The men who know how to rebuild Notre Dame’s roof

Deep in the forests of northern Burgundy, in a once disused quarry, a team of master-builders is building a 13th-century castle from scratch. Quarrymen, stonemasons, woodcutters, carpenter-joiners, blacksmiths, tile makers, carters and rope makers are working together to revive heritage craft skills and to shed light on the world of medieval construction.

“They work with the ethos that the surest way of re-discovering lost techniques and methods is by discovering first hand what works and what does not,” says the BBC, which made a program about the project called Secrets of the Castle. “Archaeologists and academics flock to the castle to see their theories tried out and put into practice. Above all, building a medieval castle requires the skill and co-operation of a workforce functioning together as a community.”

And this amazing project turns out to have an extremely useful part to play in a huge 21st century project – the restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral, in Paris.

The idea of building a medieval castle from scratch was born just a few miles from Guédelon at Saint-Fargeau castle. Two experts who had studied Michel Guyot’s castle found that within the red brick walls of his castle, were the stone walls of a medieval castle. The last paragraph of their report said: ‘‘Reconstructing Saint-Fargeau castle would be an amazing project’’.

Guedelon castle (Guedelon photo)

But instead of rebuilding Saint-Fargeau Castle, the team opted instead for a “new” castle, inspired by neighbouring castles and situated in the first half of the 13th century and the architecture of castles built during the reign of Philip Augustus.

Among the small band of enthusiasts that Michel Guyot gathered together in the winter of 1995 to get the venture off the ground was Maryline Martin, who saw it as a novel means of creating long-term work opportunities for the long-term unemployed. The beauty of a 25-year project to build a medieval castle, she said, was not only that it might offer sustainable jobs but, more importantly, that it could provide people with skills and qualifications that would give them a trade for life.

“What excited me about this project was making a long term commitment to people.  It meant we could offer training, meaningful work and a real future,” she said. 

While stonemasonry and blacksmithing may not seem like transferable skills in the 21st century, many workers have gone on from Guédelon to gain work in the modern construction industry or to meet the growing demand for restoration of historic buildings, said the BBC.

It is an example of experimental archaeology in action.

“The aim is to recreate the site organization and construction processes that might have existed on an early 13th-century building site,” says Guédelon. 

“Previously there was nothing to be found in this woodland: no remains of an ancient castle, no ruins…nothing except a former ironstone quarry, abandoned in the 1950s. Guédelon is a “new-build”.

“Everyday in spring, summer and autumn, the team arrive on site in the knowledge that building Guédelon Castle is much more than just a day-job; it requires a certain mindset, a readiness to learn throughout the construction process and to work in the knowledge that to produce a credible medieval structure, it is necessary to sometimes “unlearn”, take down, start again, doubt, before finally feeling on the right track.”

This season, stonemasons are working on the gatehouse. (Guedelon picture)

A scientific advisory committee made up of archaeologists, historians and castellologists has been associated with this unconventional project from the start. Its members offer advice to the builders while informing archaeologists and architectural historians in terms of techniques, choice of tools and site management.

After the roof of Notre Dame was destroyed by fire in April 2019, most people thought it would be impossible to rebuild it as it was, the Guardian reported.

“The roof frame was extremely sophisticated, using techniques that were advanced for the 12th and 13th centuries,” said Frédéric Épaud, a medieval wood specialist. “After the fire, there were a lot of people saying it would take thousands of trees, and we didn’t have enough of the right ones, and the wood would have to be dried for years, and nobody even knew anything about how to produce beams like they did in the Middle Ages. They said it was impossible. But we knew it could be done because Guédelon has been doing it for years.”

Stéphane Boudy, who has worked as a carpenter at the site since 1999, says that hand-hewing each beam – a single piece from a single tree – respects the “heart” of the green wood that gives it its strength and resistance.

“We have 25 years’ experience of cutting, squaring and hewing wood by hand,” he told the Guardian. “It’s what we [have done] every day for 25 years. There are people outside of here who can do it now, but I tell you they all came here to learn how. If this place didn’t exist, perhaps the experts would have said: no it’s not possible to reproduce the roof of Notre Dame. We [have shown that] it is.”

“This isn’t just nostalgia. If Notre Dame’s roof lasted 800 years, it is because of this. There’s no heart in sawmill wood,” he says.