An historical question

So, they’re building a 13 th cent. French chateau using 13 th cent. French techniques. And then there’s this:

“Every element has to be referenced back to the 13th century. We ask ourselves, Guilbert de Guédelon is a low-ranking nobleman with limited resources so what are his options? Will he be able to afford a drawbridge that will take 57 felled trees and 66 iron nails? No,” Preston says.

I wonder which would have cost the more in those days, the 57 trees or the 66 iron nails?

I think I’d go for the nails but anyone actually know?

35 comments on “An historical question

  1. Surely given the cost of transport back then it would have depended rather a lot on where you were. There will probably have been places in France some distance from a ready supply of trees where a felled tree would have thus cost a lot of money,

    It’s possible that some of those places were also the sites of lossmaking metalworks (or should that be Mittalworks) the state was keeping open at the taxpayer’s expense.

  2. And there would have been a significant price difference (as there still is) between felled wood and properly seasoned wood.

  3. Are they really doing it “like the 13th century” though? In the 13th century, they’d have hired skilled artisans, not worked it out by trial and error.

  4. Re what was the price of trees in terms of nails, the first British sailors to arrive in South Sea Islands found they could get hanky panky in exchange for a nail. So if you know how much hanky pany was obtainable in exchange for a tree in the 13th century, then you have the answer.

    Hope that helps.

  5. They had south seas prostitutes in France in the 13th century? Or British sailors in the south seas in the 13th century?

    Did anyone other than south sea islanders even know the south seas existed then?

  6. Incidentally I’ve heard (no idea if substantiated or not) of ships falling to bits on leaving those islands because all the nails had been dug out by (hetero)sex-starved sailors.

  7. I’d say trying to moneterise something in a society with very little circulating cash is hard. The tree felling & blacksmithing are both services & can be exchanged for other services or privileges. It’s likely the landowner would have access. to his own timber. He’s building in a forest, after all. But the iron stock has to be brought in from outside. So at this point you’re valuing against the wider European economy rather than just the local one. It’s similar to comparing national living costs/earnings. It’s going to depend on what that part of Burgundy has to sell for cash.

  8. I don’t think the South Sea Islanders knew that the South Seas existed then. All they knew about was “the sea”.

  9. C13th is contemporary with the crusades, when iron seemed to be readily available for arms so I would not have expected 66 nails, even nine inch ones, to break the bank. Taking a squint at the pics, if you can afford a house like that, you can afford a drawbridge, so I call bullshit.

    Furthermore:

    “At one point we realised the stonemasons were cutting the stones for the towers too perfectly, which just wouldn’t h ave been appropriate. It would have suggested he had a lot of money and therefore a small army in the chateau, which wasn’t the case.”

    It seems to be saying Guilbert would have deliberately built to a low standard to avoid appearing rich enough to have a small army, because that wouldn’t be appropriate? WTF?

  10. I hope the people working on this project have had many/most of their teeth removed. We do want it to be authentic, after all.

  11. Despite a practically spoon fed article the Graun still manages to get it wrong.
    The “nearby” Jura does indeed have lots of wood. “Nearby” is at least 200 kilometres away, however.

  12. @R le J
    “C13th is contemporary with the crusades, when iron seemed to be readily available for arms so I would not have expected 66 nails, even nine inch ones, to break the bank.”

    You’re ignoring that iron was heavily recycled in the period. So to arm the Crusades they would indeed have been beating plowshares into swords. Wartime might imply an increase in the value of iron.

  13. If it was the 13th C and nails were expensive they would have used wood joints that didn’t require nails. Whole barns can be made without a single nail, just clever joints. They were artisans and experts in wood then – it being the only thing they knew.

  14. “Courtenay’s modest standing, … means he can afford to build a small chateau, but cannot afford a moat or architectural refinements.”

    But he’s building a drawbridge, anyway. Sounds like he’s a distant ancestor of a leader of a UK council. Or whoever commissioned two aircraft carriers for the Royal Navy but omitted the aircraft.

  15. @SBML
    Mortice & tenons work OK where wood is protected from the elements. And you do, indeed, see mostly constructed joints used in buildings up until quite recently. They’re more problematic where the wood is subject to changes in humidity. A joint that’s sound when constructed will loosen as the wood dries out. Conversely, a tight joint in dry wood will split as the wood swells as it absorbs moisture. So you need a fixing method will cope with movement.

  16. I’m sure the real cost lay in the inability of any of the managers to make a decision, continual discussions and meetings with nobody doing any productive work, hiring artisans on the cheap or not at all and leaving it to the stable boy to do the clever stuff, the sloping of shoulders when it all goes tits up, and the odd strike or two.

  17. The nails would have been used for strengthening the door, not fixing the planks together.

    You’ll find that properly fortified doors would consist of a row of thick wooden planks, which would have either been stuck together with tongue and groove or dowels and then an iron sheet would have been nailed on to the front.

    I’m afraid that there’s no real answer to Tim’s question, because as in all things, it’s a question of supply and demand. Iron is a bit annoying to transport long distances, so they would have relied upon a local(ish) supply and that would have determined the price.

    However as a building material: iron was used to fix different materials ( stone and wood ) or for nailing cladding or for proper ironmongery ( hinges, handles). Beams and joists were held together with joints or with wooden pegs or even wattle.

  18. Drawbridges weren’t actually built in 13th century France.

    That’s because 13th century French learned classes carried on endless debates over the price of nails, humidity, sex in Samoa, the distance to the Jura Forest, and other such technical matters. The ignorant craftsmen never got round to the actual construction, you see. Fortunately the medieval English-speaking world did not suffer this impediment.

    The “13th century” drawbridges found today in the south of France were actually imported and installed in the 15th century from North Africa by Muslim craftsmen disguised as deceased Spanish knights.

  19. BiG>

    “Did anyone other than south sea islanders even know the south seas existed then?”

    Yes. There was trade within the islands, and from the islands to places like China, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, and so-on – whatever they were called then, natch. Possibly even as far away as the Americas.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polynesian_navigation#Pre-Columbian_contact_with_the_Americas

    Ian B>

    You’re quite wrong, apparently. They appear to have had an amazingly sophisticated understanding of the world they lived in.

  20. It is quite probable that it the copius thirteenth-century documentary record from France you’ll find the cost of nails and trees (the documents are normal more interested in things like that than the actual historical narrative, mostly because they are functional). So a bit of research using Latin, Old French and Paleography might answer the question…

    Or, should you not fancy doing the work for a masters’ degree by research to answer the question, considering that trees were not a common resource (even on common land in Wales and Ireland, the most commons-based medieval socities, someone owned the growing wood, although fallen wood was often a common right even on private land) but a private resource, and that for a drawerbridge you need trees capable of providing long and thick planks (likely therefore pollarded and over a generation old, requiring management of the resource – although in France the supply of old Oaks may have still been enough to provide these from virgin forest), whereas iron was easily obtained (I have yet to see an argument for an iron shortage in the thirteenth century, considering how much of it there is lying around western Europe) and reforged (and a castle build would have kept at least one blacksmith busy), I’d be pretty certain the wood was the expensive bit – the scarcer resource.

    One way to confirm this might be medieval laws did often include tarrifs for cutting down someone else’s tree (often higher than running off with their cow, or their daughter (Irish law sometimes values the two the same, although I think that is only because eloping incurred a fine but was not the most serious issue, not due to some very odd value system)). As law at the time was normally to protect the rights of the elite (how different from our own dear – hang on, can I tangentially refer to superinjunctions without getting our host in trouble?), I’d guess this indicates this was an important right and therefore likely (but not necessarily – this was not a market society) to be a profitable one. Never met a similiar law for nails, although some rents were paid in them apparently (as others were paid in foodstuff, this might suggest a fairly basic level of importance).

  21. @JF “That’s because 13th century French learned classes carried on endless debates over the price of nails, humidity, sex in Samoa, the distance to the Jura Forest, and other such technical matters. The ignorant craftsmen never got round to the actual construction, you see. Fortunately the medieval English-speaking world did not suffer this impediment. ”

    What amazes me about this place is that whatever the subject – be it construction techniques for 13th century French drawbridges, the price of iron in the Jura forest, or Samoan sexual practices, we have not one but several genuine world experts on board here.

  22. When doing a history degree back in the Paleolithic Age I did see a (translated) copy of the accounts for the construction of Chateau Gaillard in France by Richard 1 in the 1190s. Not that I can remember the details of the wood and nails cost, but the details were there. I remember the total was 50,000 pounds of silver equivalent for a large castle constructed in a hurry. As Watchman says above, there is a lot of contemporary cost information still available.

  23. “even on common land in Wales and Ireland, the most commons-based medieval socities, someone owned the growing wood, although fallen wood was often a common right even on private land”. On common land in England, the landowner usually had the ownership of timber i.e. trees neither coppiced nor pollarded. (Often that plus mineral rights was all that the landowner got from common land.)

    Underwood belonged to someone too, namely the commoners, each of whom would typically be limited in how much wood he was allowed to carry away. (One way of rationing it was to ban the bringing of carts.) I’ve never heard of wood belonging to nobody at all in medieval times.

  24. The Greens should get this place on their electoral posters, after all this is the dream sustainable living they’d like us to adopt.

  25. you need trees capable of providing long and thick planks

    Trust me, there is *no* shortage of long and thick planks in France. A trip to the local prefecture will dispel you of any doubts.

  26. All the larger structural timbers we’ve used in the past came from France.

    Never been any shortage there as far as I’m aware – the story goes that in Napoleonic times, if you cut down an oak, you had to plant at least one more to replace it. It’s what we should have been doing here!

    The bigger, structural stuff would have been used unseasoned. Yes, it does warp and twist a bit as it dries out (look at the older timber frame buildings in York and places like that – very quaint) because its much easier to work that way. Fully seasoned stuff is hard as bloody iron – speaking of which the use of iron fastenings would have been kept to a minimum and not just for cost considerations either. Oak is acidic and corrodes the smaller iron fixings like nails in no time. Clever jointing and hefty wooden dowels would be the norm.

    Holes bored in the timber which were to accept iron fixings were in some cases charred with a hot iron bar, or burnt/bored through with a hot iron in the first place because some believed the charring (carbon) protected the inserted ironwork afterwards.

    God I love being a builder!

  27. “Never been any shortage there as far as I’m aware – the story goes that in Napoleonic times, if you cut down an oak, you had to plant at least one more to replace it.”

    That may be true, but it’s not the main reason. French timber was famously impossible to get anywhere useful. It cost so much to do things like floating it downriver whilst paying taxes, tolls – official and unofficial – trying to prevent theft, and so-on, that it was cheaper just to import Baltic timber by sea for most purposes.

  28. tezza
    Are you sure? There have been books written explaining that the English forest management system provided the hearts of oak that won us the Napoleonic (Bonapartist, really) wars. (Not to mention the efficiency of our press gangs which provided the jolly tars.)

    The reason was an orgy of deforestation following the revolution when the peasants denuded the aristocrats land.

    Tim N
    “Trust me, there is *no* shortage of long and thick planks in France. A trip to the local prefecture will dispel you of any doubts.”

    How long are the ones you’ve had dealings with? In my experience not long enough to go over a stream of piss, let alone a moat.

  29. BiF>

    I don’t know, am I? How is that relevant? I’m certainly no expert, but they used to say that the French navy was not built out of French timber.

  30. If anyone wants a comprehensive and myth free account of English woods and timber use they should read Oliver Rackham. In his book Ancient Woodland he deals with the question of shipbuilding, which subject is far more complex than just Hearts of Oak. There are too many things to mention hers but this is relevant :

    Complaints of shortage of Oak are almost wholly attributable to lack of funds, organization and transport rather than to lack of trees

  31. dearieme,

    “Underwood belonged to someone too, namely the commoners, each of whom would typically be limited in how much wood he was allowed to carry away. (One way of rationing it was to ban the bringing of carts.) I’ve never heard of wood belonging to nobody at all in medieval times.”

    Apologies – you are correct here. I was thinking in terms of ownership of definite resources, not rights, so over simplified the matter. To take your point further, everything belonged to someone (that someone might be God or a saint) in the medieval period – compare the internet now…

  32. In feudal society, you actually started at the assumption that all land belonged to the King and worked down from there.
    Even the Church had to have lands granted to it.
    Common Land and its associated rights likewise had to be appointed, even if it was regarded as a traditional right, it still had to be recognised by the crown.

  33. Not really – especially in France, where older religious institutions had continuity of ownership from the Roman period, and where many estates were transferred from private hands to private hands (or to the church, when the record is more likely to be recorded), presumably to the present day in some cases. Kings (or governments) might assert their rights to do some things such as collect taxes (not automatically a historical requirement), but never claimed ownership.

    In England William the Conquerer may have in effect achieved royal control of land, but this was a historial accident (and a few Anglo-Saxon landowners retained their lands with royal approval, so it cannot be said they were by royal gift). And in general, threats to try and control land in England produced rebellions (even against William himself), which normally averted the attempts to do so.

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