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A Medievalists' Tour of France

A travelogue by Gregory Mele, with photos by Nicole Allen

part of the great fun in designing reproductions and interpretations of historical costuming is, of course, the research. Like all historical costumers, we began with secondary sources, only to quickly realize that we needed to rely solely on those primary sources available to us: painting, illumination, sculpture, relief and the handful of surviving garments still extant. But once you have an historical clothing company you find yourself in the position of being an authority: our customers are trusting in us to make sure that our research isn’t just good enough to dress ourselves, it’s good enough to dress them. And this means that even high-quality color photos aren’t enough; you have to see these sources with your own eyes and immerse yourself in the details to truly get a feel for what medieval artists were depicting. When you live in North America, that means you have to hop a plane and head to Europe.

Now, if it seems like all of this self-sacrificing in the name of authenticity was a good excuse for a vacation, you are absolutely right! So, we did just that: a whirlwind, fourteen-day tour of central and northwestern France in June 2004. We returned tired, with our eyes and minds full, but hopefully wiser. In this article, we’d like to share with you a few of the sights and research finds we came upon on our adventure.


Two flights and 11 hours later, we found ourselves in Charles De Gaulle Airport, Paris. We immediately found our rental car and fled the city for our first destination – Chartres Cathedral.

Cathedrals were medieval skyscrapers, and nowhere is that more obvious that Chartres, one of the largest and most famous in Europe. A small town built on high ground in the otherwise flat plains outside of Paris, this magnificent cathedral is in turn built upon the town’s highest point. Thus, as one drives towards the town, the Cathedral’s twin towers appear to thrust up out of the wheat fields like mountain peaks. It is miles before the shape of the entire structure, let alone the town itself, comes into view. The magnificence of the view instantly re-energized our travel-weary minds. One can only imagine the impact such a magnificent sight must have had on medieval pilgrims, used to their daub and wattle homes and small parish churches.

Begun in 1194, following a fire that severely damaged the original cathedral, principle construction on the present building was finished in 1230 and it was consecrated in 1260, although surface decoration, woodwork and steeples were continuously added until the 17th century. Due to the speed with which the new cathedral was built, it is amazingly homogeneous, and through its extensive decoration gives us a fantastic look at late 12th and early 13th century clothing, arms and armour. While this is hardly France’s best-kept secret – photos of the Cathedral’s sculptures have been produced and reproduced in many costuming history books – being able to see these pieces firsthand and take high-quality color photography revealed a level of detail that two or three grainy, black and white photos in a book never could.

A view of Chartres Cathedral as you walk up the hill from the town below.

A typical grouping of figures lining the portals.

A prime example of a 12th century pendant sleeved or scooped sleeve gown, worn with a cloak and double-wrapped belt.

A look at the amazingly vertical interior of nave of the cathedral.

One of the many portals, each completely covered in sculpture with wonderful examples of 12th-13th clothing.

Examples of men’s tunics and undertunics, as well as a women’s bliaut worn with a stomacher and double wrapped belt.

Detail of interior sculpture that is slightly later period than the exterior decoration (mid to late 13th century)- showing a back-laced gown, tunics, undertunics and cloaks typical of the period.

One of the original stained glass windows that line the side walls – another usual set of references to ‘everyday clothes’ of the period.

The sheer size and detail of the cathedral means that researchers could easily spend a day photographing, sketching and taking notes without exhausting themselves. Alas, we had an afternoon, and had to slip out as they prepared for a wedding to be had that evening (lucky bride!), contenting ourselves with the church exterior and wandering the streets of town. The town of Chartres itself is a wonderful village that retains much of its medieval character, and is worthy of exploring in its own right. For us, the challenge was working it all into one afternoon and early evening. By the time we left for the Loire Valley that night, the sun was already well on its way to bed.

A wonderful 14th century building where we ate dinner that evening – the proprietors told us that the building had functioned as a store and later a restaurant for over 500 years!

The Loire Valley

Having wistfully bid farewell to Chartres, we prepared to spend the next several days in France’s Valley of the Kings, so named for the many castles and chateaus that still line the banks of the Loire. While many of the medieval castles now lie in partial or complete ruin, their names, and those of the towns between, are heavy with history, such as Amboise, Angers, Samnur, Orleans, Chinon and Blois. A journey through the Loire Valley is a voyage through the graveyard of the Middle Ages, the glory of the Renaissance and the excess of the French Enlightenment.


Cheverny is a small, 17th – 18th century chateau that is almost unique in France, for it is still owned by the same, noble family. Well-loved by their peasants, they were protected by them during the Revolution, and thus spared execution. Today, they still live in the upper floor of their ancestral home and support themselves through tourism and raising prized hunting hounds. (The feeding of this hundred plus pack by the master of hounds is a daily spectacle not to be missed.)

Greg and Nicole walking the grand path to the entrance of Chateau Cheverny.

A shot of one wall in the small, but impressive, armour gallery. Many of these pieces have belonged to the family since the 16th century.

The entrance hall of the chateau – the ceiling is painted and the walls are covered with tooled and painted leather.

Detail of the hilt of a very nice and very substantial complex-hilted rapier.

Detail of an original polearm haft and butt cap that we liked, because it impressively preserved the detail often lavished on these simple weapons.

Detail of the leg harness of a Maximilian-style suit in the armour gallery.

The Master of the Hounds feeding the pack their daily ration of kibble and raw chicken.


The next day we visited the royal hunting lodge of Chambord. Sitting in the middle of Europe’s largest wild game preserve, Chambord is almost impossible to describe; it is a castle out of fairyland. Built for the ambitious Francois I in the early 16th century in the form of a fairytale castle, he only spent a total of thirteen days there during his long reign, although the chateau became a favored retreat amongst many of his successors. Begun in 1519 and completed a century and a half later, it was a massive undertaking; in 1533, the completion of the keep cost 444,570 pounds or 1% of the kingdom’s annual budget. Chambord is filled with wonders, from its numerous, slate-tiled spires and domes to the double-helix central stairwell, the first of its kind, reputedly designed by Leonardo Da Vinci. A supposed place for many a tete-a-tete, it is actually two separate staircases intertwined so that a person going up one side can see another going down the other staircase but will never meet.

Looking up through an archway of the courtyard to one of the countless exterior stairway/turrets.

The Master of the Hounds feeding the pack their daily ration of kibble and raw chicken.

The bed chamber of Louis XIV

The famed double helix stairway in the center of the chateau attributed to Leonardo DaVinci, and a view from the staircase.


On the way home from Chambord, we stopped at the far more modest chateau of Fougeres-sur-Bievre. Originally built during the 14th century, the castle was largely destroyed during the second phase of the Hundred Year’s War, and became the rather shabby inheritance of a young noble woman in the court of the Duke of Blois. During the early years of the 15th century she successfully renovated and rebuilt Fougeres-sur-Bievre, which survived the succeeding centuries and the French Revolution, even when its noble family did not. The chateau passed into the keeping of the attached town. After serving as a work house and factory in the 19th century, in the early years of the 20th century the town determined to restore the castle to its former glory, and it is now a historical attraction that gives a nice look at the living conditions of a minor French lord during the late Middle Ages.

L: Looking down from the roof to the moat.

R: Nicole enjoying the view from the roof.

A smaller, but still imposing exterior.

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