Fortifying a castle in the French Alps between the XIIIe and the XVIe centuries

Loïc Benoit, Archéologue, Doctorant CIHAM UMR 5648

Construction’s methods during the medieval times have always been a central question for the medievalist archeologists and historians. But over the last few years, several new geographical areas have been discussed more deeply about these issues. One of them is the Haute-Savoie department which was barely studied (Baud, Schmitt, 2014 ; D’Agostino et alii, 2010-2012). This area, full of historical events, have a complex history and geographical context. Indeed, this mountainous land possesses some singularities which tend to change the manner of build households, churches or even castles.

The Haute-Savoie correspond to the former Geneva diocese, an ancient religious entity which was replaced in the late sixteenth century by the Annecy diocese because of the Protestant Reformation among others events (Blondel, 1956 ; Corbière, 2002 ; Duparc 1955). The Geneva diocese appears during the fourth century, probably at the end of it. It will grow to become one of the biggest diocese during the medieval period [Fig 1]. In fact, its territory reach at its peak Nyon (Switzerland) in the north, almost Nantua in the west, Aix-les-Bains and Ugine in the south and Chamonix in its eastern part (Lullin, Le Fort, 1866). Between the thirteenth and the sixteenth centuries, which correspond to the last part of the middle age, the Geneva diocese, is a religious entity. But at that time, this territory is divided between three major families namely the Counts, then Dukes, of Savoy, the lords of Faucigny and the Counts of Geneva. The three of them appear at the end of the reign of the Burgundy empire when this last became weak. They will gain lands and powers over the the Bourgogne legacy. But the many conflicts between those three families make the borders really unstable. Between 1268 and 1355 burst the « delphino-savoyard » conflict between the counts of Savoy and the Faucigny – Viennois family. In 1355 this last is defeated and the Faucigny territory became a Savoy possession (Corbière, 2002 ; Duparc, 1955). At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Counts of Geneva are ruined by the so many wars and they sold their territories to the new Duke of Savoy Amédée VIII. Peace will settle until the sixteenth century. But the Protestant Reformation will lead to a war against the Berneses (inhabitant from Berne) then against the French the next century. At last, the Savoy will become a French possession during the nineteenth century.

Fig 1 : Former Geneva diocese. Map : L. Blondel, 1956. DR

I -Allinges-Neuf and Châtillon castles : A brief history.

This presentation of problematics related to the construction in mountain environment will rest on two concrete cases, namely the castles of Allinges-Neuf and Châtillon. Both are located on the territory between the Chablais and the Faucigny (corresponding to the south-east of Lake Geneva), a mountainous land shared by the Lords of Faucigny and the Counts of Savoy until 1355.

The site of Allinges has been known by the texts from the eleventh century (Blondel, 1956 ; Lullin, Le Fort, 1866). Its history quickly became a bit complicated since we shifted, during the XIIth century, from one castle linked to the lords of Faucigny (Château-Vieux), to the presence of two castles each belonging to a rival family : Château-Vieux for the Faucigny and Château-Neuf for the savoy (Benoit, 2014 ; D’Agostino et alii, 2010-2011). Both have been built on a rock at 800 meters of altitude. A period of conflicts began in 1268 between these two buildings separated only by a ditch of 150 meters and it lasted for approximately a century, until 1355. Because of its eventful history between the twelfth century and 1355, the site of Château-Neuf underwent many modifications of its fortifications [Fig 2]. Besides, the castle knew four major steps of construction, stages documented by medieval accounts as well as archeology (Benoit, 2014 ; D’Agostino et alii, 2010-2011). These phases emphasize the evolution of the site’s status, going from a residential fortress to a military building. This knowledge also makes it possible to document the evolution of regional defensive and building technics (Benoit, PhD on going). The second case is the castle of Châtillon. It is seated on a rocky hilltop at approximately 800m altitude, nearby the end of the Arve valley and in front of the Giffre valley (Benoit, Ceci, 2016 ; D’Agostino et alii, 2010-2012) [Fig 3]. It seems to be known by texts from the twelfth century and was one of the main residences of the Lords of Faucigny for two centuries at least. It had replaced the old castle of Faucigny which was less comfortable (Le Renard, 2011). The castle of Châtillon has hosted the wedding of Pierre II of Savoy and Agnès of Faucigny, both parents of Béatrice of Faucigny-Dauphiné, one of the main characters of the delphino-savoyard war (Lullin, Le Fort, 1866). The latter was also engaged to the Dauphin of Viennois in this castle during the thirteenth century. The castle position as a stronghold for the valley entrance and its town located at a major economic crossroads down the hill made it very important.

Fig 2 : Castle of Allinges-Neuf. Picture : L. Benoit
Fig 3 : Castle of Châtillon. Picture : L.Benoit

II – Building a castle in the Alps : pros and cons.

The aim is not to present a detailed archeological study or every step of construction of each sites but to question the different factors to consider during constructions or repairs of a fortified place. These are general reflections and a state of knowledge on these problematics. Thus, we will try to make a comparative reflection on the construction materials and their origins : Where does it come from ? What kind of material ? What about the workforce ? Which kind of jobs ?

Concerning the methodology there are three different approaches. The first one is to consult ancient texts which gives us information on the various restauration or construction works. These are called « chatellenie accounts ». Sometimes we can find information on the nature of the materials, their sources and their costs. Then we can cross-reference theses information with toponyms in order to try to locate supply locations. This involves the analysis of the old land registries with the chance to benefit for the Savoy territory of the oldest European cadasters (Sardinian map 1730). Finally, the field observations allow us to identify the building materials still visible and if we couple these observations to a geological map we can trace some paths of the material. We will see then that our two castles observe quite different patterns.

The basic postulate is the following : building a castle in a valley or on a plain is not even close from construction in a mountain environment. Now that we have state the obvious, we can ask ourselves why. Geographical constraints are obviously numerous whether it is for the material transport or for the construction itself. Architects and builders had to think differently, to adapt the local topography. They even had to adapt the construction because of the geology which is not the same in the mountain than in the valley (Baud, Schmitt 2014 ; Carrier, Corbière, 2005 ; Mesqui 1991).

During the Middle Age, three majors materials were used in the castle construction : wood, stone and iron (Poisson, Schwien, 2003). Each of these respond to a specific use even if some exceptions exists where some replace others. In the French alps the wood is mainly used for the different parts of the roof, some walls, the floors, the door leaves, drawbridges and removable defense structures such as palisades, wooden galleries or brattices which are small overhanging defensive structure in wood often placed before the entrance of a passage way (Poisson, Schwien, 2003). Stones are used for more massive structures such as curtain walls, keep, towers, barbican, and for architectonic parts : windows, doors, vault, fireplace, etc (D’Agostino et alii, 2010-2011, De Raemy, 2004). Finally, the iron serves almost exclusively as a fixation or as a reinforcement of wooden structures like door fitting or window bars. If these three types of material are the most common, each site does not have the same remains as we will see.

Very few archeological remains of wood are still in the castle of Allinges-Neuf. Remains of chestnut beams were found at Château Vieux, thus indicating the presence of this species in the construction but nothing more. In fact, we were not able to specific analysis on this because of the lack of data for this essence on our region. However, nothing was found on Château-Neuf yet. Old texts are hardly more loquacious concerning the provenances or the varieties of wood used with only one mention of a piece of wood bought in Lausanne. But, they tell us more about the use that is made of it. Also, most of the mentions are related to the castle’s roofs. Those are shake roof, a kind of roof made with wood shingle which are made of thin slats of wood. They are assembled by thousands then fixed on the frame with nails. This kind of roof is quite typical of mountain areas (Alps, Jura, Pyrénée). In the castle, the wood is also used for entire room constructions « camera or gardam robam » or the doors and windows. We also buy wood for construction scaffolding. For Allinges-Neuf, the stone using is better documented thanks to the still important remains but also thanks to the various field investigations carried out between 2010 and 2014. Five different kinds of stone were identified on the site : it is sandstone, gray limestone, granite, gneiss and shale. The proportions observed are as follows: 70% sandstone, 20% limestone, 5% granite, 5% gneiss and shale. Petrographic studies have been done to know the original provenance of these stones. Moreover, pedestrian surveys were conducted to locate possible quarries all around the castle. Six building stones quarries have been identified plus four quarries for grinding wheels [Fig 4]. From this come the following outcomes: the supply of stone for the construction of the castle is very predominantly local. The rocky hill on which the castle is built directly serves as a quarry for sandstone. Moreover, several size fronts have been observed for both uses : building stone quarry under the castles and millstones quarries between Allinges-Neuf and Allinges-Vieux. The gray limestone can be find at the bottom of the hill. The other types of rock can’t be find in nature all around the castle site. Are they imported ? they could have been, but their low presence rate on site does not allow to imagine a dedicated transport for such a small amount. Also, the most likely hypothesis is that they came from a turnover of the geological evolution of the landscape and that it is in fact pickup stones (Baud, Schmitt, 2014). With the proximity of the materials comes low transport costs and shortened delay for the construction. The sandstone has the advantage of going out by bed relatively regular which simplifies from the beginning the implementation. Also, we observe walls with good foundations although irregular.

Fig 4 : Potentials quarries for Allinges. Map : D’agostino. DR

The workforce is another main entrance in the construction problematic. We find mainly two trades namely carpenters and masons, but we also have some carrier, blacksmiths or simple workers. By consulting the texts, we realize that the workers came from a lot of different places and not only from the village beside the castle. Indeed, the latter is not really occupied by civilians outside wartime as stated in the charters. Among the labor-generating villages we can mention among others Allinges, Avonnay, Thonon, Evian, Morges, Boege or Villeneuve and moreover [Fig 5]. These workers came sometimes from afar and they probably housed on site the time of work. We can therefore ask ourselves the question of the itinerant work during the Middle Ages. This first quick chart already plans a mode of operation and construction in an alpine territory.

Fig 5 : Poles of workforce for Allinges. Map : L.Benoit

The castle of Châtillon being still under study, analyzes have not yet been pushed as much as for Allinges-Neuf. No evidence of wood remains have been find yet on the castle site. But the mentions in the old texts are numerous. The oak completely dominates the wooden construction, the other species being absent here. In the same way, several places of supply are known: the goytroussa forest, the Leyrons pasture, the Cheveriis pasture as well as at least 4 others. It is now difficult to locate them following the actual map, but work is underway on the subject which will allow us to refine the routing area. However, some of these sites appear to be around Taninges and St. Sigismund. The usefulness of the material remains the same as for the other castles and we find it in the shake roofs, in the doors, the walls, the floors or the paneling. At Allinges-Neuf the majority of building stones were taken from the site, here it is more nuanced. Two main materials have been observed: limestone and tuff. The proportions are as follows: 70% limestone, 20% tuff. Unfortunately, we could not do petrographic analyzes to determine the provenance of the stones. However, ancient texts fill this gap a little. Also, we learn that the sand, lime and tuff come from the river Giffre while the limestone comes from the hill of Châtillon and the valley of the Arve around Cluses. Although it is possible that the rocky hilltop on which the castle is built has been used as a quarry, but there is no longer any face in this area. If we look at these provenances as well as the local topography we quickly realize that the costs and transport times of building materials have been significant for this site. Also, in this case, the budget allocated to the transportation of materials in the accounts is more important than in Allinges. Another rather curious import is observed. Indeed, while there must have been a blacksmith on site or at least in the town of Cluses, we can see that nails are often imported from Geneva either at the other end of the current department of Haute-Savoie. We do not have an explanation for this phenomenon yet. Perhaps it is simply linked to an acquaintance or offer more attractive than local manufacturing.

The workforce scheme is quite similar to the previous one [Fig 6]. They came from many different places, but a particular example challenges us. A master digger who lived in Ayse, not too far from the castle is known to have been debauched from Burgundy. We have observed other similar cases in different sites and it seems the labor market and the craft market allow to dislodge masters craftsmen in other regions.

Poles of workforce for Châtillon. Map : L. Benoit

III – Conclusions and horizons.

At this stage of the research, several aspects appear. First of all, the well state of preservation and the amount of conserved remains make the site of Allinges one of the major witnesses of the castral implantation on the territory of Haute-Savoie. Thus, its study has made it possible to consolidate and to increase the archaeological and historical knowledge on fortifications and their evolutions in a given territory. The next study of the castle of Chatillon will also complete those data.

Concerning the construction problematics, two different trends seem to come off. The first one is to build with what we have on site. The second is more based on importing materials. Does this have to do with the quality of materials on site ? Possible if we take the example of the castle of Vincenne who has bought his timber at the other end of Europe. Another clue is the knowledge of the intrinsic qualities of the different types of materials. At Alby-sur-Chéran (Haute-Savoie), the accounts tell us that the masons use tuff for the architectural parts (windows, door, etc) and limestone for the rest of the masonry even if it costs twice as much to cut because it is harder. Finally, this is rarely the case in mountain environments, but fashion effects also have an impact on buildings. Regarding the workforce, it is rarely taken on the spot but comes from the whole region. Salaries are based on skills, not provenance. There is also a kind of legacy of the trade, the father’s markets regularly going to his son.

The problematics related to the construction of a castle in the mountains differ widely from the plain’s castles. There are questions of supply, types of materials used (pine and fir used in the plains but not in the mountains) but also the presence of nearby labor. The next compilations of data will allow a more in-depth analysis of these questions.

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manueljasse (2019, 14 janvier). Fortifying a castle in the French Alps between the XIIIe and the XVIe centuries. Les carnets du Labex ITEM. Consulté le 13 juin 2024, à l’adresse