“They said it was impossible”: how medieval carpenters rebuilt Notre-Dame | our Lady

At the castle of Guédelon we are in 1253 and the little nobleman Gilbert Courtenay left to fight in the crusades, leaving his wife to take care of the workers for the construction of the new family residence: a modest castle which befits his social position as a humble knight. in the service of King Louis IX.

Here, in a clearing in northern Burgundy, history is being remade to the sound of chisel against stone and ax against wood, as 21st-century craftsmen relearn and perfect long-forgotten medieval skills.

The Guédelon project was imagined 25 years ago as an exercise in “experimental archaeology”. Instead of digging, it was built upwards, using only the tools and methods available in the Middle Ages and, where possible, local materials. Today, by an unforeseen twist of fate, Guédelon plays an essential role in the restoration of the structure and soul of Notre-Dame Cathedral.

The imposing 13th-century Paris Cathedral, a World Heritage Site, was consumed by fire in April 2019, destroying its intricate roof structure, known as the The forest due to the large number of trees used in its construction. The widespread opinion was that it would be impossible to rebuild it as it was.

“The frame was extremely sophisticated, using advanced techniques for the 12th and 13th centuries”, says Frédéric Épaud, a specialist in medieval wood. 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 good ones, and the wood would have to be dried for years, and no one even knew how. produce beams like they did in the Middle Ages. They said it was impossible.

Notre Dame is on fire in 2019. Hopes rest on Guédelon’s know-how to restore its famous La Fôret roof. Photography: Alexis Lopez/ZEPPELIN/SIP/REX/Shutterstock

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

A number of companies bidding for the Notre-Dame work have already hired carpenters trained at Guédelon, and others are expected to make their way to the Burgundy glade 200km from Paris via the Autoroute du Soleil.

It might be faster and cheaper to turn wooden beams from a sawmill – especially with French President Emmanuel Macron’s pledge to reopen the ravaged cathedral in 2024 – but you won’t find anyone in Guédelon who thinks it should. be done that way.

Stéphane Boudy is part of a small team of carpenters from the medieval shipyard, where he has worked since 1999. Boudy, 51, trained as a baker, then as an electrician, until he discovered his vocation in Guédelon. He explains how the hand-hewing of 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 of experience in hand cutting, squaring and trimming wood,” he says. “That’s what we [have done] every day for 25 years. There are people outside here who can do it now, but I’m telling you they all came here to learn how. If this place did not exist, perhaps the experts would have said: no it is not possible to reproduce the roof of Notre Dame. We [have shown that] it is.

“It’s not just nostalgia. If the roof of Notre-Dame lasted 800 years, it is thanks to this. There is no heart in sawmill wood,” he says.

Maryline Martin is co-founder of the Guédelon project which attracts around 300,000 paying visitors each year and was featured in a BBC documentary series in 2014, Secrets of the castle. She says the castle blacksmith has been commissioned to make the axes that will cut the wood for Notre Dame, and that his carpenters should train others to work on the cathedral.

The Guédelon cabinetmakers will be invaluable in restoring the roof of Notre-Dame.
The Guédelon cabinetmakers will be invaluable in restoring the roof of Notre-Dame. Photographer: Guedelon

“It is prestigious for us that Notre Dame is restored by many who learned their trade in Guédelon. We are a private company lost in our forest that does not receive any public money. We work with many state research agencies, but some people see us as a theme park,” she says.

“Now, after 25 years, we are the only ones who understand and can do what needs to be done, and they find out that we haven’t sold our souls to the devil. Our people will work on Notre Dame one way or another. another, but why would we want to go to Paris? Here we will continue our work from the 13th century.

Florian Renucci, site manager of Guédelon and philosopher turned master mason, has already been asked to provide training for craftsmen called upon to work on Notre-Dame.

“All we heard over and over again after the Notre-Dame fire was that it was not possible to rebuild the roof as before. There was no wood, no know how – this was an argument used by those who wanted to modernize. We have shown it can be done and we know how to do it,” he says.

Épaud is a member of the scientific committee of Guédelon and of the committee in charge of the reconstruction of Notre-Dame, as well as a member of the Center National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), the French national research body. He says going back to build the future isn’t all nostalgia.

“I have studied the 13th century technique for many years and, if you respect the internal shape of the tree, the beams will last 800 years. Guédelon is the only place in France, and I believe in Europe, where this kind of wooden frame is built. Anyone who didn’t think it was possible didn’t know Guédelon.

He adds: “But we must not rush. Macron’s insistence that the cathedral be open by 2024 is silly. We are talking about a cathedral, we are in no rush and we have the money to do it right. If we rush, there’s a risk [will] be done wrong and something is missed. Unfortunately, I fear that Macron does not understand this.

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