I had been fascinated with Mont-Saint-Michel since my childhood when I studied the monastery in history class.  As a college student I spent part of a summer in France, and one place I knew I had to see was Mont-Saint-Michel.  I was awe-struck as the immense fortification rose out of the sea before me.  Firmly grounded in the island of bedrock, the cathedral’s spires speared the blue sky above.  The medieval town with its tiny row of shops and houses wound its way like a serpent around the base of the island.  I walked down the causeway as I approached the place of my dreams:  Mont-Saint-Michel, France.

Step-by-step, I shouldered through the streaming crowds until I reached the plaza before the two-story oak door that led into the cathedral.  Nuns and monks in simple wool robes walked by on their way to prepare the noonday meal.  Inside the cathedral, time seemed to stand still.  Gregorian chants wove through the air as sunlight glinted through the high stained-glass windows which pictured apostles and saints.

IMG_3734I sank down onto a hard wooden bench and closed my eyes, breathing in the smells of the old church as I wondered how many other travelers and pilgrims had wandered these hallowed halls.  Returning outside to view the stretch of ocean surrounding the island, I contemplated both God’s creation and the human engineering necessary to build such a beautiful Gothic structure.  As daylight fled across the sea, I reluctantly descended the stairs to the causeway.  I may never see Mont-Saint-Michel again, but the memories connected to that ancient fortress still inspire my love of history.

– Hannah S. Bowers

Background History:

Mont-Saint-Michel is located on an island just off the coast of the northern French region of Normandy.  The island is best known as the site of the spectacular and well-preserved Norman Benedictine Abbey of St. Michel at the peak of the rocky island, surrounded by the winding streets and convoluted architecture of the medieval town.

Mont Saint-Michel was used in the 6th and 7th centuries as an Armorican stronghold of Gallo-Roman culture and power until it was ransacked by the Franks, thus ending the trans-channel culture that had stood since the departure of the Romans in AD 460. From roughly the 5th to the 8th century, Mont Saint-Michel belonged to the territory of Neustria, and in the early 9th century was an important place in the marches of Neustria.

Before the construction of the first monastic establishment in the 8th century, the island was called Mont Tombe. According to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared in 708 to St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet. Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel’s instruction until Michael burned a hole in the bishop’s skull with his finger.

Unable to defend his kingdom against the assaults of the Vikings, the king of the Franks agreed to grant the Cotentin peninsula and the Avranchin, including Mont-Saint-Michel, to the Bretons in the 867 Treaty of Compiègne. This marked the beginning of the brief period of Breton possession of the Mont. In fact, these lands and Mont Saint-Michel were never really included in the duchy of Brittany and remained independent bishoprics from the newly created Breton archbishopric of Dol. When Rollo confirmed Franco as archbishop of Rouen, these traditional dependences of the Rouen archbishopric were retained in it.

Abbey Entrance

Abbey Entrance

The mount gained strategic significance again in 933 when William “Long Sword” annexed the Cotentin Peninsula from the weakened Dukes of Brittany. This made the mount definitively part of Normandy, and is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, which commemorates the 1066 Norman conquest of England. Harold, Earl of Wessex is pictured on the tapestry rescuing two Norman knights from the quicksand in the tidal flats during a battle with Conan II, Duke of Brittany. Norman Ducal patronage financed the spectacular Norman architecture of the abbey in subsequent centuries.

In 1067, the monastery of Mont Saint-Michel gave its support to Duke William of Normandy in his claim to the throne of England. This he rewarded with properties and grounds on the English side of the Channel, including a small island off the southwestern coast of Cornwall which was modeled after the Mount and became a Norman priory named St Michael’s Mount of Penzance.

Abbey Cloister

Abbey Cloister

During the Hundred Years’ War, the English made repeated assaults on the island, but were unable to seize it due to the abbey’s improved fortifications. Les Michelettes – two wrought-iron bombards left by the English in their failed 1423–24 siege of Mont Saint-Michel – are still displayed near the outer defense wall.

When Louis XI of France founded the Order of Saint Michael in 1469, he intended that the abbey church of Mont Saint-Michel become the chapel for the Order, but because of its great distance from Paris, his intention could never be realized.

Medieval Town

Medieval Town

The wealth and influence of the abbey extended to many daughter foundations, including St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. However, its popularity and prestige as a center of pilgrimage waned with the Reformation, and by the time of the French Revolution there were scarcely any monks in residence. The abbey was closed and converted into a prison, initially to hold clerical opponents of the republican regime. High-profile political prisoners followed, but by 1836, influential figures – including Victor Hugo – had launched a campaign to restore what was seen as a national architectural treasure. The prison was finally closed in 1863, and the mount was declared a historic monument in 1874.

The tides in the area change quickly, and have been described by Victor Hugo “as swiftly as a galloping horse.”  The tides can vary greatly, at roughly 14 meters between high and low water marks.

– reposted from Wikipedia