It’s the rare Englishman who will readily defer to a Frenchman — except, of course, in the field of castle-building. This was true after the Norman Conquest of 1066, which introduced French castles to Britain, and it remains so today, especially under the demands of period accuracy. In order to learn first-hand just what materials and technical skills went into those mightiest structures of the Middle Ages, the BBC Two series Secrets of the Castle had to go all the way to Burgundy. There Château de Guédelon has been under construction for the past 25 years, with its builders adhering as closely as possible to the way they would have done the job back in the thirteenth century, the “golden age of castle-building.”
Hosted by historian Ruth Goodman along with archaeologists Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold, Secrets of the Castle comprises five episodes that cover a variety of aspects of the medieval castle: its tools, its defense, its architecture, its stonemasonry, and its connections to the rest of the world.
The work of “experimental archaeology” that is Guédelon demands mastery of nearly millennia-old building methods, the simple ingeniousness of some of which remains impressive today. So, in our increasingly disembodied age, does their sheer physicality of it all: apart from the horses carting stone in from the quarry (itself a strong determinant in the siting of a castle), everything was accomplished with sheer human muscle.
Much of that manpower was leveraged with machines, often elaborate and sometimes amusing: take, for example, the pair of human-sized hamster wheels in which Gill and Pinfold run in order to operate a crane. Such a hard day’s work can only be fueled by a hearty meal, and so Goodman learns how to cook a simple vegetable stew. Same with how to clean and indeed craft the cooking pots needed to do so. For a castle wasn’t just a fortified symbol of a kingdom’s strength, but a place where all manner of life went on, as well as a stone embodiment of human knowledge in the Middle Ages. Secrets of the Castle originally aired in 2014, and since then a great deal more period-accurate work has gone into Guédelon. Scheduled for completion next year, the castle will presumably — as long as the skills of its builders prove equal to those of their forebears — still be standing in the 29th century.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.