimental archaeology projects, such as medieval houses, says Preston: “Guédelon is a never-ending venture.”

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