The contradictions of a French château

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The Château de Chenonceau. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4924052

When I arrived in Paris for the first time, my cousin drove me by the Place de la Concorde. That’s where we chopped the Royalists’ fucking heads off, he said. It’s a good example of the European tendency to have a very long memory, as compared to the typical American preference to look only towards the future. It’s also a good example of my family’s general lefty-ness—on both sides of the Atlantic, actually. In light of that lefty-ness, I’ve always had mixed feelings about the French fondness for the great Renaissance-era châteux. So, it was without great enthusiasm that I let myself be talked out of my general impulse to never, ever leave Paris and be talked into a tour of Chenonceau, one of the finer ones. As I looked out of the windows at the beauty of the sun setting over the Cher River, I found myself wondering, over and over again: just how many peasants did one have to starve in order to build such an edifice?

cha%cc%82teau_de_chenonceau_1914_a_1918_15
Mme. Menier assisting in surgery at the château during World War I. The influence of women at Chenanceau has always been strong, leading to its nickname, the Château des Dames. Picture source: https://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ch%C3%A2teau_de_Chenonceau#/media/File:Ch%C3%A2teau_de_Chenonceau_1914_%C3%A0_1918_(15).jpg

And yet: like so many things in France, it’s more complicated than it looked to me at first glance. Is Chenonceau a vestige of a brutal feudal system, built on the backs of starving farmers? Absolutely. It was also, under the ownership of Louise Dupin, essentially a country salon for many of the Lumières–the Enlightenment thinkers, philosophers, writers, and Encyclopédistes who laid the intellectual groundwork for the 1789 Revolution that would end the aristrocratic system (minus minor bumps in the road in the forms of the First and Second Empires and a Restoration that I don’t really understand) that had kept the French people in a state of servitude for so long. During World War I, the owner of the château, Gaston Menier, would turn it into a hospital at his own expense; over 2,000 soldiers would be nursed back to health there. During the Second World War, the line of demarcation between the Free Zone and the German-occupied zone was marked by the Cher River, and the bridge over that river that the château formed (see the picture above) became a method of transit for Resistance fighters and for Jews escaping from the slaughter that claimed the lives of 70,000.

French notes

le château fort: a “strong castle,” the original castles of the Middle Ages, built for defense from attacks.  If I understand correctly, the invention of artillery made them considerably less useful–building a castle in a way that would withstand artillery made them uncomfortable to live in.

le château Renaissance: a “Renaissance castle,” serving essentially as a country residence for royalty and aristrocracy, rather than as a defensive structure as was the case with the old châteuax forts.

la solive: joist.  French buildings of this era often had magnificent ceilings, and I was quite surprised at how many rooms in Chenonceau have solives apparentes–ceilings with exposed joists.

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16 thoughts on “The contradictions of a French château”

  1. I remember visiting Chenonceau first when I was about 17 with my mother and wafting around imagining it to be my home. I still have that tendency in beautiful castles and their grounds. I have to disagree with you on Americans – living here in Massachusetts there is a positive obsession with reaching back to their own revolution whilst being less than mindful of the new revolutions that are bubbling all over the land ….

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  2. Personally the castles that make me thrill are Middle Age fortresses, just like Middle Age cathedrals . There are quite a lot of impressive fortesses all around France, more or less standing nowadays, but my absolute favorites are the Cathar fortresses, the “Sun Citadels”, on top of the Pyrenees mountains . They are seriously damaged but if you visit them on a sunny summer day you will feel like in the Andes, in a solar temple on top of a vertiginous cliff . I was deeply marked by my first visit, if one day you consider the idea I’ll give you my tips .

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  3. Not the Languedoc only you see. In some deep deep ways the whole southern half of France is like another country, itself with its different regions . I sometimes imagine what Europe would have become if the Northern barbarians from Paris, Munich and London had not annihilated this enlightened (and wealthy) civilization . A world in which religions would not be edified by enemies of spirituality could have given a world in which political directions would not be led by skillfull criminals, who knows ?
    About the Cathat castles, my number one is Peyrepertuse, the double ship, followed by Puylaurens and Montségur, plus Quéribus and one in the Montagne Noire, Lastours .

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  4. I understand but the second time I was in Peyrepertuse, standing on the upper part above the sea of clouds, it was not a sunny day, and the clouds were just licking the foot of the lower part . From this point of view I realized that the lower part had the shape of a ship, and this day this ship was floating on a luminous grey sea while I kept remembering that this sea was etheric, with an abyss beneath . That’s when my special love for Peyrepertuse comes from I guess . The wallpaper of my PC actually is a photo of this fortress from far (it’s quite hard to differenciate the castle from the cliffs BTW).

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