Medieval James Himself

Medieval James Himself
Guide at Ozark Medieval Fortress

Thursday, December 30, 2010


Why is 1226 the beginning date of the Ozark Medieval Fortress?  If this question is not asked at the very beginning of every tour, I make it a point to answer it anyway because everyone wonders.  The direct answer is because 1226 is the first year of the reign of King Louis IX of France, who later became “Saint Louis” and the namesake of St. Louis, MO.  It is the middle of the High Middle Ages, a time about 125 years before the black plague and a good time for France. It is the heyday of castle building. It is estimated that during the High Middle Ages about 15,000 castles were built in Europe. 

The answer that is more personal to the Ozark Medieval Fortress is that it all began with the inspiration of a Frenchman named Michel Guyot.  He purchased one of the largest chateaus in France called Saint Fargeau in 1979 (pictured).  I encourage you to Google it.  St FargeauIn addition to restoring a castle of over 200,000 square feet, Mr. Guyot wanted to build a medieval castle “from scratch”.  He acquired land in Burgundy Province, France and began construction of an authentic castle there in 1997.  The name of that castle project is “Guedelon” and it, too, is dated during the beginning of the reign of Louis IX.  Although the design of the Ozark Medieval Fortress is different from Guedelon, it was ideal to date the U.S. project in the same historical timeframe.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Can You Make Medieval Bread and Loaf?

Many people have asked, “What should I be sure to not overlook during my visit at the Ozark Medieval Fortress?” It says a lot about the impressive look of the Castle under construction even in its first season that it is easy to miss something as big as a pickup truck.  It is the Medieval French Oven.  april29 (28)

I guess what makes the oven easy to simply walk past with barely a glance is that it is located right outside the castle gatehouse, but that makes it authentic.  The lord in 1226 owned the oven and ladies served their vassalage with pride at the Community Oven.  Burn the bread, however, and a woman would be feeding the chickens instead.

What I think is interesting about the oven is that in the Middle Ages the French developed the oven to use two fires. One fire is below and outside, which is common in the rest of the world and can even be found in Colonial America where the hearth simply had an oven space in the stone to the side of the fire.  The French, however, also made a fire inside the baking chamber.  Before actually baking they pushed the coals to the side.  This gave them more even heat which, coupled with the massive stone of the oven, made for that wonderful crusty bread now famous throughout the world. Like everything in the Middle Ages it took skill, time and a lot of work to bake.

Maybe my opinion that the oven is our hidden treasure is because I love French bread so much. In any event, when you visit the Ozark Medieval Fortress, take your time and notice even the “little” things.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Wooden Fortress

Why is there a wooden fort right next to the stone castle at the Ozark Medieval Fortress?  Good question (and I really like that the tour passes through the wooden fort).  First off, the site at the Fortress is not set up like a museum, but rather the way things were done in the Middle Ages.  The wooden forts were built first and protected the community for the early years that the stone castle was under construction, so it’s authentic the way it is placed. 

After the fall of the Roman Empire, which is the beginning of the Medieval period in Europe, things got rough.  We think we have troubles!  In the early Middle Ages, the Franks of Northern France and Germany, Saxons of Germany and England, and the Angles and Celts in Great Britain all faced the prospect of the Muslims attacking from the south, the Huns from the east and Vikings from the north. That’s trouble.  Communities, therefore, made local forts to run to when attacked.  They knew that the old standard procedures of the Roman Legions was to put up a picket fence around their encampment.  Now, of course, in the days of explosives, soldiers dig fox holes.  That’s not a good idea against a Viking who will look down at you like you were a scared rabbit.  The purpose of the fence was to slow down an attacking mob armed with axes and swords.  The Northern Europeans also knew from the ancient days to make mounds of dirt to help in defense.  Combining those ideas, they came up with what we call the Motte and Bailey.  That’s French for “Mound and Courtyard”.  Watch out for the similar-sounding English word “moat”, which is the opposite: that’s a ditch.  The Motte was sometimes 40-45 feet high and on the Bailey at the top they made a wooden fortress, which included a Roman-style vertical fence and a tower or “keep”.  This is the grandfather of the Medieval stone castle. It is a great opportunity at the Ozark Medieval Fortress to experience it in person and to walk through the full-sized reproduction.

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Tuesday, December 21, 2010

No Fast Food

april29 (16)Did gardeners in the Middle Ages really use raised beds like those at the Ozark Medieval Fortress?  People now think that raised bed gardening is new.  Nope.  They did it just like at the Fortress.  The Middle Ages was a time of global warming (and I can say with 100% certainty it was not because of American cars).  Greenland was green and the Vikings settled there.  Europe was warm and got a lot of rain.  Now we would just order root rot resistant hybrid seeds, but the Medieval gardeners had to deal with natural seeds and figure a way to dry the soil.  It’s very logical to raise the dirt.  A wall of stone would hold the moisture and defeat the purpose.  A wall of logs would hold all the bugs.  A wall of wattle (woven branches like they used in the building of walls) was perfect to hold the soil but allow it to breathe. 

I guess we can say also for certain that then and now gardening is a lot of work!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Start At the Beginning

The most surprising question that I’ve had at the Fortress has been: “So, if I don’t know anything about history, where do I start learning about the Ozark Medieval Fortress?”  Well, there’s nothing wrong with starting at the beginning.  It’s like entering through the gate.  Coming to the Fortress and taking a tour is the best way to begin. In the basics,  “Fortress” speaks for itself but a good start is understanding the history behind the terms “Ozark” and “Medieval”.

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Arkansas is part of the country that was French from the time of the explorer La Salle in the 1680’s until we bought it from France as part of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.  These mountains were called the “Region of Bows” by the French because they were impressed with the Quapaw and Osage native bows made of hedge apple wood.  When a Frenchman said this, it came out as “le region aux arcs”.  To an Anglo-American, that sounded like O-zarks, hence the name Ozarks.

“Medieval”, remember is not “mid” and “evil” even though the first part is often called the Dark Ages and we tend to think of dark and evil as the same.  It’s actually Latin for “middle ages”. It’s that simple.  It  is a period of time in European history between the fall of Rome in about 500 until the Renaissance in about 1500.   Rome fell to the Germanic “barbarians” or bearded guys, which may have been all worthwhile because they introduced us to pants, which beats a toga any day!  Dating the Renaissance at 1500 shows a French perspective because it was earlier in Italy and later in England.  It works well for Americans, though, because it is easy to remember Columbus in 1492.  That works as a good date to think of as the end of the Medieval period.  Renaissance was a change in thinking so drastic that it changed how we label European history.  The Medieval was a time when people thought: “Life is short, I need to stay right with God”.  The Renaissance was a time when people thought: “Life is short, I need to enjoy it while I can”.  People often confuse and mix up these periods, especially with the American popularity of Renaissance Fairs.  But if you say to a person at the Ozark Medieval Fortress in 1226 (Medieval) that we should have a Renaissance Faire, it’s a lot like telling an Amish fella he needs to lighten up and wear some pink.  A Renaissance Faire has good food, which they had in the Medieval as well, but you’ll also find bawdy jokes and lyrics to songs, low-cut gowns and people pretending to be wizards and magicians.  Medieval times were much more reserved.  Medieval is the time of the violence of the Dark Ages (first half) and the time of the Crusades, knights and castle building in the High Middle Ages (second half).

The Ozark Medieval Fortress is dated 1226, the middle of the High Middle Ages.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Roman Cementorium

Did they actually have cement in the Middle Ages?  That’s another common question that guests have asked at the Ozark Medieval Fortress.  The short answer is: Yes.  Of course, it didn’t have all the additives and hardeners like today.  The Romans (remember that pre-dates the Medieval) were engineer-types and experimented.  They knew from the Ancients that you cook sand and get glass.  They improved on the Greek cooking of iron ore and ended up with good weapons.  They also realized that if you cook limestone, you get lime and if you mix lime, water and common sand you get the grandfather of cement: Roman cementorium.  That is what is used at the Ozark Medieval Fortress. 

What is satisfying for me is that the old cement can be better than the modern cement.  Cementorium takes literally hundreds of years to dry-cure and breathes because it is so gritty or fibrous.  You can touch it and feel the Sept2 (5)difference.  The reason it is better is that even without “control joints”, it doesn’t crack from expansion and contraction.  Think about it: if you built a 5-foot thick wall as long as those in the Castle using modern cement without rubber spacers, it would crack like crazy.  The Medieval castles, even with their solid, incredibly thick continuous walls have not cracked.  Well, not because of the cementorium anyway. 

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Ozark Medieval Fortress Rocks

A big question very often asked on tours is “How big is the Ozark Medieval Fortress really going to be?”.  The historical perspective of the answer is thaSept8 (6)t it is, according to the French designer, a castle of medium size for France in 1226.  For a guest visiting the Fortress, the answer is that it is huge and one unbelievable amount of rocks.  Think of it: the castle is approximately 200 feet side to side in a modified pentagon with each side about 100 feet and each corner  has a 30-foot diameter tower. The Gate House towers are actually a pair of towers.  The walls are 5 feet thick.  Now, ignoring the fact that the Lord’s Tower walls are thicker and there will be internal walls for the Great Hall, etc., and ignoring all of the work hauling sand, lime and water, let’s just take a quick look at the amount of rock for the Fortress construction. 

Sept15 (9)Basically, the four main towers and two gate house towers cover about 600 square feet and will be 45-feet tall (the Lord’s tower will be taller) which gives us 27,000 cubic feet.  The walls between the towers are about 500 feet total and will go to 24 feet tall with 5-foot thickness, giving us about 60,000 cubic feet of wall.  If the average rock after shaping at the quarry or in the stone cutter’s hut is 4 inches high by 6 inches wide by 6 inches long, it takes 12 stones per cubic foot.  This means there will be over 1 million stones quarried, shaped or carved, carted, handled and mortared.  And talk about handling, if each stone is about 10 pounds, that’s 5,000 tons of rock all moved by hand.  WHEW! 

Any way you look at it, the Ozark Medieval Fortress is impressive.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My Medieval Christmas Memories

‘Tis the Christmas Season. 2010. Wow! I know my purpose in doing my blog posts has been to talk about the Ozark Medieval Fortress, but this time of year I keep remembering the castle that my wife and I, with our four children, built in Wisconsin. It took us 17 years and we had a wonderful time there every Christmas, even in the snowy-cold of the Northland. We raised sheep, gardened, and harvested the most amazing alfalfa hay. Acres and acres of it and so tall and lush. Ahh! I think it’s very Medieval to associate the snow and cold of Christmastime with the trips to the barn. For the kids, it was the ten-foot Christmas tree in the Great Hall, the cozy hearth by the fire, and the trestle table piled high with the Christmas feasts. Our memories of Christmas include our animals at the live nativity, especially the year we happened to have twin lambs born just hours before the evening service. The young shepherds and everyone in the congregation fell in love with those lambs. It sure brought the image of Jesus as the lamb into perspective. What a gift! I think appreciation of simple things in life like that is one of the important aspects of Medieval life. Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Where Does the Ozark Medieval Fortress Find Workers?

On my tours, people have asked this question at the beginning, middle and end of the tour if I don’t say something about it first. In Medieval Europe, the lord would contact a master mason to be the designer and foreman of the castle project. This master mason would then find the artisans (particularly the stone cutters) and arrange with the lord for the workers. At the Ozark Medieval Fortress, the French investors had to split these tasks. For the design of the castle they contacted the head of the school of architectural history at the University of France at Paris. The head mason to serve on-site for 2010 they found in California. He is French-born and trained. Franck Falgairette, Master Mason for Ozark Medieval Fortress (pictured) worked with his father on Roman ruins in Algeria and Italy. He also worked on cathedral restoration in Italy and castle restoration in France. He came to the Ozark Medieval Fortress to supervise in the manner of the 13th Century and also to recruit and train the other masons and stone cutters.

All the other employed workers and artisans for 2010 were Americans. We did have the pleasure of the volunteer expert help of Rasmus Dahl of Denmark. Many other people came and worked as volunteers, some for one day and others for extended times. Volunteers came from as far away as Michigan and Wisconsin. Our employees drove anywhere from one mile to 50+ miles one way each day. Catherine, the goodwife at the wool cottage, came to work for the Ozark Medieval Fortress all the way from Mississippi. Janell, the basket weaver, came to us from Oklahoma. All these people came together to create an amazing and successful 2010 season. If you were a guest this year, you know what I mean. Otherwise, I’ll look forward to seeing you at the Ozark Medieval Fortress in 2011.

Friday, December 10, 2010

What Is the Ozark Medieval Fortress Tour Like?

Glad you asked. This is my favorite question.  It is usually asked where the tour begins - at the ticket counter in the gift shop, where I often greet guests.  Officially, tour guests gather in a special room that has awesome aerial photos of the castle site.  After a brief behind-the-scenes informational introduction, we begin down the gravel trail.  The first stop is a full-sized medieval Motte and Bailey wooden fortress in the forest. The next stop is the Wool Cottage and farm site where the Goodwife talks textiles and kids can feed the sheep.  We pass the garden with all the herb information, and then on to the weapons and hunting discussion and 13-Knot Rope presentation (a big part of medieval castle construction technique). 

Just before arriving at the Gate House of the Castle, we stop for a presentation by the Quarryman on how the limestone is split with a tool right from France of the Middle Ages.  At the Gate House we explain the castle project itself and point out things like the Tread-wheel Crane, Trebuchet,  and the many artisans.  At that point guests are free to visit with all the artisans: masons at the wall, basket weaver, blacksmith, stone carvers, potter, carpenters, horse carter, rope maker and woodcutters as well as special displays. 

The tour lasts just under an hour and is about ¾ of a mile long.  (Boy, it goes fast for me and I enjoy visiting with the guests.)  It is another ¼ mile up past the Fortress back to the Visitor’s Center, though, so figure a mile of walking.  The Ozark Medieval Fortress park is 50 acres and gives guests the option to not take the guided tour. You get so much more out of the visit accompanying a guide - background, historical perspective, and the chance to ask questions one-on-one.  The average visit to the castle lasts half a day, and many guests stay the whole day.  Come see why.

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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Why Here in the Ozarks?

No doubt, the #1 most frequently asked question of people on their tour of the Ozark Medieval Fortress is: "Why here in the Ozarks?"  Good question!  How did it happen that a group of 14 French investors would want to build a full-sized medieval castle in these hills?  The short answer is - because they were invited.

French-born American citizens Jean-Marc (pictured) and Solange Mirat, in true Ozarks' Southern Hospitality fashion, invited the French investors after seeing a similar "castle in the making" in Burgundy, France.   Mirat explained that he had the perfect location, which included all necessary raw materials to build in the medieval style - timber, stone, water and eager workers. Despite viewing the property for the first time during the Ice Storm of 2008, the French fell in love with the Ozarks and the U.S. project was born.

Monday, December 6, 2010

2010 Ozark Medieval Fortress Season Ends

Welcome! The 2010 Season for guests and guiding at the Ozark Medieval Fortress came to an end two weeks ago.  I guess I miss the daily contact with our guests, so for now, this blog will have to do. What a wonderful season we had.  The masons laid stone in the castle walls every day. Guests enjoyed seeing them and I surely enjoyed taking people on the tour.  In fact, I walked 5 miles a day, 5 days a week. That makes 100 miles per month, so, by the end of the season I had walked and talked with people for 600 miles! That's 1,000 kilometers, about the distance from Paris to Berlin. 

Our guests came to see us at the Ozark Medieval Fortress from all over the world.  Representatives from Belgium television, as well as film crews from Quebec, Missouri, Arkansas and New York gave us great press coverage. We were featured on the front page of the Wall Street Journal and in USA Today. All local area news groups came, from radio and television to magazines, newpapers and online authors. School groups really benefitted from our program and students described us as "the best field trip ever".  Some even came on Saturday!  Other countries represented include: England, France, Canada, Germany, Mexico, Brazil, Poland, Denmark, Turkey, Russia and Austria.  From the U.S., we welcomed folks from Alaska to Texas, California to Maine and Florida. 

I'll be talking more about what went on this season at the Ozark Medieval Fortress and sharing what I think are the guests' most asked questions at the castle in future posts.