How To Build a 13th-Century Castle, Using Only Authentic Medieval Tools & Techniques

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.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Vir­tu­al Time-Lapse Recre­ation of the Build­ing of Notre Dame (1160)

An Ani­mat­ed Video Shows the Build­ing of a Medieval Bridge: 45 Years of Con­struc­tion in 3 Min­utes

What Did Peo­ple Eat in Medieval Times? A Video Series and New Cook­book Explain

A 13th-Cen­tu­ry Cook­book Fea­tur­ing 475 Recipes from Moor­ish Spain Gets Pub­lished in a New Trans­lat­ed Edi­tion

How Women Got Dressed in the 14th & 18th Cen­turies: Watch the Very Painstak­ing Process Get Cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly Recre­at­ed

A is for Archi­tec­ture: 1960 Doc­u­men­tary on Why We Build, from the Ancient Greeks to Mod­ern Times

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.

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