Category Archives: Thirteenth Century

Medieval Bills of Exchange

Last week there was a question in the comments from Ellen Hawley who wanted to know how the innkeepers who stored and organised the transport of goods on behalf of merchants were paid by those merchants. I touched on this subject a bit when we were looking at how ransoms for prisoners of war were paid, but there is more to be said on the subject.

Banking in the fourteenth century was fairly sophisticated, even if two Florentine banks had gone bust lending money to Edward I and Edward III. Italian banks and Italian merchants were the most advanced in their business dealings, but we have to go back to the Templars in twelfth-century France to understand where the idea of how to make payments over large distances and in different currencies without physically moving lots of money arose.

Moving large amounts of coins was rarely a good idea in the Middle Ages. It was incredibly difficult to protect a train of slow-moving pack animals or carts from robbers and bandits. Even small amounts of money were vulnerable, as Chaucer discovered when he was robbed on three separate occasions when he was carrying money to pay men working for Richard II. This is not to say that real money and jewels weren’t transported around Europe and the East because they were. In 1328 a large amount of money was sent from the papal court in Avignon to Lombardy to pay the army there. There was a guard of 150 cavalry, but they were attacked and half the money was stolen and some of the cavalry were captured by the bandits and had to be ransomed.

Since it was so risky, another way had to be found to make payments across large distances. Somewhat surprisingly, we have to go back to the Templars and the Crusades. Although the Templars were active in protecting pilgrims and fighting in the Crusades in the holy Land, in England, France and Italy one of their primary functions was providing secure storage for important documents and precious objects. Although monasteries in general were fairly secure, the Templars were soldiers as well as monks. If I had to give my precious objects to someone, I think I’d prefer them to be in the care of men who were able to fight to protect them, rather than simply rely on the strength of monastery walls and doors.

The Crusades, however, meant that wealthy men needed to be able to access some of their money while they were in the East.  Not only did they have to feed the soldiers in their retinue, but they also had to replace lost or damaged equipment and horses. They also had to live in a certain style.

Fortunately, the Templars could help them. The Templars had preceptories all over Europe and in the East. A preceptory was a headquarters. Temple in London is where the English one was located and Le Temple is where the French equivalent was built in Paris. These were built like fortresses and were very secure. Wealthy men could deposit money in one of them and receive a letter of credit allowing him to receive the same amount in the local currency (less administration charges and interest) at any preceptory in Europe or in the Holy Land. This meant, of course, that the Templars made a profit on the transactions.

The records kept by the Templars were very thorough and everyone trusted them, with good reason. They even had a treasure ship off the coast of the Holy Land from which kings and nobles could make emergency withdrawals whilst on campaign. They were also able to make loans.

Since men from across Europe were involved in the Crusades, it’s not a surprise that the Templars became involved in the activities of Italian merchants and bankers who were interested in trade across Europe and in the East.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, however, the Templar’s great wealth proved too tempting and Philippe IV of France destroyed the order in that country. The Florentine bankers had learned what they needed to do to fill the gap and came up with bills of exchange.

Bills of exchange allowed a person in one country to pay someone in a different country and in a different currency. They were also a form of loan on which interest was charged. Since charging interest was illegal, it was usually hidden in the administration fees, commission and exchange rates. Money didn’t have to be transferred just between branches of the same bank, but could also be transferred between different banks. The banks were not banks as we know them today. As far as I can discover, the only banks were Italian, but they operated all over Europe.

Bills of exchange weren’t always practicable. Sometimes the rate of exchange in one place made it too costly to buy a bill of exchange and silver, gold or precious stones had to be transported from one place to the other, because, despite the cost and risks involved, it was the cheaper option.

Bills of exchange weren’t just used by merchants, but also by people on business for the papal court. Men in the service of the kings also used them. Bills of exchange could only be used between locations that had more or less equal amounts of money in the branches of the bank. If the difference between them was too great, coins would have to be transported from one place to the other.

It wasn’t a perfect system, but it allowed innkeepers in France to be paid in their local currency by a merchant in England.

Sources:
The Templars: History and Myth
by Michael Haag
Cathedral, Forge and Waterwheel by Joseph Gies and Frances Gies
Power and Profit by Peter Spufford

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

Amazon

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Filed under Fourteenth Century, Medieval Commerce, Medieval Monks, Thirteenth Century, Twelfth Century

The Great Hall of Winchester Castle

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The Round Table, Great Hall, Winchester

During a recent trip to Winchester I visited what remains of its medieval castle. The castle was built at the highest point of the town, which was also the furthest point from the river. The only remnants of the castle these days are some stumps of walls, some vaults which are closed to the public, and the Great Hall.

You’ve probably come across the Great Hall in photographs, even if you didn’t know what it was. It’s best-known today for housing the Round Table and that’s what tourists pay to see. There’s a bit more to the Great Hall than that, but it’s what we’ll start with.

Edward I had the Round Table built, probably around 1290 for a banquet. He didn’t have it painted with the portrait of King Arthur and the names of the knights, though. The Tudor Rose in the middle of the table is a clue to the identity of the king who did have it painted: Henry VIII. King Arthur’s face was originally that of the young Henry, which must have been a bit confusing for him, since his older brother, who would have been king had he lived, was called Arthur. Over the years, various renovations have changed the features of King Arthur into those of an old man. It was only because X-rays were used during one of the more recent renovations that we have any idea of what King Arthur originally looked like. The Victorians, as is usually the case, were probably the guilty parties here.

The table is massive. It’s 18 feet in diameter and weighs 1 ton 4cwt. It was made of 121 separate pieces of oak and had 12 legs. When it was renovated in the 1970s, the wood was dated by means of dendrochronology and the youngest tree-ring they found was dated to 1219, suggesting that the trees used were felled no later than the second decade of the fourteenth century.

There’s a model of its original construction on display just outside the hall.

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Model of the Round Table, Great Hall, Winchester

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Model of the Round Table, Great Hall, Winchester

The castle itself was originally built by William the Conqueror at the end of the eleventh century.  Henry III was born there in 1207 and it was he who had the Great Hall built. A fire during the reign of his son, Edward I damaged the royal apartments so badly that they were never repaired and the royal family thereafter stayed in the palace of the Bishop of Winchester whenever they visited.

The Great Hall was used as a courtroom from the reign of Henry III off and on until 1973. Famous trials that took place there included those of the Earl of Kent (a son of Edward I) in 1330 and Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603.

The Great Hall has other delights, not least a herber garden set out in a style that would have been familiar to Edward I’s queen, Eleanor, who brought a number of plants to England from her native Castile.

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Queen Eleanor’s Garden, Great Hall, Winchester

The Victorians tried hard with their renovation. This wall, where the Round Table was hung after it was no longer needed for its original purpose, is covered with the names of the parliamentary representatives for Hampshire from 1283 to 1868. For many years, possibly centuries, there was a medieval mappa mundi on this wall.

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Great Hall, Winchester

They also made an effort with the windows. Apparently the long walls of the hall were originally painted with heraldic devices. The Victorians put devices of kings, queens, bishops and others important to the history of Hampshire in the windows. Here’s the window with the devices of Edward III, his son Edward of Woodstock, and his great friend William Montacute.

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Great Hall, Wincester

The Great Hall is well worth a visit if you’re ever in Winchester.

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Amazon

 

 

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Filed under Castle, Medieval Buildings, Thirteenth Century, Twelfth Century

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Reliquary Casket of St Thomas Becket

Reliquary Casket of St Thomas Becket

Reliquary Casket of St Thomas Becket, British Museum

This is the final object of those I photographed in the British Museum and it’s my favourite. It’s a tiny reliquary, about 6¼” tall, 6″ wide and 2¾” deep. I like it for several reasons. Firstly, because it’s just beautiful. Despite its age the colours shine and sparkle. Secondly, because it’s enamelware from Limoges, which I don’t come across very often. Thirdly, because it’s about Thomas Becket, who was an important English saint in the Middle Ages.

I first became aware of the enamelware produced in Limoges when I was doing research for my novel Beloved Besieged, part of which is set in the town. My Pinterest board for the novel is full of pictures of enamelled objects made there and it’s beautiful stuff.

Enamel is a type of glass fused onto metal. The metal was usually copper, but it could be silver or gold. The metal between the pieces of enamel was gilded. This type of object was produced mainly in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. About forty similar caskets made to contain relics of Thomas Becket still survive.

Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, was killed on 29th December 1170 in his own cathedral by four knights who had been sent, or believed they had been sent, by Henry II to strike him down. Having risen from fairly humble beginnings to become Chancellor, Becket was made archbishop of Canterbury. Since it was Henry II who had raised Becket to prominence, he naturally assumed Becket would side with him in the constant struggle between medieval kings and the pope about the authority each had over the king’s subjects.

The archbishop did not support the king and was exiled. They were reconciled and the trouble began again. Hearing the king utter the infamous words, ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?’ (possibly in medieval French, Norman French or even Latin, but definitely not English) the four knights rushed off to Canterbury and did their king’s bidding.

Becket was canonised in 1173. Henry II made a very public penance, and he and his descendants were very energetic in promoting the murdered archbishop as a saint. His relics were sent to churches and monasteries all over Europe in reliquaries like this one. The shrine at Canterbury drew pilgrims from many countries, becoming the fourth most visited shrine in the Middle Ages, after Jerusalem, Rome and Compostela.

Pilgrims didn’t just visit the shrine, they also bought ‘Canterbury water’. It was holy water mixed with a drop of Becket’s blood and was said to cure many illnesses and disabilities. Sold in ampoules it could be taken back home if the sick person was too ill to make the pilgrimage on their own behalf.  The monks also sold badges to pilgrims as reminders (souvenirs) of their pilgrimage.

Becket was an important saint for English pilgrims, as demonstrated by Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. His pilgrims were on their way to Becket’s shrine. Many pilgrimages ended at Canterbury, but others continued on to Dover, with pilgrims crossing the English Channel in the next stage of their journey to Rome, Compostela or Jerusalem. It was not always safe enough to travel further afield, though, and many had to be satisfied with Canterbury.

The saint’s murder was a popular motif in medieval art and the British Museum also has an alabaster panel depicting it. The image on the reliquary is of two of the knights attacking Becket in front of the altar. It dates from the early thirteenth century, about 40 years after the event. At this time Limoges was part of the duchy of Aquitaine, whose dukes were the Plantagenets, which explains why so many Becket reliquaries were made there.

Henry II’s descendants took their devotion to St Thomas seriously.  They were always stopping off at Canterbury to visit his shrine. Edward III once walked from London to Canterbury as a pilgrim. In 1343 he gave a golden ship to the shrine after he had been saved from a storm. Edward of Woodstock, his eldest son, is interred there.

All my photograph does really well is show you how tiny the reliquary is. Here’s a better photograph of its front.

Sources:

Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson

The Perfect King – Ian Mortimer

 

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The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – The King’s and Queen’s Pavements

The king's pavement

The King’s Pavement, British Museum

The King’s and Queen’s Pavements were laid in Clarendon Palace, near Salisbury, in Wiltshire. The palace was originally a royal hunting lodge and Henry II and Henry III both spent a lot of money converting it into something fit to receive them for longer periods.

It was Henry III who was responsible for the pavement above. He had a circular floor laid in his private chapel around 1244. The floor was about 4m in diameter.  Up until this point tiled floors were mainly found in ecclesiastical buildings. Once the king had one, everyone wanted a decorated pavement in their houses.

The construction of the pavement was ordered on 12th March 1244. The tiles were made on-site and a kiln was built nearby to fire them.  The thin green tiles are just green tiles, but the brown tiles are inlaid with designs showing very stylised leaves and fleurs de lys. There was an inscription around the outer edge of the pavement, but no one knows what it said since most of the letters are lost and the ones that were found were not necessarily in their original location.

The chapel for which the pavement was made was on the first floor and the tiles were scattered when the building collapsed. The palace was in poor condition before the time of Elizabeth I, who had to eat somewhere else when she visited it, so unsafe had it become. It was a ruin by the eighteenth century.

The queen's pavement

The Queen’s Pavement, British Museum

The Queen’s pavement covered the ground floor of Eleanor of Provence’s personal apartments in Clarendon Palace. She was Henry III’s queen and was a bit of a trend-setter, bringing fashions from France with her. Even in those days the English were in thrall to French fashion. In her private rooms there were glazed windows and a fireplace, both of which took a long time to spread across England.

The tiles depict symbolic animals: regal lions and griffins who guarded treasure.

These are the last of my tiles from the museum.

 

Sources: Masterpieces of Medieval Art by James Robinson

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The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Doorknocker in the Shape of a Lion’s Head

Doorknocker

Doorknocker in the shape of a lion’s head, British Museum

This object has a cumbersome name, but it’s impressive enough to deserve it. It’s about 14 inches across and dates from around 1200.

Some time ago I wrote about how the idea of sanctuary worked in English law. The doorknocker played a vital role for the criminal who wanted sanctuary, as he had to knock on the church door to gain entry. In theory, but not always in practice, the criminal could remain in the church for forty days without harm from those pursuing him. After that time he had to leave the church and take his punishment or leave England.

Most churches in the fourteenth century had knockers, but they began to be removed and melted down when the laws about sanctuary were repealed in the seventeenth century. Few church doorknockers survive now and this one is such a lovely example.

It’s bronze and was made by the sand-casting method, which means it’s unique since the mould, made of sand, straw and manure, couldn’t be used twice. Once the molten bronze had been poured into the mould it was packed with sand, where it stayed until it had cooled. It was not a quick technique, but it was a proven one, having its roots in antiquity.

No one knows which church it belonged to, but its size and value indicate that it must have been an important one.

Lions were popular forms for ecclesiastical doorknockers and other examples have survived.

Sadly the ring is not original, so no thirteenth-century criminal grabbed it and pounded on the church door in the hope of gaining time for himself.

Here is a better photograph of the doorknocker than mine.

 

Sources:

Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson

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Filed under Church, Medieval Crime and Law, Thirteenth Century

The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – A Knight on Horseback Aquamanile

Aquamanile

Knight on Horseback Aquamanile, British Museum

I’ve mentioned table etiquette in a couple of posts, here and here, and I thought it was time to talk about other things that were used at a fourteenth-century meal besides knives and hands.

The latter were generally a lot cleaner than I might have led you to believe. People washed their hands before a meal, at least in large houses. Most of the household would wash their hands before coming to the table, but the head of the household would wash his hands in front of everyone else. There was a certain amount of ceremony and ritual attached to this, especially at feasts, when a servant would bring the water and drying cloth to him.

The mounted knight in the photograph above is an aquamanile. The figurine is hollow and clean water was poured in through the hole in his helmet. The horse is not a unicorn who’s lost most of its horn. The hole in its head is a spout through which water could be poured onto the hands of the head of the, in this case rather grand, head of the household. The mounted knight was a popular shape for an aquamanile to take, but there were other forms, usually animals. These were often lions, horses and unicorns. For those of lower rank, an aquamanile could be made out of pottery. I suspect that most households simply used jugs or bowls of water.

Aquamaniles were also used by the celebrants at mass, who washed their hands before the people as part of a ritual cleansing. Like the head of a household, they were presiding at a meal. It would be interesting to know which ritual came first.

Most aquamaniles, at least of those that survive, were made of brass. The knight is made of bronze. Since I had to look it up, I can tell you what the difference is. Bronze is a copper alloy that usually has tin as the main additive, while brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. There are records of gold and silver aquamaniles, but none has survived.

The knight has lost his lance, shield and legs, but he’s still amazing. He was made, in England, for someone with a  bit of money to throw around. He’s just over a foot tall and was probably made in the last quarter of the thirteenth century.

The British Museum has photographed him from every possible angle. Some of the angles are less than dignified, but they’re all illuminating.

 

Sources:

Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James Robinson

 

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

Available now:

TheHeirsTale-WEB

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Filed under Medieval Life, Thirteenth Century

Introduction to Medieval Tournaments

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A couple of years ago I had a vague idea of writing a novel about a man who made money from tournaments. It didn’t come to anything, even though I read somewhere that adultery was so rife as to be the norm at such events.  Tournaments have come up again in my reading recently, so I thought I should learn more about them.

I have more than enough information for one blogpost, so this will be an introduction and another post will deal with tournaments in the fourteenth century.

There’s a very good chance that you’re not thinking about tournaments as you read this, but jousting. They’re not the same thing. Some tournaments did feature jousts, but a joust on its own was not a tournament.  Jousting is what you’ll have seen in films – two heavily-armoured knights on huge horses charging at one another on horses. They’re usually separated by a long fence. This last was a Spanish invention and wasn’t used in England until long after the fourteenth century. The English generally trusted their own ability to keep their horses running in a straight line towards an opponent without the help of a partition. Sometimes jousts included knights fighting on foot with different types of weapons.  It was the charging horses, however, which provided the greatest entertainment.

Tournaments began with a very serious purpose, which was to enable knights to practise warfare when there wasn’t a war. They fought in teams against one another. Men could be captured and ransomed, just as they could in a war. Some knights, among them William Marshal,  made a very good living from tournaments.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries tournaments were mini battles. Two different types developed in the thirteenth century. The tournament á l’outrance was like a real battle and men were often killed. A tournament á la plaisance was more of a chivalric festival and was a bit safer.

The mêlée was the main event of a tournament. It was used to train knights to work together in a cavalry charge. They had to be able to keep formation when facing the enemy and this was the safest way to train them. Safety was, however, relative. Both sides charged at one another and fought until one side won. They were huge events and at least one had about 3,000 participants.

Injuries were common. Some men did not want to take part because of the risk of injury. If they were going to be injured, they preferred it to be in a real fight. There were many, on the other hand, who would rather be fighting in a tournament than fighting in Scotland, and Edward I restricted tournaments in an effort to raise a large enough army to take on the Scots. He had been a keen participant in tournaments in his youth, but they had to go when they conflicted with his ambitions.

Jousting was not quite as dangerous as a mêlée, but death or serious injury were still possibilities. Being knocked from a horse at speed was often fatal. Participants were usually bruised or had bones broken. Jousts became popular in the thirteenth century and eventually dominated tournaments.

Since tournaments were gathering places for men trained to fight, they could provide the opportunity for men to plot rebellion. They were suppressed by Henry III and Edward II for that reason. Unlike his father, Edward I, and his son, Edward III, Edward II was not in the least enthusiastic about tournaments. It was one of the many things which made those around him doubt his suitability to be king. Edward III knew how to use tournaments both to impress his nobles and to tie them to him with bonds of loyalty and friendship, as we’ll see next week.

Here is a video to show you how exciting jousting must have been. There are videos of mêlées, but they’re usually quite small and the men (and women) fight on foot. They’re also incredibly violent.

Sources:

England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L Waugh

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer

Knight – Michael Prestwich

Armies and Warfare in the Middle Ages – Michael Prestwich

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The Secrets of the Castle DVD: A review

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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.

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Filed under Castle, DVD Review, Thirteenth Century