France is famous for its many chateaus and elaborate estates. They dot the landscape, some hundreds of years old, some vacant but many occupied and thriving.
These places are part of the country’s identity, like fine wine and good food. France prizes its past, and cares deeply about preserving it.
It is partly out of that deep respect for the past that a new castle is coming to life on grounds about 100 miles south of Paris, in a northern corner of Burgundy. This castle, called Chateau de Guedelon, is unique in all of France, perhaps all of Europe.
Its crews are building it with the tools and techniques of medieval times. There are no power tools, nor a dump truck nor a jackhammer to be seen. In fact, the area is almost eerily quiet considering it is a construction zone.
Its mission is to make this castle a kind of “living museum, experimental archaeology,” said project manager Maryline Martin recently. That means, in essence, that they are building the castle in order to understand how chateaus were built during the medieval period.
Instead of reading and learning these things solely from books, they are learning in a real world, practical way. It is not a fast process.
The castle has been under construction since 1998, and isn’t likely to be completed before at least 2030. But that is just fine with Martin and her colleagues.
Time is not a concern. Keeping true to medieval practices is what counts, even down to the garb worn by the dozens of craftsmen and artisans handling the work. They wear cotton or wool work shirts with no buttons or zippers. Every item in their workplace wardrobe is in keeping with the clothes worn by tradesmen 800 years ago.
Although the chateau is far from complete, visitors are already flocking to it. After all, it is the construction itself that is as curious and interesting as the finished chateau will be.
Some 300,000 people tour the grounds every year, bringing in the annual five million euros needed to keep the project going. Being on the site is rather like stepping onto the set of a movie set in medieval times. The many workers look like like cast members of a historical film.
But their tasks are very real. Each one, whether stonemason, quarry man or labourer, had to learn how to perform their jobs as they would have been done eight centuries ago. For example: stonemasons have to split rocks with the exact kind of sledgehammer used all those many years ago.
There are no sockets in which to plug in electric drills and not even any computers to use as reference when checking measurements of a wall or doorway. All the specifications have been written down on paper, and it is those notes each crew member must consult before building a section. But no one is complaining – in fact, these teams are thriving in this unusual environment.
Baptiste Fabre is one of the 16 stone masons working at Chateau de Guedelon. Like his fellow workers, when school children tour the site and pepper him with questions, he happily puts down his tools and chats.
That is another unusual feature of this site – visitors are encouraged to interact with the builders, and they in turn are glad to talk with visitors about their unique endeavours. Construction crews on modern sites are rarely available to talk with passersby – in fact, that kind of dialogue and interaction is discouraged. Not at Chateau de Guedelon.
Another facet of his work that Fabre enjoys is the quiet – a rare commodity on today’s construction sites. Nor does he mind the time it takes to complete jobs like breaking rocks, something that modern tools can do with speed and efficiency.
He said in an interview recently that if given the choice between plying his trade with a chisel or a power drill, he would choose the hand method every time. “I prefer doing it by hand,” he said, “…and there’s pleasure in working with no noise.
I prefer that.” When asked, his colleagues wholeheartedly agreed. Each one prized the calm and peaceful environment in which they work, and seem to know how rare it is. One day, they will no doubt head back to noisy, modern projects. Until then, this chateau is their complete focus.
Although everything on the job site is in keeping with medieval construction techniques, there are a few concessions to modernism made for the crews’ safety. Hard hats and safety glasses must be worn at all times, and there is a telephone on site. The latter is only there in case of emergency, should a worker need medical attention, for example.
But other than those minor necessities, the chateau site is true to its mission. And though the work is going slowly – two decades and counting – progress is apparent. Two exterior walls are up, and the main hall is in place. So is the kitchen, the chapel and the guard rooms, along with other sections. It is beginning to look like the elegant, grand chateau it will one day be.
And it will be self sustaining. There is already a functioning garden on site, and its crops go to the restaurant enjoyed by visitors.
This place represents and recreates the grandeur of France’s past, the glorious times when chateaus were built by tireless workers and craftsmen. But it is modern in its purpose: it gives historians, architects and others hands-on experience with past skills.
Going to the chateau de Guedelon is rather like stepping into a time machine, and witnessing France as it was being built. Like all history, the chateau teaches us how the world came to be in an earlier era. And those lessons can teach us much about our future.