Author: Hanno Meier
Pictures: Hanno Meier

Craft as in the past

From granite quarrying to lime slaking, from earth excavation to iron forging – in the Bärnau-Tachov History Park everything is done by hand, just as it was in the Middle Ages. Experiments are not uncommon on the medieval construction site.

The blacksmith Adam Jopek turns the winch on a medieval crance construction, rung by rung. Skilled hobby enthusiasts will be familiar with such a device from models of feudal castles. But does the original version actually work? “I built it with my own hands,” says Adam proudly. The same goes for everything else here at the Bärnau-Tachov History Park. The houses, stables and roads have all been reconstructed. The craftsmen carve stones from granite, create beams from raw tree trunks and burn limestone to produce mortar. “Fascinating work”, during which they sometimes even wear medieval clothing. But there is one thing they would never do without. Their comfortable and reliable safety footwear.

The wood groans under the enormous weight. The talons of the hand-forged iron tongs crunch and claw their way into the piece of granite as Adam Jopek turns the crank of the crane centimeter by centimeter. Robert Mois thinks that the block is “a good two hundredweight”. The stone-masons have hewn it by hand from a large chunk of “Flossenbürg”. Flossenbürg is a nearby village located in the Uplands of Bavaria. It will serve as a source for the granite the masons will need in order to craft each and every stone for their reconstruction of a hostelry which was often visited on his travels by Emperor Charles IV. “There is a huge amount of work ahead of us before the whole of the complex of buildings is complete,” says Michael Winkler. Michael is speaking on behalf of the six-strong group of craftsmen and tradesmen who have been assigned to the task. The History Park itself straddles the German-Czech border, and the team reflects this too. Three men are from Bohemia, the other three from Bavaria. Some have gathered a wealth of experience from many years spent as journeymen, and they are now set to bring their know-how to bear in this exciting cooperation project between the Universities of Bamberg, Pilsen and Prague. Researchers refer to this approach as “experimental archeology”. “Everything must be as true to the original as possible,” says Michael Winkler. He means the building materials, tools and processing techniques. It is frequently the case that Michael and his colleagues have only simple sketches or a few yellowed pictures to serve as a template. The team, which comprises stone-masons, a bricklayer, a carpenter, a blacksmith and a landscaper, will need to carry out “a lot of experiments and pioneering work” if they are to carry out the meticulous manual work needed to restore old homesteads, settlements and even the setting for an Imperial court.

In days gone by, merchant caravans and the Emperor’s retinue would make their way along the Via Carolina, or the Golden Road, which led from Nuremberg to Prague via Pilsen. This was one of the most important East-West trade routes in the Middle Ages. Both the rulers and the merchants would stop off in Bärnau to rest.

For almost ten years, the craftsmen have been trying to recreate the look of the inns and houses of past centuries. They have also been attempting to understand how they came about and how they were constructed. More than 30 such buildings have now been erected across the two parts of the History Park in Bavaria and Bohemia. A Slav village, an imposing tower hill fortress from the 11th century and a hamlet from the High Middle Ages are already in place. Now work is starting on a 14th century inn at which an Emperor once lodged. The dell between the small town of Bärnau in the Upper Palatinate and Tachov in Bohemia is considered to be the largest museum of its type anywhere in the German speaking countries. 

On the construction sites in Bärnau, the craftsmen are busy firing up a kiln which they have built themselves. Limestone needs to burn at a temperature of almost 1,000 degrees for three days and three nights before it becomes suitable for use as lime mortar.  

The Vikings used the same technique to shape planks for their boats. 

Unprocessed tree trunks lie in the cutting area in front of the barn. Finished beams for further construction works can be seen behind them. The latter are so precisely crafted as if they had just come from the sawmill. “No way,” says Armin the carpenter. “Everything is done by hand.” He reaches for a rough splitting tool to show how it is done. The Vikings used the same technique to shape planks for their boats. 

Armin is a much-traveled man. Enthusiasm for the rediscovery of age-old artisan techniques which were lost in the wake of industrialization is clearly written all over his face. And yet, no one would be prepared to swap places with the prevailing circumstances of medieval life. No heating, no running water, cold winters, zero hygiene. “We dive into our medieval construction sites here in the morning, but at 4 p.m. it’s closing time and the end of the Middle Ages,” says Robert. He wouldn’t want to trade places when he thinks of his warm room in the evening.   

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