The Secrets of the Castle is the latest in the TV series about everyday (mainly farming) life in previous centuries presented by Ruth Goodman, Peter Ginn and Tom Pinfold (replacing Alex Langlands who has been studying for a doctorate). I’ve been watching them since the first series, Tales from the Green Valley in 2006, which was about running a farm the Jacobean way and which remains my favourite of the farming ones. The other series are A Tudor Feast at Christmas (2006), Victorian Farm (2009), Edwardian Farm (2010), Wartime Farm (2012) and Tudor Monastery Farm (2013).
This time they are not farming, but building a castle and they’re not doing it on their own. Guédelon is the world’s biggest archaeological experiment. It is a twenty-five year project to build a castle in Burgundy using thirteenth century methods. It is staffed by craftsmen and craftswomen and students. They work in seasons, March to September, as their thirteenth century counterparts would have done. As Peter says, the castle is the by-product; it’s the ‘chantier’, the building site, that is the reason for the project as those working there rediscover medieval methods.
It’s a lengthy project, taking longer to build the modern castle than it would have taken in the thirteenth century. This is partly because there are very few written records about how castles were built, so many of the early days were spent working out how things were done.
The team joined the project in its seventeenth season, so much of the castle has already been built. It would not have made such good television if they had gone much earlier, for they were able to take part in some very interesting work, such as making the parts for and putting together a tracery window, painting one of the private rooms and cooking in the kitchen. They were also there when the water mill was first put into use.
The craftsmen and women that we see are carpenters, masons, woodcutters, wood turners, rope makers, builders, potters, blacksmiths, bowyers, tilers, quarrymen, miller and dyers. The overall effect is to show the amount of physical labour required for even the simplest of tasks. There are many surprises: only two quarrymen are required to support the site and everything is designed on the wooden floor of the tracing room and there’s not a sheet of paper in sight.
On the domestic front Ruth shows how to turn a hovel into a home. Lesson one is to cover the earth floor with rushes so that you don’t sleep on a damp floor and lesson two is to hang your food in a net from the ceiling so that the mice don’t get it. Then the potter has to make her some pots, both to cook with and to eat and drink from. Then the carpenter has to make her a grain ark for storing grain and for making bread. We later see it being put to this use by Tom, rather unsuccessfully. We also learn that pig fat keeps your hands smooth when you’re working with lime, but makes every dog on the site your friend.
There is an expedition to see a trebuchet being fired – truly terrifying- and another to glimpse the interior of St Mary Magdalene, Vézelay, the inspiration for a black and white arch in the castle. This visit also includes a very brief examination of the medieval idea of pilgrimage, which is a bit of an obsession of mine at the moment.
The animals around the site also get a look in. There are pigs, horses, chickens, ducks and some very sleek and handsome cockerels.
There were two great revelations in this DVD for me. The first is rather obvious, so it should not have been a revelation. Most castles we see today are ruins and open to the elements and have bare interior walls. When they were first built, the walls would have been plastered and painted. This would have had the effect of making the rooms lighter. The second, more surprising revelation, was that the outsides of the castles were lime washed so that they would be white and therefore more visible, thus impressing, or striking terror, into anyone who saw it. Everything about a castle was designed to impress, either because its function was to cow those around it into submission or to defend part of the realm, or because it was demonstrating the wealth and ambition of the lord who built it.
I have enjoyed this DVD very much. It’s informative and quite cosy, although clearly some of the participants are a bit overwhelmed by Ruth’s enthusiasm. I watched the series when it was on television at the end of last year and enjoyed it just as much watching it again in the last month. I shall doubtless watch it again my times in the future.
The DVD was released in January and is made up of five one hour episodes, with a short discussion between the producer and the site administrator at Guédelon as the special feature. It’s narrated by Paul McGann, which is a huge bonus if you like his voice, as I do.
The site at Guédelon is open to visitors between March and September. The website is here. There are tours in English in July and August.
You can follow the project on Twitter @GuedelonCastle
This is a link to an amusing animation showing how the project came into being here.