Monday, February 22, 2010

The Village of the Year 1000!

We've been eagerly anticipating the seasonal opening of the Village of the Year 1000 (Le Village de l'An Mil) in nearby Melrand and were eager to be among the opening day crowd. It turns out we were the opening day crowd (I don't know what we're going to do when we actually have to share cultural sites with other visitors) and were thus able to be medieval villagers to our hearts' content. Let ye olde time fune beguine!

Everything about this site is cool. It's built around the vestiges of a medieval village founded around 980 and occupied until sometime in the 14th century (it's believed that the villagers then left for the fancier clime of a nearby big city). So one part of the site reveals low-lying foundations (the actual medieval stuff), only a third of which has been excavated (starting in 1902, then another season in 1977, and most recently in 1991). It was here that we picked up this little cat as our guide - he and Iris and Eleanor bonded for the rest of the visit. More on life with animals in the Middle Ages in a bit.

The majority of the site is a reconstruction of the village based on the evidence of the vestiges here. You get to walk all around, in the houses, along a path that draws a securing circle around the village. I like the word hamlet, too. There were many surprises here: at first Oliver asked if this was how Asterix and Obelix lived. Those guys were purported to be around in 50 B.C.E., and yet here, more than 1000 years later, things do look quite similar. It makes me marvel at the great leaps forward in terms of architecture and society starting in the 12th century.

A second marvel was the architecture itself. I will confess that part of the reason I love these building techniques so much is that they are so beautifully easy to understand, so very legible. No metal, just wooden pegs, and lots and lots of interweaving of wood and straw. Here, this terrific drawing shows you the elements built atop the stone foundations.

This shot of the ceiling of one of the houses shows you how much interweaving there is. It's all incredibly tight and sturdy, and I can tell you, doesn't let in a drop of rain. These houses were built in 1986 and are as water- and wind-tight as ever. There is an aesthetic here, it's alive and well in artist Patrick Daugherty's work (the video on the link is of a piece of his right here in France!); and I dearly want to hear from artist Alison Guinee how she sees the weaving structure: how the weaver's fingers might work to combine the tension and forces of weaving these natural forms.

This is the biggest house in the village and combines the two biggest surprises: the weaving and the animals. You can see the thick, almost furry, quality of the roofing, held up by interwoven wood. The space the roof covers is surprisingly large - good thing, too, as both people and animals lived here. There's been a lot lately on one of my favorite medieval blogs, In the Medieval Middle, about interactions between humans and animals, and we were reminded here of just how absolute we assume our boundaries to be between ourselves and animals.

Not here! The sheep and goats wander the site freely, and in the summer there there are cows! The kids didn't immediately notice that there were no gates (we did), but were plenty freaked out when they had the animals rush by them on a little run. We spent quite a bit of time in this house, and here's Iris eyeing the ram warily. Is that even a ram? What do I know? Dear Oliver asked me what to do in case the ram charges and I tell him "Don't make eye contact" - is that even right? Maybe rams are offended if you avert your gaze! In any case, these animals were thoroughly used to human company and milled around us and all around their village. We had an interesting conversation about what it might mean to sleep in a house that had a section reserved for animals (the kinds of sounds (and yes, smells) that one would hear in the night while snuggling in bed); what it might mean to brush up against sheep and goats throughout the day, going to them for milk or, much more exceptionally, food. The kids agreed that it would take some getting used to.

There were (gorgeous) hens and a rooster as well, but they were in their own yard, so as to be safe from the dreaded wolf - seen here in a wolf trap. (!) Oliver spent a good bit of time examining this knot which (said the sign) would tighten as soon as the wolf would start to pull on it. No wonder domesticated animals were so beloved - the other kind were devastating. Well, this little wolf, at least, would probably just pet the sheep and goats.

Nature creates all of the forms and boundaries of culture in the year 1000. The hamlet sits in the crook of stone walls built along rises in the hills. The trees shape every view, every memory for the walk home from another hamlet. I can't ever get over how green with moss the trees are - there must be hundreds of species of moss in Brittany. Those nostalgic for the Middle Ages (think twice!) often refer to the organic quality of medieval architecture: the forest-like bends of cathedral vaulting, for example. But having been here, I see those stone constructions as a resolute rebellion against the bend and sway of the architecture of the (primeval) forest. We've been busy rebelling against natural form ever since.

The way back was along a path built up in the 16th century - pretty remarkable to have a forest path from the 16th century left to us! The rocks look so much more alive beneath all of that moss - breathing, undulating forms; and the trees, too. Glad that it was daylight!

Once back at the Welcome Center, the kids were ushered into a splendid craft room where they had all the paint, paintbrushes, stencils, and printing stamps their little hearts desired. The woman there was so incredibly nice - she showed the kids books of medieval illuminated manuscripts (woo-hoo!) and all sorts of possibilities for their works of art. For the first time, we saw all three kids slip into French mode - they all understood everything the woman said, and all asked little questions in French, always just enough to get to the next thing. Amazing!

And here are the results! Eleanor went abstract with the two pieces in the bottom left; Oliver captured village life with images of the bread oven, a house, and various animals; and Iris worked the entire time on her masterpiece: a beautifully decorated portrait of the little cat who guided our visit. Three cheers for the Village of the Year 1000!


  1. I'm really impressed by Oliver's rams there...particularly his the technique to show the horns against the animal's body using the same color. It reminds of the old cave paintings we talked about. -- Matt

  2. From Lascaux to Last Week! the Paleolithic painting style is as fresh as ever! Are you guys back in Paris, France? how were your worldly travels? can't wait to catch up!