Our medievalist friends Jef and Val were eager to visit the newly renovated Château de Foix. 

Foix is a small town nestled in a valley in the Pyrénées of the department of Ariège, about an hour’s drive from home. We had passed by Foix numerous times on our trips to Niaux and the upper Pyrénées. The château rises high above the town, a beacon that invites exploration.

We parked in the town beneath the castle towers.

After a short stroll though the winding ascending streets, we arrived at the newly established museum. It tells in particular the history of the castle, the county and the powerful and fierce family who reigned unchallenged over this territory for six centuries, from Bernard Roger, creator of the dynasty, to Henry III of Navarre, who became king of France under the name of Henri IV.

The cool sunny day was beautiful, and we were here to experience the castle. The museum could wait.

The location of the castle was strategically well chosen because like the hundred fortified castles of Ariège (most of them are in ruins today), it dates from a time of great insecurity, brigandage, and territorial rivalry. In the Middle Ages, the castle was considered impregnable; from a song of the period: “El castels es tant fortz que el mezis se defent” (the castle is so strong that it defends itself).

During two centuries (1209 to 1429) several counts of Foix were the soul of the Occitan resistance to the crusade against the Albigensians. The county de Foix became the primary refuge of persecuted Cathars . The castle was never taken during the Albigensian crusade, even though Simon de Montfort laid siege to it in 1211 and 1212. It was, however, taken by force by French King Philippe the Bold in 1272.

After about two years of renovation, the château and museum reopened in July 2020. For the château, the aim was to restore its 14th century atmosphere and setting, under the reign of the flamboyant Gaston Fébus, Count of Foix. A banquet hall, a judgment hall, a weapons room, a bedroom, a scriptorium, a stewardship store, and  a dungeon were restored. The furniture, by the Toulouse-based company Transversale, required exhaustive and creative research.

The three towers of the Château de Foix.

The location of the castle was strategically well chosen because like the hundred fortified castles of Ariège (most of them are in ruins today), it dates from a time of great insecurity, brigandage, and territorial rivalry. In the Middle Ages, the castle was considered impregnable; from a song of the period: “El castels es tant fortz que el mezis se defent” (the castle is so strong that it defends itself).

The first castle, dating from around the year 1000, had a single main tower, a quadrangular building of a relatively small footprint. However, the natural summit of the Rocher de Foix is large and the tower was built at the highest point, slightly off-center, which left large areas for the development of other buildings on the site.

The Château of Foix was distinctive, at least from the 13th century, perhaps from the 12th century, because of its second main tower, wider than the first, but of comparable height. The construction of the second tower demonstrated the power of the Counts of Foix.

Around the end of the 15th century, the counts of Foix built the third tower, this time a round one. It was round for a reason. At the end of the 14th century, the techniques of warfare changed; stone ball projectiles gave way to metal balls. Hollow metal balls weighing around fifteen kilos were fired by a cannon with a long and thin tube, using the new powders that had arrived in the West at the end of the 13th century. While the stone ball tended to shatter upon impact against the walls, the metal ball was tough; because it is hollow, it gave off a strong jolt which shook the wall and quickly destroyed the mortar between the stones. The new tower of Foix was designed to resist this. Because it is round, unless impacting head-on, the ball would graze the tower stones. The tower walls were built of two layers of stone, separated by an earthen layer. This construction absorbed vibrations. As is almost always the case in medieval architecture, the forms and materials serve specific important military purposes. Today we see romantic towers with crenelations and attractive stone roofs; back in the day, they were pragmatic diagrams for defense.

For the grounds, within the ramparts, the aim was to present reenactments of some aspects of medieval life. We visited reconstructed workshops for blacksmiths, stone carvers, and maintainers of the weapons; and a working trebuchet (a kind of catapult that uses a long arm to throw the projectile). At each station, a re-enactor, in fairly authentic 14th-century clothing, demonstrated and explained. The directors of the renovated site aim to provide glimpses into medieval life, not just mute stone towers.

Reenactment of medieval life and battles is the core of what Jef and Val do. Jef is very knowledgeable about and sensitive to authentic details. He pulled us aside as we approached the first of these reenactment stations. He gave us a code word; if he said the word, that meant that the reenactment was not good enough, and we should move on. He arrived skeptical.

At the first station, a young man was explaining about swords and crossbows. Swords are a particular passion of Jef’s. We lasted there about three minutes.

The next station was the smithy. The young man was working a piece of glowing iron with a hammer. He wasn’t just talking history, he was creating some large pointy construction nails. We watched him for quite a while. He was passing Jef’s test.

At the next station, the stone carver was less hands-on, so we all grew bored quickly. 

Jef’s review was pretty positive, which we think even surprised him. Jef and Val, and we, lament the fact that, in the château of La Cité de Carcassonne, there are none of these reenactments. Jef says that among his community of medieval enthusiasts there are plenty of people who could do this, and would want to. The château of Carcassonne is much larger than this one in Foix, and receives many many more visitors. Somehow, the people responsible in Carcassonne don’t see how some simple reenactment brings the site alive.

The view from the top of the round tower was glorious.

While we were enjoying the view and the beautiful day, we talked about reenactments and guiding visitors through medieval sites like this one in Foix. We had lots of questions about what life was like in this château and this valley. In the 14th century, what  would we have seen, looking out on the lush valley? In the Middle Ages, most people lived in the countryside, but towns gradually developed. The town of Foix was smaller than what it is today, with narrow streets and tight houses. To protect themselves from attacks, residents built ramparts all around the city. From our tower vantage, we would have seen farm and grazing fields, and a lot of forest. 

These are the forests that the most famous Count of Foix, Gaston Fébus, hunted in. Gaston was born in 1331. His father,  Gaston II, creatively gave his son his own name. As an adult, Gaston III adopted Fébus as a nickname. In its classic spelling, Phoebus, it is one of the names of the sun-god, Apollo, and is apt because of Gaston Fébus’s golden hair. But also because he was a supremely confident and successful warrior and administrator; quite full of himself, his contemporaries noted.

Nonetheless, he was evidently a wise administrator. He reorganized his estates, set up a permanent tax system, a permanent administration, put together a well-equipped army and organized defense by creating militias and building many forts bearing the prideful motto “Febus me fe” (“Fébus made me”) . He developed trade and ensured the safety of traders along the Pyrenees and in the Garonne valley routes. 

Fébus was one of the greatest huntsmen of his day, and hunted his entire life – he died of a stroke while washing his hands after returning from a bear hunt. Around 1388, he wrote a notable book about hunting, le Livre de chasse. Recorded in the book are different stages of hunting different animals, as well as describing animal behavior, offering advice to less well-off gentry about how to enjoy hunting without bankrupting themselves, and is even sympathetic to the peasant poacher because he too has the hunting instinct. It is the classic treatise on Medieval hunting, and was described by scholar Hannele Klemettilä as “one of the most influential texts of its era.”

As we descended from the top of the round tower, within the stone spiral staircase, Jef stopped at one of the small deep windows. He pointed to a collection of grooves in the stone sill.  He said that these came from guards who had time to kill while their charges were doing their thing in the tower rooms. The guards used the stone to sharpen their knives. The shape of the grooves comes from the shapes of the knives. Then Jef pointed to curves in the mortar at the sides of the windows. The guards wore away the mortar as they pulled the knife blades across it. Without Jef’s keen eyes and mind, we would never have noticed the grooves or given them any meaning. He knows how to bring the history alive.

After we had climbed up and down every stone spiral staircase that we could find, we were preparing to descend from the château to the museum. We stood at one of the upper ramparts. Below us, a young woman in medieval clothes – and with a face microphone like a pop star – was demonstrating how a small catapult works. A family of four watched intently as she sent a rubber ball flying.

Then she spotted us. We smiled (behind our masks) and waved. Thanks to her microphone and speaker she called to us, insisting that we come down to help with the trebuchet. OK, she ordered us to come down; she needed more people. Our hostess positioned the father of the family, Jef, Val and me at great wooden wheels at either side of the trebuchet. (Mike had the videographer job.) She adjusted the ropes and rigging and instructed us to pull on the heavy wheels until the basket for the projectile lowered to her level. Five minutes later, arms starting to get rubbery, we succeeded. Whew. Then she said to turn the wheels in the other direction to raise the basket to firing position. Really rubbery arms after that.

She thanked us, and directed us to step back. She pointed to the field of roofs of the town, below and in the distance. If the basket of the trebuchet held a real projectile, like a stone ball, it would fling it through the skylights of that building about 300 meters away. She said she wasn’t allowed to do that. Nonetheless, she was ready to release the trebuchet, even if the basket was empty. As the long arms and basket suddenly whipped up and back over toward us, we all called out. We were stunned at the swiftness and violence of the action. Imagine a 100 kilogram stone in that basket and the damage it would do to its target.

The permanent exhibits of the museum explore the history of the valley of Foix, the counts, and the life here in the Middle Ages. Although the exhibits are very well designed and presented, we didn’t have time on this day to spend time there. The weather and views had been too good outside. But Jef wanted to check out a temporary exhibition: Legendary Swords: From Excalibur to the light saber. Its subject is how medieval armor and weapons have been used in popular culture. As in Conan the Barbarian, the Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, Xena Warrior Princess, Game of Thrones, Highlander,and, close to our hearts, Star Wars. When you see all these movie references in one big space, you realize just how much romantic ideas of knights and sword fights slip into so many stories. Something resonates.


Bonus: Dinner out with a Count of Foix

The Menu of the Banquet of Gaston IV (son of Gaston Fébus)

First Service
White Hypocras with roasted items
(Hypocras is a sweet spice wine (pepper, cinnamon, ginger, clove, Guinea grains, etc.) considered to be therapeutic and digestive, served as an apératif and/or digestif.)

Second Service
Capon (castrated rooster!) pâtés, ham of wild boar, accompanied by seven kinds of soups

Third Service
Roasted game: pheasants, partridges, rabbits, peacocks, vultures, herons, bustards, wild geese, swans, river birds, bucks and does, accompanied by seven kinds of soups

First Intermission

Fourth Service
“Armed birds” (cooked poultry wearing a decorative helmet or accompanied by a coat of arms), accompanied by more kinds of soups

Second Intermission

Fifth Service
Tarts, darioles (little cinnamon flans), estrats de crème (not clear: some kind of cream), fried oranges

Third Intermission

Sixth Service
Red Hypocras, oublies (like fine waffles), and roles (pastries rolled into cones or bars) of all kinds

Fourth Intermission

Seventh Service
Large lions, deer, monkeys and all kinds of beasts and birds made of sugar, each carrying a banner with the arms of the King of Hungary and the lords present

Leave a Reply