The castle of Coucy,located just an hour away from Paris, was one of the most powerful fortresses of northern Europe. Many a story tells of battles fought among the sunflower fields. Coucy saw its last standing days in 1917,when it was destroyed during World War I.
Legends of powerful and strange nobles at Coucy,more powerful than many high nobles of the Middle Ages,include one about Enguerrand III,who said: “King am not,nor prince,nor duke,nor count either; I am the lord of Coucy.”
A miniature version of Coucy traveled from Belgium to Baltimore and then to the National Geographic Society building in Washington, D.C.,this month,where it is being reassembled and will be on display March 21 through May 28.
Since the original castle was destroyed, this model is as close as you can get to the real thing. German architect Bernhard Siepen has been studying medieval castles for more than 15 years,with help from Iris,his wife,and some architect friends. Together they have studied and measured close to 130 castles and created blueprints for them.
Siepen is a member of the Society For Medieval Castle Science in Aachen,Germany,and that is where all the findings of Siepen’s research are. The society concentrates on the study of castles built between the 800 A.D and the late Middle Ages (about 600 years later).
“You will find small societies like ours all over Germany,all over Europe,” Siepen said. “It is a group of private people with a specific interest. Since the scale model of Coucy is unique,our organization has become international,and that is very good since we like to promote our studies and to share them,” said Haas Jarbe,finance director of the Society For Medieval Castle Science.
Siepen’s passion is the donjons,or the lord’s residence that had defensive and residential purposes and were placed in strategic positions within a castle and were often built in amazing shapes.
That is probably the reason why he chose to build Coucy (based on photographs taken before its destruction),since its donjon was the biggest ever built in a medieval castle with a tower 140 feet high,80 feet in diameter and walls up to 20 feet thick. The model (16 by 16 feet) is a 1:25 scale reproduction of the castle,part of the city and the tower.
But the model also includes 2,500 figurines (handcrafted by students supervised by Siepen) that stand around the castle,depicting a battle in 1339 during the 100 Years War. “Coucy is very close to Paris,(128 miles east). It is a traditional battleground,” Haas said.
“We didn’t doubt bringing the model to the United States to be displayed,” said Richard M. McWalters,manager of exhibits at the National Geographic Explorers Hall. “We were very convinced after seeing the pictures,so we started to work on a possible date. After all,miniatures are fascinating. People love miniature trains and all kinds of models,and a lot of people had a special feeling for castles and knights in their childhood and in their teens.”
“One of our objectives as a society is to spread the knowledge of medieval castles,” Jarbe said. “We believe that the United States and Canada (where the model will be traveling soon) will enjoy the model very much since there are a lot of European descendants there.”
For Siepen,who not only built the model but financed it,this is a dream come true,a dream that slowly pays off. The cost of bringing it to the United States was $25 thousand. Every exposition has a charge that recovers part of the sum spent on the model’s construction. It has been displayed in Belgium,Germany,Holland and England. He is already planning to build another model,this time of a castle in Palestine,a building that tells part of the story of the Crusades,but there is no time to talk about that since he and his crew (four people) have only a few more days to assemble the model that will be on display at the National Geographic Society building. So very calmly,he gets to work.
IF YOU GO
When: Wednesday,March 21,through Monday,May 28
Where: M Street Lobby,National Geographic Society,17th and M Streets,NW,Washington.
Time: Monday through Saturday,9 a.m. until 5 p.m.,Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.
For information on the exhibit,call (202) 857-7588.