‘They said it was impossible’: how medieval carpenters are

At Guédelon Castle the year is 1253 and the minor nobleman, Gilbert Courtenay, has ridden off to fight in the Crusades, leaving his wife in charge of workers building the family’s new home: a modest chateau that befits his social position as a humble knight in the service of King Louis IX.

Here, in a forest clearing in northern Burgundy, history is being remade to the sound of chisel against stone and axe against wood, as 21st-century artisans re-learn and perfect long-forgotten medieval skills.

The Guédelon project was dreamed up as an exercise in “experimental archaeology” 25 years ago. Instead of digging down it has been built upward, using only the tools and methods available in the Middle Ages and, wherever possible, locally sourced materials. Now, in an unforeseen twist of fate, Guédelon is playing a vital role in restoring the structure and soul of Notre Dame cathedral.

Paris’s imposing 13th-century cathedral, a world heritage site, was consumed by fire in April 2019, destroying its complex roof structure, known as La Forêt because of the large number of trees used in its construction. The widespread view was that it would be impossible to rebuild it as it was.

“The roof frame was extremely sophisticated, using techniques that were advanced for the 12th and 13th centuries,” Frédéric Épaud, a medieval wood specialist, tells the Observer.

“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.

Notre Dame ablaze in 2019.
Notre Dame ablaze in 2019. Hopes are pinned on Guédelon know-how to restore its famous La Fôret roof. Photograph: Alexis Lopez/ZEPPELIN/SIP/REX/Shutterstock

“But we knew it could be done because Guédelon has been doing it for years.”

A number of the companies bidding for the Notre Dame work have already engaged carpenters trained at Guédelon, and more are expected to beat a path to the Burgundy clearing 200km down the autoroute du Soleil from Paris.

It might be quicker and cheaper to turn wooden beams out of a sawmill – especially with French president Emmanuel Macron’s pledge to reopen the ravaged cathedral in 2024 – but you will not find anyone at Guédelon who believes it should be done that way.

Stéphane Boudy is one of a small team of carpenters at the medieval site, where he has worked since 1999. Boudy, 51, trained as a baker, then an electrician, until discovering his vocation at Guédelon. He explains how 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 says. “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.

Maryline Martin is co-founder of the Guédelon project that attracts around 300,000 paying visitors every year and was featured in a 2014 BBC documentary series, Secrets of the Castle. She says the chateau’s blacksmith has been commissioned to make the axes that will cut the wood for Notre Dame, and its carpenters are expected to train others to work on the cathedral.

Guédelon’s woodworking experts will be invaluable in restoring Notre Dame’s roof.
Guédelon’s woodworking experts will be invaluable in restoring Notre Dame’s roof. Photograph: Guédelon

“It’s prestigious for us that Notre Dame will be restored by many who learned their trade at Guédelon. We are a private enterprise lost in our forest that receives no public money. We work with many state research bodies, but some people wrote us off as a theme park,” she says.

“Now, after 25 years, we are the only ones who can understand and are able to do what has to be done, and they discover we have not sold our soul to the devil. Our people will be working on Notre Dame one way or another, but why would we want to go to Paris? We will continue our 13th-century work here.”

Florian Renucci, the Guédelon site manager and a philosopher turned master mason, has already been asked to oversee training of artisans expected to work on Notre Dame.

“All we heard over and again after Notre Dame burned was that it was not possible to reconstruct the roof as before. There was no wood, no savoir faire – it was an argument used by those who wanted to modernise. We showed that it can be done and we know how to do it,” he says.

Épaud is on the scientific committee at Guédelon and the committee overseeing the reconstruction of Notre Dame, as well as a member of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), France’s national research body. He says that going back to build the future is not just nostalgia.

“I have studied the 13th-century technique for many years and, if we respect the internal form of the tree, the beams will last for 800 years. Guédelon is the only place in France, and I believe in Europe, where they build this kind of roof structure in wood. All those who didn’t think it was possible didn’t know about Guédelon.”

He adds: “But it shouldn’t be rushed. Macron’s insistence that the cathedral be open by 2024 is idiotic. We are talking about a cathedral, we’re not in a hurry and we have the money to do it the right way. If we rush it, there’s a risk it [will] be done badly and something is missed. Sadly, I fear Macron doesn’t understand that.”