Guédelon Castle – Reverse Engineering Medieval Archaeology in the 21st Century

If you’ve noticed, I’ve got a thing for swords and castles and whatnot. My love of all things medieval is, as far as I can tell, the springboard for geekery in my life. In fact, the whole medieval vibe is so strong with me that I followed it all the way through graduate school. (My research was primarily in Arthurian and Carolingian romances from 12-15th century England.)

So, castles get my attention, you might say. I’ve always been amazed by medieval architecture, both in castle and cathedral building (particular props to Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth in that matter – and, it should be noted that the miniseries based on the book is currently airing on Starz, and features Ian McShane. People, you can’t get much cooler than that!). How exactly medieval masons and architects managed as they did, with limited mathematics and instruments,  it still somewhat of a mystery. Let’s just say they didn’t keep the most consistent records, which makes research in this vein somewhat maddening. And, coupled with the fact that some of the larger constructions took centuries to build, well, it gets a little difficult to keep track after a while.

I ran across the story of Guédelon Castle about a year ago and was definitely intrigued. The project, which is being undertaken in France, aims to recreate a castle in the same way it would have been built in the 13th century. Everything down to the tools is authentic as possible, and a team of experts sees to all the details. The castle has been in progress since 1997, and is expected to take a total of 25 years to completion—which is 2022.

Anne Baud, who is on the staff of experts and is an Archaeologist and Senior Lecturer at Lyon University explains:

“My normal work consists of carrying out research on existing ruins…In fact we mentally deconstruct the wall that we are studying. This can take us so far, but it remains an intellectual activity. Today, Guédelon is helping us to put ideas and research to the test.”

As someone who often critiques inconsistencies in films when it comes to out of date armor or architecture, this project is a bit of a dream come true. Hollywood might not give a crap about anachronism, but geeks like me sure do. Going through the Guédelon website, it’s clear that the team behind the projects—the brainchild of Michel Guyot who was the chief restorer of a true medieval castle Saint-Fargeau—are attending to every detail. They even made up a social history of the place to put it firmly within medieval context, which is both amusing and heartwarming.

The Middle Ages gets a bad rap, and it’s largely undeserved. Sure, there were many “dark” things about that time—but there were also many instances of enlightenment and wonder. That someone has put as much time and energy into a project like this is truly thrilling to see. If I can get to France any time soon, you can bet your dicebag that I’ll be making a beeline for the Guédelon build site. I mean, I’ve seen medieval cathedrals in England—but what are the chances of me ever watching a medieval castle being built?

For plenty of pictures and videos, check out their website.

(via Fark)

[Photo © Guédelon]

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7 Responses to Guédelon Castle – Reverse Engineering Medieval Archaeology in the 21st Century

  1. Actually, the mathematics managed by medieval masons (I was on a roll with the alliteration) was pretty darn amazing. They just used a lot of techniques that we have long since discarded. (In favor of more broadly applicable and more accurate techniques, to be fair.)

    If you can find one of the books that talks about how masons used compasses, rope, and notched sticks to work out their measurements, it is really impressive. They didn't have a protractor to accurately mark off angles. Instead, they would use various techniques to produce angles of certain degrees, as well as doing things such as converting triangles into squares of equal area.

    Reading up on the "calculators" of the Middle Ages is also amazing. They had a whole raft of tricks for doing complicated arithmetic on large numbers in their heads. They used to have competitions in village squares and whatnot (an old version of Jeopardy, I suppose).

  2. Actually, the mathematics managed by medieval masons (I was on a roll with the alliteration) was pretty darn amazing. They just used a lot of techniques that we have long since discarded. (In favor of more broadly applicable and more accurate techniques, to be fair.)

    If you can find one of the books that talks about how masons used compasses, rope, and notched sticks to work out their measurements, it is really impressive. They didn’t have a protractor to accurately mark off angles. Instead, they would use various techniques to produce angles of certain degrees, as well as doing things such as converting triangles into squares of equal area.

    Reading up on the “calculators” of the Middle Ages is also amazing. They had a whole raft of tricks for doing complicated arithmetic on large numbers in their heads. They used to have competitions in village squares and whatnot (an old version of Jeopardy, I suppose).

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