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June 2002 - A Day in the Dungeon

The Houdan dungeon is a massive tower on a hill about an hour's ride by train from Paris. A 12th century cylindrical structure of stone, it rises 23 meters, with walls 3 meters thick at the base, tapering to 2.4 meters in thickness at the top. At the base, its diameter is about 15 meters. The structure is flanked with semi-circular turrets that measure 4.8 meters in diameter and face each of the cardinal points. The dungeon was built by the Montfort family, who resided in a château a few kilometers away; it was used as a lookout and a fortification against attack. At the top of the dungeon a sentry could spot the English coming from ten kilometers, giving significant warning.

The structure has a particular interest for historians, because most 12th century dungeons were built of wood, or were stone structures in quadrangular form. Because it is a cylindrical tower with semi-circular turrets at four points, the dungeon of Houdon had no angles in which an assailant could hide. Archers from the top had direct lines of sight from several directions to the base. The dungeon was part of a larger system of defense of the former county of Monfort l'Aumaury to protect against Anglo-Norman invasions. (The duchy of Normandy lay 16 kilometers to the west.)

The dungeon was converted into a water tower around 1880 after having served as a prison during the Revolution. Standing inside on the ground floor and looking up, one can see the base of the reservoir (now empty) that forms the roof.

A local association called "The Dungeon of Houdan" has ambitious plans for the structure. Assuming that sufficient funds can be raised (the association has secured an initial cost estimate of one million euros), the group wants to restore the dungeon, rebuilding the interior floors, reopening blocked windows, repairing and rebuilding the stairways, and, finally, rebuilding the roof and adding a terrace. A large part of the cost of restoration is associated with disassembling and removing the reservoir.

When the renovation is complete, the dungeon will come alive: on the ground floor there will be an armament room where medieval jousting and fencing will be taught. Also planned for this floor is an area for the performance of medieval plays, complete with costumes of the epoch. On first level above the ground floor, an exhibition room showing the history of the dungeon and a library of the Middle Ages are planned. On the second level will be a scriptorium, where calligraphy and illumination (the decoration of manuscripts with miniature pictures) will be taught. Other workshops, such as parchment making, costume making, embroidery, and tapestry weaving, are also planned.

Happily, one does not have to wait for the dungeon to be restored to enjoy a medieval revival. The association plans to hold a two-day festival this year (June 15-16) at the base of the dungeon. Tents with craft displays, a blacksmith, a tavern, an presentation of dueling men in medieval armor, and music and song will regale festival goers. The event is open to the public.

Paris Panorama Newsletters for 2002