Ruin Lust: A Visit to the Calamitous 14th Century at France's Château de Coucy
Updated: Jan 10
Once more unto the breach! I have to tell you about a must see ruin not too far from Paris. It's a perfect day trip from Paris actually, if you're the adventurous sort or a history buff.
Fueled by ruin lust, my travel partner and I were on a quest. We were touring northern France on a geographical cure. Nerds that we are, we had a single target in mind. We were determined, determined beyond reason really, to visit the Château de Coucy. The Chateau was the home of Enguerrand de Coucy VII, the star of Barbara Tuchman's magnificent novel The Distant Mirror.
We are super fans of the novel. We even named our car Enguerrand in anticipation of the blessed event. Let me tell you, that is a real commitment to geekdom. Do you have any idea how hard it is to say Enguerrand with a proper French accent?
The Calamitous Middle Ages
Tuchman's novel is set in what she calls the "calamitous" 14th century and Enguerrand is her hero. She uses the narrative of his life as a vehicle to explore the many facets of medieval life and culture.
The 14th century is a fascinating period. It was a violent, tormented time of suffering. It featured the Black Death in 1384-50, which killed a third of the population living between India and Iceland. It was a time of political destabilization, dynastic uncertainty, and economic and social inequality. Men died at war; women died in childbirth. In a nutshell, it was "a bad time for humanity."
But it was not entirely a time of ignorance. It wasn't all famines and pestilence. To the contrary. The middle ages were a dynamic period during which the idea of Europe as a distinct cultural unit emerged.
It was the age of Gothic architecture, secular and religious institutions, and the soaring intellectual achievements of St. Thomas Aquinas. The Islamic world grew powerful and produced some of Europe's best architecture, The Royal Alcazar in Seville and the mighty Alhambra in Granada.
The middle ages had stuff going on. Enter Enguerrand de Coucy VII and the greatest fortress of the middle ages.
Enguerrand de Coucy
Enguerrand de Coucy VII was a French nobleman and illustrious warrior. He was the last man standing in the great Coucy dynasty. He was called the "most experienced and skillful of all the knights in France."
Enguerrand became son in law to King Edward III of England after marrying his daughter Isabella. This gave him great connections, but Isabella was "an over-indulged, willful, and wildly extravagant princess." Enguerrand was subsequently made Earl of Bedford and inducted into the Order of the Garter.
Enguerrand was chivalrous, chivalry being a dominant political idea of the ruling class. The ideal was a vision of order maintained by warriors who served as defenders of the faith, of upholders of justice. But often the annointed warriors became oppressors.
Enguerrand participated in the last medieval crusade, against the Ottoman armies of Bayezid. It ended disastrously when his soldiers didn't follow orders. Enguerrand was captured and died in 1397 before he could be ransomed. He had no male heirs.
Enguerrand was also the lord of the incredible Château de Coucy. He inherited the fiercesome fortress upon the death of his father, Enguerrand VI in 1346. At the time, the chateau was considered a spectacular architectural achievement.
The Ruins & History of the Château de Coucy
The Château de Coucy is located two hours north of Paris, between the towns of Laon and Soissons in the Aisne department of France. (Laon is a village all nerds will love, by the way.) The chateau has been listed as a historical monument by the French Ministry of Culture since 1862.
It would make a great day trip from Paris. It's 2 hours away and located near Laon, Reims, Chateau de Fere, and Chateau de Pierrefonds. You could easily do two of these sites in one day.
Château de Coucy was the greatest castle of the middle ages. Doesn't this fact alone mandate a visit? Yet, in April almost no one was there and we had the place to ourselves.
During its heyday, the chateau was famous for the size of its donjon and the pride of the Coucy lords. They had a bold motto, which translates to "I am not king, nor prince nor duke nor count; I am the Lord of Coucy."
The chateau is mostly in ruins now. In 1917, it was occupied by Germans. As a parting shot, the retreating Germans detonated the keep with 28 tons of explosives. The Chateau de Coucy Flickr account has a photo of the chateau being destroyed. The public was so outraged that the ruins were declared "a memorial to barbarity."
Why would someone want to visit ruins? Well, personally we had serious ruin lust -- a taste for heroic destruction and picturesque decay. Ruins are romantic and sometimes melancholy. They put your imagination to use, rather than just eyeballing an ornate gold leaf Baroque church. And sometimes ruins tell more affecting stories than a perfectly coiffed building.
The French philosopher Denis Diderot wrote: "The ideas ruins evoke in me are grand. Everything comes to nothing, everything perishes, everything passes, only the world remains, only time endures."
Château de Coucy dates back to 920. It was built to protect the territory of the Coucy family. In 1220, Enguerrand III enclosed the town and extended the existing castle with a huge keep. Then, in the 1370s, Enguerrand VII modernized and transformed the château into an extravagant palace fortress.
In 1400, after Enguerrand's death, the Duke of Orléans bought the chateau and completed the work begun by Enguerrand. In 1498, the chateau became Crown property. During the French Revolution, it was transformed into a prison. In 1829, King Louis-Philippe purchased the chateau. It was renovated by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, the famous restorer of Notre Dame and Carcassonne.
The site has extensive information placards with historical photos, reconstruction images and text in English. You'll get a heavy dose of history.
The chateau is accessed via the Gate of Master Odon. Here, you can admire a scale model of the stronghold. Several corner towers and their subterranean vaults can be entered, as well as the shell of the lofty great hall.
The sheer scale of the place is stunning. The south and west front of the massive lower court once boasted eight towers. The towers of the west front have dislocated from the wall due to bad foundation. It is a surreal sight to see them lying in the grass, as if the German bombing happened yesterday.
There are four underground spaces, two spaces for exhibitions and restoration work and two dungeons.
Toward the end of A Distant Mirror, Tuchman compared Enguerrand to George Washington for his "steadiness, sagacity and competence." Enguerrand was a flickering light in sometimes dark times -- no matter that his only monuments now are a book and a ruined castle. If you have a case of ruin lust, put the Château de Coucy on your nerd list.