Monday, 13 May 2013

Preview: Mont Saint-Michel

In the year 708, Aubert, the bishop of Avranches in north-west France, had a dream. In it appeared St Michael, not in a promotions drive for Marks & Spencers (that's an entirely different, St Michael) but with a message: Aubert was to build a sanctuary to him, on a small rocky island just off the coast. Aubert wasn't having any of it. He awoke, believing he'd been visited by the devil, and spent the day praying. The next night, St Michael returned, presumably trying to reassure Aubert that he really wasn't the devil and that he really wanted Aubert to build him an island sanctuary. But still Aubert wasn't convinced; he ignored the demands and prayed a whole lot more, maybe trying to stay awake a little longer that evening. It's fair to say St Michael wasn't impressed. The third night he visited Aubert again, and this time he meant business. Reiterating his demands for a sanctuary, he poked a hole in Aubert's head, and this time Aubert seems to have got the message. He built the sanctuary. The moral of the story? Just do what St Michael says, I guess. He seems to know best - Aubert might have a hole in his head, but the rest of us now have the medieval fantasy island known as Mont Saint-Michel.

Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy, France, is one of these visions that seem almost unreal. Not just from the pictures, but in my memory too. I visited before when about 15 years old during a family holiday, and it's fixed in my mind as something from a fantasy novel. A medieval church and fortified town piled high on top of a tiny island a short swim away from the mainland. Even better, until recently (more on which later), there was a causeway linking the island to the shore, that would appear - as if my magic - during low tide. The cobbled streets wind up to the island's peak, now crowned with an 11th Century church which replaced Aubert's 8th Century chapel, and an adjoining monastery was added in the 13th Century. Years later, when thinking back on the image, this pyramidal conglomeration of fortification and natural rock, I found myself wondering if I'd confused it with a film. But no, Mont Saint-Michel is really there - as over 2.5 million people a year can testify to.

Prior to St Michael's takeover, the rock was already held in high regards, being a place of Celtic worship back in the days of the Gauls and Romans, who called it "Monte Tombe". But it wasn't until Aubert - who became St Aubert for his troubles - that it began to assume a clearer role in history. Over the next few centuries, his small chapel began to attract the attention of pilgrims and pilgrims mean money. By 966, the chapel had been replaced with a larger church, and in 1022 the rulers of Normandy decided it was time for a proper statement of intent. A significantly larger church, in the then-fashionable Romanesque style (the precursor to Gothic) was built. This wasn't just built on the rock, it was built above it. A hugely ambitious design, it relegated the church before to just one of four crypts, which together made up the enormous foundations required to support the new Romanesque design. The summit of a hill is just a point - the four crypts clustered around the point, and the new church was built on what had once been air. Symbolically, the transept crossing (that's the point where the two lines in a cross-shaped church intersect) is at this summit point, and the church was built 80 metres long, and to be 80 metres above shore, representing a world created in perfection of balance and possibly (though this is my interpretation) a celestial sense of floating in the sky.

Arguably, this was the moment that Mont Saint-Michel became something special. Though it was much added to over the years, with the church partially rebuilt in the Gothic style and being swarmed and surrounded by other buildings as the commune formed, the audacious new church marked the moment that Mont Saint-Michel became more than just a building on an island. It became part of the island, combining as a single unified entity. It also started to fit into historical narratives. During the Hundred Year War, it was the only place in the West of France not occupied by the English, who just couldn't get past its defenses. And Mont Saint-Michael appears in the Bayeux Tapestry, when King Harold saves two Norman soldiers from the quicksand around it. King Harold was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England before the 1066 defeat by William the Conqueror changed the nation's history forever, and is possibly also depicted in the tapestry having the arrow through his eye. Mont Saint-Michel doesn't seem to be much of a lucky charm for the English.

Fame grew, the island developed, and pilgrimages to what must have been a near-mythical haven in the sea continued. These pilgrims included kings of France. Most curiously, it became a favourite spot for a series of great children's pilgrimages in the 14th and 15th Centuries, when stories abound of a great glow in the spire began in 1333. Children began visiting, usually from peasant families, from all around France and even beyond. These children were as young as 9 years old, and were unaccompanied, much to the unease of the Catholic Church. This mighty religious institution threatened to ex-communicate the children pilgrims, condemning the children for their inability to work and for accepting their poverty! More likely, the Church felt threatened by these popular events beyond their control, but at any rate their threats had little effect. What did have an effect was a far bigger threat - the Reformation, when the new Protestant denomination of the faith split the Church forever. Pilgrimages, of all kinds - petered out at Mont Saint-Michel (and other such sites).

These days, sharing the fate of many such places in history, Mont Saint-Michel has kind of become a joint museum-tourist attraction to itself. That's not so bad, as it ensures its survival, albeit one that likely indicates the end of its natural life as a monastic commune. That's not tourism's fault, that mostly happened after the pilgrims stopped coming. In fact, following the French Revolution in the late 18th Century, it was closed and converted to prisons, but by the 19th Century enjoyed a series of restorations as part of the French effort to save their historical buildings. It's now a declared historic monument and since 1979 has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the earliest to be added to its list.
More recently, it's been rescued from nature. Mont Saint-Michel is, famously, an island, but one that in low tide allows a land crossing. However, in 1879, a causeway was built linking the island to the mainland. Over the decades, this acted as a physical barrier that disrupted the natural movement of the water, and since then silt has been building up in ever-increasing quantities, further exacerbated by a dam built in 1969 which reduced the power of a nearby river to push the silt into the ocean. The result of this has been to threaten Mont Saint-Michel's existence as an island - if nothing had been done, by 2040 the silt would have built up to such a degree that the bay would have been filled in completely. Mont Saint-Michel would have become landlocked, a mound on the mainland, and no longer a fantasy island.

Fortunately, since 1995 a project has been brewing, that has taken hold in the last few years. The causeway is now closed for road traffic, and is due to be destroyed in 2015. A new, less obstructive, bridge will be built in its place. The old dam has been replaced with one allowing better flushing out of the silt, and upstream changes are being made to increase the power of the river. It's not cheap, costing something like £200 million, but it is working. Mont Saint-Michel is returning to the sea.

I look forward to visiting Mont Saint-Michel again, this image of medieval fantasy - half-rock, half-fortified commune- that has lodged itself in the hazes of my memory. I may have to look beyond the tourism, especially as I might be visiting in the summer months of next year, as Mont Saint-Michel is a very popular spot with French tourists, but to be honest it can be no worse than Carcassonne on Bastille Day, which I visited last year. Like I said with Carcassonne, an old medieval town being thriving with people, shops and hubbub is no bad thing for the atmosphere - it's not as if these places were ghost towns in their heyday. Hopefully too, with a bit of planning, it might be possible to stay on the island itself. I'll find out.

Anyway, as usual, upon visiting, a fuller account of Mont Saint-Michel, its history and my own impressions will follow. I might even add a few details about my visit as a 15-year-old, and my (then 14-year-old) brother's fury at not being allowed to purchase a real, actual mace in a souvenir shop, a fury which to this day has not abated.


  1. Re the tourists: I have never visited it but I have have heard from some who have that it is well worth actually staying overnight, the reason being that once the last day-trippers have left you get to appreciate the site without the throngs of tourists.

  2. It's an appealing idea. I'll be in budget travel mode when I visit there, and I don't think accommodation is very cheap, but I think it can be justified.


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