Mont-Saint-Michel is a pyramidal tidal island in the French province of Normandy that is topped by a cathedral. Jutting up from the waves and entrenched in the sand, it is easily recognized with just one glance. Indeed, the western world has nominated it unofficially as the emblem of romantic France. Billions of feet have laid step onto its streets. The island only regains some measure of solitude in the winter months. For over 2,000 years, Mont-Saint-Michel has been a refuge and a place of worship. Its church is 1,300 years old and was built in dedication to St. Michael. The island has also been used as a prison and as a fortress. This architectural masterpiece welcomes over 2 million visitors each year. Many Christians visit to pray to the archangel. They also come to celebrate liturgical feast days with the Benedictine community, which returned to the island in 1966.
Mont-Saint-Michel’s origins are mysterious and legendary. The story goes that a tidal wave swallowed the Scissy Forest in 709 A.D. and transformed the rocky outcrop of Mount Tombe into Mont-Saint-Michel. Only one year earlier, Bishop Aubert of Avranches had allegedly erected a sanctuary to honor St. Michael. The famous angel supposedly insisted that the bishop comply with his wishes that he pressed a finger into his skull to drive home the point.
In the 11th Century, construction on the island began. Hard Chausey granite and soft Caen stone were stacked to construct good-quality accommodations for a growing number of pilgrims. The abbey built set up a labyrinthine of buildings. Much of the work was done by Benedictines who were designated here in 966 A.D. by Richard II.
To reach the “holy of holies”, the abbey church, visitors have to take the main steps and then a steep flight of 90 steps that lead up to the top. The church is set at a frightening 330 feet above sea level. Even today, the church is considered a feat of technical prowess. Work commenced in 1017 and it took one hundred years later before it was completed.
In 1211, building work began on the Marvel on the financial backs of a donation from Philip Augustus. After 20 years, it was finally completed. The famous Knights’ Room, Guests’ Room, cloisters, and refectory are a prime example of Gothic architecture. By then, Mont Saint-Michel was complete, reaching its final outline. The only thing missing was the spire above the minster, on which the statue of Archangel St. Michael rests. This spire rises at a height of 500 above the waters and was added in 1897. It had to be restored in 1987.
Mont-Saint-Michel was used as a fortress during the One Hundred Years' War. The abbot served as the head of a garrison of army chiefs. Some of these figures included Nicholas Paynel, Du Guesclin, whose wife’s house is open to the public (Maison de Tiphaine), and Louis d’Estoute-ville, who helped 119 Norman knights endure a 20-year siege by an English army from the islet of Tombelaine. Most of the towers of the gatehouse, the outer walls, and the gateway to the minster all date to this period.
After the One Hundred Years' War and Wars of Religion concluded, the abbey never regained its significance nor splendor. Monks abandoned it and Napoleon converted it into a prison. Louis XI also installed a few of his notorious iron cages. In 1874, the island was designated a historic monument and was rescued from ultimate ruin. Restoration work took one hundred years to complete.
At low tide, the sea rarely lashes against the walls and visitors are strained to catch a glimpse of the waters. At high tide, however, forceful storms can reach the walls. Increasingly, though, the bay and its 40,000 hectares are silting up. The island of Mont Saint-Michel may one day be no more but a fortress in the middle of pastures where flocks of meadow sheep graze. The French are currently at work trying to ensure that the “Marvel of the Western World” remains “St. Michael in peril of the sea”.
Gaudez, René, Hervé Champollion, and Angela Moyon. Tour of Normandy. Rennes: Éditions Ouest-France, 1996. ISBN: 2737317185.
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