Paris, March 20, 2007

Vincennes tower keep reveals its history

After nine years of research and three years' restoration, work on the tower keep, or donjon, of Vincennes castle is coming to a close. Completion will be marked formally on Tuesday 20 March by Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, France's Minister of Culture and Communications, prior to the reopening of the tower to the general public on 17 May next. The CNRS contributed to the restora-tion and research on this important building, the only medieval royal residence still standing in France. Since 1992 Jean Chapelot, CNRS Research Director, has headed the CNRS research pro-gramme for the restoration, the exploration of the archives and carrying out preventive archaeo-logical excavation. The results will be particularly useful for the museum facilities to be opened in the near future for the public

Vincennes is among Europe's largest medieval castles and is a key milestone in the history of medieval art. Built between 1361 and the early years of the 15th century, it is practically the only major construction of the time still standing today in the Île-de-France (Paris) area. Fifty metres high, the donjon of Vincennes castle is the tallest fortified medieval structure in Europe. It has withstood the passage of time but extensive restoration was seen to be necessary. In 1988, the Ministries of Culture and Defence decided to launch a wide-ranging programme to restore the building and highlight its value. An agreement between these two Ministries in 1989 enabled major financial and human resources to be released in addition to those provided by the CNRS and EHESS(1) to set up a research programme on this historic building in 1992. The team of scientists(2) conducting this programme, led by Jean Chapelot, a specialist in the archaeology and history of the Middle Ages, was given the task of carrying out the archaeological excavation, along with historical and architectural research and monitoring the restoration work. The researchers focused particularly on the composition of the iron in the tower keep, as well as the origins of the building materials and the 14th-century panelling still in place in the tower.


In total, fifteen or so archaeological digs were done, some very extensive: for instance, a third of the medieval manor house was excavated between 1992 and 1996. The digs revealed the ancient history of the site, going back in time beyond what can now be seen of the structure. The archaeological work also brought information to light on key aspects such as the daily life of its occupants in the 13th and 14th centuries. This is important because there are now very few written sources to tell us what the 100 to 200 individuals of varying status who lived alongside the sovereigns of the time actually ate. Analysis of bone debris found during the dig has provided a great deal of detailed information: for example, that the castle's occupants in the 13th-14th centuries frequently ate sea and freshwater fish, including unusual and sought-after species.

The archives from the 12th century to the present were also explored by the team, along with an in-depth architectural analysis of the building, and especially the keep, using the exceptional resources made available to the researchers. The restoration of the monument did in fact provide a unique opportunity for research since it would now be inconceivable to make a study of any historic building without identifying the construction materials and their origins and analysing the building techniques. In order to establish how to restore the tower it was necessary first to set up a complete scaffolding structure, to drill sample cores in the walls and foundations and to look at the dynamic and static structural loads. During the restoration, many observations became possible due to the need to dig into the building's floors and remove wall facing stones and terrace flagstones. It was also possible to study in detail an essential but totally unknown aspect of the construction: the inclusion in the 14th century of 2,500 of iron bars that circle the edifice and act as tie bars in the flooring of its storeys. This discovery radically modified our knowledge of the construction methods of the era.


The research and work done on the internal flooring of the castle, as well as the structure itself of the buildings, have yielded valuable information on the ancient history of both it and its occupants, from the Middle Ages to the present day. It has been possible to examine this medieval construction exhaustively, and it is now among the European monuments on which the largest amount of documentation has been amassed. The very extensive graphic documentation and the many archaeological items discovered due to the digs will provide the contents of a museum to be devoted to the site. This will present the medieval history of the site to the public from 17 May next in the donjon, and from 2010 its post-medieval history in the buildings around the tower. Eventually, approximately two thousand square metres will be entirely dedicated to an exhibition of all the results obtained.


CNRS Images has been filming the restoration work on the keep for the last four years, collecting around fifty hours of images and interviews: this is the first time such a technical restoration project has been constantly followed. A DVD is being prepared and is to be published in conjunction with the French national heritage open days next September. From 20 March, at Vincennes Town Hall and media library there will be a permanent showing of a five-minute film made by CNRS Images. In addition, an exhibition of photographs at the exit from the Vincennes Line A RER station (express commuter rail) will provide a presentation of the restoration of the tower keep.



To see the five-minute film by CNRS Images:

For the purposes of promotion of the restoration of Vincennes tower keep, this film clip can be used on condition that the source is indicated by: [images: CNRS Images].

Contact : Sophie Deswarte, Tel.: 01 45 07 56 91,



To see the French Centre des monuments nationaux press file:



Vincennes tower

© Picture by Jean Chapelot (CNRS-EHESS) (this image is available in the CNRS photo library, Tel.: 01 45 07 57 90,

The tower after restoration.
All the repairs done in the 19th century with grey cement have been replaced by facing mortar of the same colour as the stone. All stone in poor condi-tion, i.e. one-third of the 20,000 blocks visible in the building's facing, has been replaced. This has allowed the tower to regain its original colour and brightness. It should be remembered that Vincennes castle keep is the only residence of a medieval sovereign still standing in France: the others have all been completely destroyed or replaced by more recent buildings.


angel musician

© Picture by Jean Chapelot (CNRS-EHESS) (this image is available in the CNRS photo library, Tel.: 01 45 07 57 90,

An angel musician.
From the level of the bed chamber of Charles V (1364-1380) on the second floor of the keep and above, the windows are framed on the outside by sculpted consoles whose workmanship is of very high quality. Among the sculpted motifs, angel musicians such as this one provide a reference to the Litanies of the Blessed Virgin, a conventional prayer of the time: symbolically, this was a prayer sung above the royal apartments by angels who, given their position some 20 to 30 metres above ground level, were practically invisible


1) École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris / School of Advanced Social Science Studies, Paris.

2) The team was made up of staff from EHESS and the Ministry of Culture and called regularly on the services of researchers from several CNRS laboratories: Pierre Süe Laboratory (CEA/CNRS), the Laboratory of Archaeology, Cultures and Societies (CNRS/ University of Dijon/Ministry of Culture and Communications), the chrono-ecology laboratory (CNRS/ University of Franche-Comté) and the Toulouse Archaeology and History Research Unit (U.T.A.H.) (CNRS/University of Toulouse 2 / Ministry of Culture and Communications)


Researcher :
Jean Chapelot
Tel.: 01 41 93 23 96 or

Laetitia Louis
Tel.: 01 44 96 51 37


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