Since we first met Jean-François Vassal and Valérie Michel last year, we have learned a lot about what the Middle Ages was really like here in Carcassonne.
One of Jean-François and Valérie’s businesses is the Centre d’Histoire Vivante Médiévale (CHVM). The mission of CHVM is to provide authentic experiences of medieval culture and society, with focus on the region of Carcassonne between the 12th and 15th centuries. While other enterprises offer anecdotal tours, CHVM’s tours, workshops and presentations dispel so many romantic myths about the Middle Ages, and replace them with even more interesting authentic experiences. The main theme is Myth Versus Reality. We are starting to be able to distinguish what is true (and fascinating!) from what Hollywood has delightfully made up.
Two events form the sources for this blog: A medieval fair within the walls of the medieval city, La Cité de Carcassonne, last fall; and a medieval encampment just outside the château of La Cité a few weeks ago.
Here are views of the medieval encampment. The arched bridge leads from the interior of La Cité into the château. The château — or castle — sits within the walls of La Cité. A medieval citadel becomes a Cité once it contains a château, a cathedral, and the residences and commerce of at least a village. The tents of this encampment are relatively authentic for a group of merceneries around 1355. The people in short pants are not.
May I present Valérie and Jean-François in summer — a bit relaxed — and in winter — ready for battle. Their garments are as authentic as they can achieve so far. For each part of the outfits, they have spent at least 10 hours of research. They confirm the textiles, all the details, and the accessories.
While the man on the right is a good friend of Jean-François and Valérie, his clothes and arms would not have existed at the same time as those worn by Jean-François. Before the middle of the 14th century, the chevalier’s protection would have been only chain mail (all riveted; a full covering of mail contains about 42,000 rings!). In the middle of the 14th century, individual plates started to be added, like the plates and gloves that Jean-François is wearing. By 1410, the chevalier protected himself completely with plates.
Jean-François’ armor approaches what a chevalier probably wore at about 1350. Pursuit of authenticity comes step by step: Jean-François is continually refining this combination of mail and plates. Despite what you see in this photo, in 1350, the chain mail would have formed a higher collar beneath his chin, and there would have likely been less sleeve. For the knight on the right, of the mid-15th century, plates would have covered his arms and all his joints.
In the 14th and 15th centuries, our two friends could not have met each other, much less fought.
This is a fairly authentic collection of arms, armor and shields from the 14th century. During this period, shields were made of wood and leather, not metal.
This collection compares arrows, horseshoes and other items from the medieval period with those of today. A subtitle for the arrowhead collection would be 40 ways to kill with arrow heads.
Within the overall medieval fair last fall, Jean-François and his colleagues hosted an area and events dedicated to authentic living medieval history. A centerpiece of this area was re-enactment of fighting chevalier. Jean-François is on the left, in white. Everything he is wearing and carrying, including his underwear, is authentic for about 1350. His opponent’s clothes and equipment are from a later period, around the end of the 14th century, with more armor plates than what was available in 1350.
The re-enactors were fighting with real but blunted swords and equipment. They hit quite hard, although with a guiding value of respect for the opponent. Jean-François broke a finger during this set of matches. The man in red with the long pole is called the maréchal de lice. His job is to enforce the rules of the matches, such as three touches of the sword constituting a win.
No one seems too upset that they are all dead.
This is blacksmithing equipment. The blacksmith was, other than the local lord, the most important person in a community. Without his (and it was always a man as far as we know) skills and products, almost nothing in communities during the Middle Ages would have been possible. Farming implements, carts and carriages, the tools of war — all depended on the blacksmith. His role meant he was usually well respected and wealthy.
The trash can isn’t quite authentic while the rest of the equipment, tent, and what the man is wearing are. The clothes of the visiting young lady, under the historian’s intense eye, don’t fit in this vignette. On the other hand, their flirting over a winter brasier is authentic in another way.
Now we will steer much farther away from authenticity. While Jean-François learns and shows through re-enactment, others take a looser romantic approach. They evoke; they play; they party. Hollywood, romantic novels and television inspire.
There is a pair of movies that illustrates romance versus authenticity. Kevin Costner’s Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves is a fun movie, and was even filmed in Carcassonne, but it presents a jumble of inaccurate costumes, arms, and other details. On the other hand, Arn: The Knight Templar, is a good story and accurate in its depiction. Next time you’re feeling medieval, nest with this double feature.
Our passionate dancer and her accomplishes are having a good time, but they have made up almost all their costumes and activities.
While a knight and his lady on his-and-her horses are perfect for a romance-novel cover, you would never have witnessed a scene like this in the Middle Ages. Much more like Game of Thrones.
Sorry, once again: You would never have seen our charming lady vendor with fabric head ring in the medieval era. Draping scarves, however, were at times in fashion.
Nonetheless, it is great seeing the kids and families work with leather and parchment in ways that evoke medieval workmanship.
Shooting arrows with authentic equipment lets you live a medieval archer’s experience. While this type of curved bow had been used in Asia and Eastern Europe for a long time, it was used in the south of France from the 13th century.
Whether re-enacting with authenticity, or evoking just to have fun, a main goal is for the history of the Middle Ages to come alive. You can immerse yourself and, through activities, get glimpses of bits of a remote part of our shared history. Why not immerse yourself in the real clothes, arms, equipment, and tournament tents, rather than Hollywood’s fantasies?!
PS. One whine too many…