Medieval Mont St-Michel: The Sacred Castle in the Sea
Considered one of the wonders of the Western World, Mont St-Michel is a medieval fortress in France, sitting on top a rocky island in the ocean. Floating like a mirage on the horizon, this sacred monastery is truly a one-of-a-kind site.
People have been living here for well over a thousand years and throughout its existence, the island has served as a strategic fortress, prison, and place of pilgrimage, attracting Christian pilgrims from all across the world. The centerpiece of Mont St-Michel is its church which is essentially a medieval skyscraper which was inspired by a dream.
Perched on top of a 264 foot (80 meters) rock formation, Mont St-Michel is located on the north coast of France, where the regions of Normandy and Brittany meet. What makes this monument so striking is its location. Like something out of a fairy tale, Mont St-Michel is a granite island in the center of a huge bay, connected by a causeway to the mainland (a path uncovered only at low tide).
A view of Mont St-Michel at low tide. ( Public Domain )
During the highest of tides, it is completely surrounded by water. The water here can rush in at incredible speeds and rise up to 45 feet (13.72 meters) during high tide and an unsuspecting pedestrian could easily drown by the sudden shift.
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In prehistoric times, the bay where the monastery now sits was part of the coastline. Over millions of years, rising sea levels led to erosion which tore down and shaped the coastal landscape. Some blocks of granite resisted the wear and tear of the ocean better than its surroundings, which is why Mont St-Michel (together with a few other rocks) remains standing tall in an otherwise ever-changing landscape.
The origins of Mont St. Michel date back to the sixth and seventh century A.D. when Armorican Gauls used the island as a stronghold of Breton culture and power. During this time, the island was known as “Monte Tombe”. When the Romans left Britannia (today’s United Kingdom) in the mid fifth century, many Britons crossed the channel due to fear of the increasing Anglo-Saxon influence in their former home country. This emigration is the reason why the French region is called Bretagne or in English “Brittany”. The Monte Tombe served as a stronghold until it was later sacked by the Franks, which ended the era of Celtic cultural links between Britannia and Bretagne.
In October 708, the bishop of Avranches, St. Aubert, ordered a small church to be built on the site. The arrival of the cult of St. Michael is recounted in a 10th century manuscript called “ La Revelatio ecclesiae sancti Michaelis ”.
According to the legend, one night in 708, St. Aubert saw the Archangel Michael (leader of the armies of heaven) in a dream, who commanded him to build a church on top of the island. There is a golden statue of Saint Michel which can be seen at the top of the church spire. Building the monastery was an immense project that evolved over many centuries. The construction of the abbey took more than 500 years, from 1017 to 1521 AD, and the original church structure was completed in 1144 AD. Other buildings were added in the 13th century to accommodate monks and pilgrims who came to Mont St-Michel to pray and find solitude.
In the beginning, Mont St-Michel resembled a typical 11th century Romanesque church but, like many other churches during this period, was affected by the wave of gothic architecture that spread throughout Europe. Today, the church is seen as gothic in style with gothic pointed arches and windows that fill the sanctuary with light.
The atmospheric interior of Mont St-Michel. (HenryMarion/ CC BY-SA 2.0 )
Throughout the Middle Ages, a village grew up around the church, mostly on the eastern side of the island, and today around 30 to 50 residents make their home here. Its main street is lined with shops and hotels, and during the the Middle Ages, this was a retail gauntlet with stalls selling souvenirs and fast food such as omelets and crepes.
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In 966, a community of monks from western Europe, called Benedictines, settled on the rock at the request of the Duke of Normandy. After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the church gave its support to Duke William of Normandy and his claim to the English throne. This resulted in the church gaining both political and financial power which further expanded the construction on Mont St-Michel.
Religious sculpture in Mont St-Michel. (Veroyama/ CC BY 2.0 )
In the 14th century, during the Hundred Years War between France and England, the church and its village was fortified in order to fend off attacks by the English. Walls were built to defend against a new kind of weapon, (the cannon) and were constructed low rather than tall to make for a smaller target. While the English took all the rest of Normandy, they assaulted Mont St-Michel several times, but were never able to conquer this well fortified island. Because of its stubborn defense against the English through the War, Mont St-Michel became a symbol of French national identity. Beginning with the Reformation in the early 16th century its popularity began to decrease. By the time of the French revolution, there were hardly any monks left at Mont St-Michel, and after the revolution the church closed and was converted into a prison in 1793, where it held religious and political prisoners of the new regime.
In 1836, a campaign was launched to restore the site as a national architectural landmark. This lead to the closure of the prison in 1874 when the island was turned over to the Historic Monuments Department and declared a historic monument. Since then, it has been open to the public all year round. In the late 1960s, a religious community moved back into the monastery and Friars and Sisters from " Les Fraternit és Monastiques de Jerusalem " have been ensuring a spiritual presence here since 2001. Currently, monks live and work at the site just like they did during medieval times. In 1979, Mont St-Michel was designated a world heritage site by UNESCO and today entertains over three million visitors a year. It is one of the most important sites in Europe as well as the most popular tourist attraction in France outside of Paris.
As if from an ancient legend, Mont St-Michel sits a top a rocky island in the ocean. (Lex Kravetski/ CC BY 2.0 )
Featured image: The iconic features of Mont Saint-Michel in the evening light. (Gilad Rom/ CC BY 2.0 )
By Bryan Hill
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