Other concessions have had to be made for the sake of comfort and safety. Workers are dressed in the rough-hewn tunics of the time — but these are often worn over fleece jackets and modern warm clothes in the cooler months. Steel-toed boots are a necessity, as are hard hats, though the hats are covered in canvas to make them look a bit more medieval. The scaffolding is up to modern standards, and while there is an on-site rope maker, his purpose is mostly to demonstrate to visitors how the job was done, as the construction workers must use weight-tested modern ropes.
One of the biggest points of contention between Guédelon and the French authorities has been the use of an authentic treadmill winch, a kind of hamster wheel for humans, which was used in centuries past to lift building materials up into the site. It took four years of wrestling to get authorities to approve the use of the winch — one inspector complained that it was beneath human dignity to use it — and even now, workers are allowed in the treadmill only for short stints. (Preston defends the device, saying, “It’s like walking uphill.”)
Guédelon has managed to strike a balance that is acceptable to both the site’s goals and the French government, and it has passed several milestones — among them, the installation of the ribbed vaulted ceiling in the largest tower, a “critical moment,” Preston claims.
But Guédelon’s success has brought with it new challenges, like providing ample parking, food and restroom facilities for the hundreds of thousands of yearly visitors. Guédelon works on those issues from November to March, when construction on the castle is halted. This winter saw an expansion of the cafeteria and the parking lot, but Preston notes: “We’re aware that the site cannot accommodate an infinite number of visitors.” Although most of the educational materials and tours are conducted in French, as word about the castle has spread and more and more non-French visitors turn up, the castle has also begun to increase its English-language offerings.
Preston and the rest of the crew are aware that a large part, if not all, of Guédelon’s appeal is in the fact that it is under construction. So what happens when it’s finished, a completion that’s projected to be in 2023?
Currently, a plan is in place to build a village around the castle that would reflect life as it would have been for regular people in the 13th century. But what that might look like has yet to be determined. “There’s a hard period of reflection ahead of us,” Preston admits.
That’s because the Guédelon team desperately wants to avoid turning it into a kind of knights-and-maidens medieval theme park. As a result, they must walk the line between being true to its aims of learning from the process of re-creation and encouraging the tourism that sustains it.
“If you just have the medieval clothes, it’s for play,” Renucci says. “It’s dressing up.”
As the callused fingers and sweaty brows of the dozens of workers at this archaeological experiment can attest, Guédelon certainly does more than just look the part.