En Garde!


From Lyon to Castelnaud La Chapelle it’s nearly 600km. Not a short run, made longer by the fact that a considerable section of it is tiny rural lanes, many of them traversing mountainsides. The satnav thinks it’s about six hours’ riding, but given the need to stop for fuel and my limited cornering ability, it works out at over seven. The 40 or so kilometres at the end of the journey are especially challenging: very tight corners, paths barely wide enough for one vehicle and the Sun in my face reducing visibility again, albeit not as badly as it did in Switzerland. A lot of it is a 30kph speed limit. This section may have always been like that, but the French government recently reduced a whole lot of speed limits by 10kph and it’s not uncommon to spot an “No to 80kph” vinyl sticker on motorbikes and cars objecting to the reduction of the speed limit on rural roads from 90 to 80 earlier this year. Whether this will have any positive effect on road safety or detrimental impact on the economy remains to be seen.

As the old Russian saying goes, eyes fear, hands do. The Avons make cornering easier, the difference compared to my old Bridgestones is tangible, an excellent call by Karen of Zenith Motorcycles who felt that they were the best choice for this long trip. I climb a hill, descend into a valley, then climb another hill. Finally after crossing the Dordogne, Castelnaud appears, first the town in the foothills, then the steep climb up to the castle. I arrive in the tiny town square, and cause a minor scene: there are a few people sitting around tables at one or two taverns and the noise and presence of Veronica and I draws a lot of attention. Not that it’s a problem, nor is it the most exciting thing to happen over the coming few days, more of a taster of things to come.

The trouble is, there are no addresses in a place like this. The house with the room where I am due to stay must be well known locally as it’s not marked on any map. Dismounting Veronica and looking around I notice a couple climbing the hill in my direction. They are carrying motorbike helmets. I must be looking lost because they approach me. The lady speaks to me in English, asking whether I’m OK. I explain that I am looking for a particular house. She approaches a group of drinkers and asks for directions, in French, and then passes the information onto me. The house turns out to be about a minute away.

We spend a few moments chatting. They are here for the weekend. I tell them about the event at the chateau which I am here for and they say they will definitely swing  by the following day. We part and I head to the inn. IMG_3027A few folks sit around drinking wine outside. A doyenne emerges, and makes it understood that I am expected. Tucking Veronica away into a quiet little courtyard I follow her to the room.

The room is to be shared. The other occupant is out. He is the person to whom I owe my presence here: (soon to be Doctor) James Hester. James has spent the past 3 years working with the curatorial team at the Chateau de Castelnaud la Chapelle to put together a weekend of medieval combat talks and demonstrations. The main event is his Passage of Arms: he will be challenged by a number of combatants and will duel each one of them in turn. This a concluding chapter in completing his PhD in the history of medieval combat: unlike many academics he is not only a student of his chosen field of research but a practitioner too. One can’t get much more practical than spending two days encased in armour being whacked with deadly weapons at a 12th Century Cathar stronghold in Southern France.

Castelnaud Chateau is one of three castles situated very near each other. The other two, easily visible from the walls are Malartie and Beynac. For the best part of a millennium these three neighbours have been at war with each other. IMG_3036The most fierce and bloodiest rivalry was between Castelnaud and Beynac, with the former backing the Plantagenets during the 100 Years War and the latter being loyal to the King of France. Prior to that, in the early 1200s, it was a major flashpoint of the Albegensian Crusade. De Montfort himself took the castle from its Cathar castellan Bernard de Casnac. De Casnac retook it a year later. He did so via an all out assault, which was very rare: usually a castle would surrender via negotiations or in exchange for money, and occasionally one would fall to a siege, but one being taken by force was unusual. The castle is very well designed for defence and de Casnac was only able to retake it because he knew it so well. Once he was in, he hanged every member of de Montfort’s garrison. The Cathars were notoriously hard to fight due to the nature of their religious belief. They thought that the world was hell, that the Christian God was in fact the devil and that the Pope was his representative. For this reason they did not mind dying, especially in battle, as doing so would enable their soul to progress onto the next plane of being.

Depositing the motorbike helmet, gloves and other gear next to James’s knight’s helmet and metal gauntlets, I head back down to the valley. IMG_3022James is there at the only restaurant for miles which is open, with two friends, A and S, and their kid P. S is James’s first sword teacher from the US. The whole family are reenactors. S is also a biker, favouring adventure bikes. His current ride is a Suzuki V Strom, and they’ve previously ridden around parts of Germany and Czechia on a rented BMW GS. S delivers the best and most hilarious neg I’d heard in a while: “You’re riding around the whole of Europe on a Shadow..?! Good for you”. Later we are joined by J, another US based reenactor who has made the long trip. I opt for the Basque menu, which turns out to be a wise choice. Talk is of weapons, both swords and firearms, sustainability, biking, survivalism, a long and meandering conversation lasting many hours. Eventually we pay the very small bill and climb the steep hill to pass out in preparation of the next day.

The following morning after a very simple breakfast of bread, jam, orange juice and coffee, we enter the castle. The guys go off to meet the French challengers who are due to fight James later. I familiarise myself with the surroundings. The fortress is incredible. After the French Revolution it fell into total disuse and was looted, at one stage even being used as a stone quarry. In the 1960s it was classed as an object of historical interest and bought by a family who opened it to the public. It now houses an excellent collection of medieval weapons and several full sized siege engines in a stunning and entirely authentic setting.

I decide to skip lunch because L, one of the curators, gives me the opportunity to do something amazing. The siege engines are all fully functional and she invites me to shoot the daddy of all of them, the trebouchet.

Trebouchets stood at about 20 meters tall, had vast range and were incredibly accurate and impossible to defend against. They weren’t only used to fling large stone projectiles weighing over 100kg each, they were also used to throw rotting dead animals into castles to spread disease. A trebouchet was expensive and not many armies had one. IMG_3090Usually the mere appearance of a one in the hands of an invading army was enough to cause the defenders of a castle to surrender.  It was the 12th century equivalent of a nuke.

Shooting one, even using a sort of medicine ball thing as a safe projectile is an incredible experience. It takes quite a long time to set up, building tension in the swing arm by winding a strong rope tightly around it, ensuring that the counterweight is properly positioned and that the projectile itself sits correctly the sling. Once the metal rod holding the tightened swingarm is released, to watch the whole thing heave the projectile into the air and fling it at speed at a distant target is awesome in the proper meaning of the word: it’s frightening in its enormity.

The day’s sessions entail a very interesting duel in full armour from the famous French fighters of La Mesnie du Blanc Castel IMG_3035and a profoundly educational presentation of 12th to 14th century civil fencing by Franck Cinato and Olivier Gourdon followed by an exhilarating full fight. Following a talk about the history of the long sword, the main event was James’ passage of arms in which he fought half a dozen knights, one by one, in light armour. It was quick, at times brutal, and totally engrossing. After half a dozen fights James was exhausted but held his own and did his travelling supporters proud.

Apostrophes, cris et tapage
Pousses jusques a la fureur!
Car c’est la fete du courage!
C’est la fete des gens de co
Allons! en garde! Allons! Allons! ah!

As the daytime fun drew to a close, and the English speakers took off their armour and went to prepare for dinner I found myself as the only non French speaker with the French crew at an outdoor table at a taverna. Over water, beer and wine we chatted, part in French, part in English, partly using gestures and facial expressions. Given the violent medieval past we’d just visited, I wondered what state peace was in in modern Europe?

France, like every country, is facing a distinct set of challenges. Interestingly some of those present blamed religion for societal discord. This broad category includes Catholicism. It includes Islam too. In the setting of a castle which has seen a thousand years of religious wars, this was an interesting and none too surprising revelation.

But it wasn’t an entirely helpful one to the neat narrative regarding the reducing usefulness of the concept of the “Nation State” against a backdrop of European cooperation which many conversations that have been had during this journey seemed to point to. Here we were in a castle, one of three, which had been at war for the best part of a millennium. In this context, the two communities being distinct principalities backing rival factions throughout history have brought nothing but death, suffering and misery to ordinary people who had to live in their vicinity. But it did reaffirm something which first came to the fore in Prague: that there probably is such a thing as the “European Dream”. It is less lofty than what is described as the “American Dream”. It is more simple too. It’s peace. The desire, after centuries of war, for peaceful coexistence.  The revelation was all the more stunning since it came among swords, pikes and siege engines.

The whole group reconvened. Dinner was a simple but wonderful affair: twenty or thirty people sat at a long table, speaking in whatever mixture of French and English possible. Looking around, given the abundance of medieval costumes, it seemed that they had everything in common and nothing dividing them. Well, perhaps there was one extra layer of commonality. The four bikers among us all (female and male; French, American and me) had somehow found each other via some ineffable homing instinct and without intent or collusion ended up sitting together. The Road has a kind sense of humour.

The next day there was more duelling, and more conversations. IMG_3069The biker couple who assisted me when I first rocked up in Castelnaud found me and said hi. The curators at the castle, P and L, were incredible in their generosity and knowledge. For the evening meal a new friend, G, a sword maker, drove us to nearby Sarlat, because everything in Castelnaud and Beynac shut at about 6pm. It was pleasant and subdued.

The trouble was, I had to keep moving in the direction of Spain. But what to do? Head to Biarritz or Bordeaux in France, or to San Sebastian/Donostia or Pamplona in the Basque Country in Northern Spain? I had no accommodation booked and no idea where to go next. After debating it with myself and with others, and with no clear winner, I figured sleeping on it was the best idea and sleep I did, immediately upon my head making contact with the pillow.








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