Mont Saint Michel By : Dylan Moore
Mont Saint Michel is a small rocky, cone shaped islet in Normandy, roughly one half a mile from the north coast of France, at the mouth of the Couesnon River. It is also close to the border of Brittany. Mont Saint Michel sits defiantly atop a clump of rock that is half a mile in diameter and eighty feet high, these rocks jut out of the water of the English Channel, like a outstretched hand reaching toward heaven.
In ancient times the bay had been covered by the sea, which slowly retreated during several glaciations, allowing erosion to shape the landscape over millions of years. Having resisted the wear and tear of the ocean better than the surrounding rocks, several blocks of granite were left protruding out of the bay. These blocks of rock became the foundation on which Mont Saint Michel would be built.
The “Mount” is connected to the mainland by a thin natural land bridge, which before modernization was covered by the sea at high tide, and revealed during the low tide. Because Mont Saint Michel is an island half of the time, and attached to the mainland the other half of the time, The “Mount” is said to have a mystical quality and sometimes be referred to as a “tidal island”. This quasi-island is not only famous because its’ tides shift, but also because of the tremendous speed at which they rush in and out. The tides surrounding the “Mount” can vary by 14 meters between high and low tides, and move in as rapidly as 1 meter a second. Victor Hugo once described the tides as “a la vitesse d’un cheval au gallop” or “as swiftly as a galloping Horse”.
Aside from the dangerous tides, there are many other perils that one could encounter, when trying to reach Mont Saint Michel, before the land bridge was fortified into a true causeway in 1879. One such peril was an unchartable quicksand field, that was caused by the force of the tides constantly shifting. During the middle ages Mont Saint Michel was popularly nicknamed "St. Michael in peril of the sea" by mediaeval pilgrims making their way across the tidal flats. It was said that pilgrims of that era needed great faith to visit Mont Saint Michel. Luckily for modern pilgrims, they can drive above the water, bypassing treacherous quicksand and destructive tides.
Over the centuries, the coastal flats that surround the “Mount” have been filled in by salt march. One of the major causes of this problem is the causeway, that was built to allow people to drive onto the islet. The problem with the causeway is that it disrupts the currents that flush away silt, and as a result 60 acres of salt march are gaining on the islet annually. Currently the French government is in the middle of a 5 year, $260 million dollar plan to remove the causeway, replace it with a discreet bridge, and reverse the damage done to the bay over the years.
It wasn’t until 966, that this 200 year old church was converted into a Benedictine Monastery. And then, only 60 years later, Richard II of Normandy began the Abbey Church. Richard II also supported the ambitious works of architect Abbot Hildebert, who was the mastermind behind the first great construction/addition to Mont Saint Michel. Hildebert finished his grand work in 1135. Little did the abbot know that construction would start again in only 35 years.
Abbot Robert de Toringy started building a new façade on the western side of the church in 1170. However, in 1203, the Duke of Brittany “accidentally” set fire to the church because Phillip Augustus expelled the British from Normandy. This subsequently stopped construction. However, Phillip Augustus, being none to thrilled with the fire used his influence with the King of France to allocate money to repair the buildings. At this point Abbot Jordan planned and started building “The Marvel” in 1210. The Marvel contained a number of great halls, kitchens, cloisters, and a dormitory. This all encompassing marvel was completed in 1230. Unfortunately, only 70 years after “The Marvel” was completed, one of the towers collapsed, because the original masonry couldn’t support the new granite additions. This travesty was shortly followed by the collapse of Hildebert’s nave in 1421. Unfortunately for “The Marvel” new construction was stalled until 1450, due to the hundred years’ war. This renovation was completed in 1521.
Mont Saint Michel was dedicated to St. Michel in 708. After he allegedly appeared to St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, and instructed him to build a church atop the rocky islet. According to legend, St. Aubert repeatedly ignored the arch-angel’s instructions, until Michel burned a hole in his skull with his finger. The dedication to St. Michel occurred on October 16, 708.
Mont Saint Michel gained strategic significance in 933, when the Normans took over the Cotentin Peninsula, thereby placing the “Mount” on the boarder with England. That strategic advantage didn’t come into play until the Norman conquest of England in 1066.
The French Revolution was a time of great change for France, and for Mont Saint Michel. During this time, scarcely any monks were living in the abbey, and by the early 1800s the abbey was closed, but not for long. Due to the size and location of the “Mount”, it was decided by the French government to be converted into a prison. Initially the prison was meant to hold clerical opponents of the republican regime, but high-profile political prisoners soon followed. However, by 1836 many influential figures, including Victor Hugo, launched a campaign to restore the national treasure to its former glory. As a result the prison was finally closed its doors in 1863.
Mount Saint Michel was declared a historic monument in 1874. The “Mount” also happens to be the third most popular tourist attraction in France, with over 3 million visitors a year. That’s only topped by the Eiffel Tower, and the Palace of Versailles.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, commonly known as UNESCO, is a specialized agency of the United Nations system. Its main objective is to contribute to peace and security by promoting collaboration among the nations through education, science and culture. One of UNESCO's missions is to maintain a list of World Heritage Sites. These sites are important natural or historical sites whose preservation and safe keeping are deemed important for the world community. UNESCO has ranked Mont Saint Michel at the top of their list of world heritage sites in France.
Mont Saint Michel is a truly amazing tourist attraction. Many people might ask, what make it special or different than any other tourist attraction? It is simple. Most places that people visit are either famous for there landscape, an unusual geographic feature, a building of historic value, or a shopping district. The fact that Mont Saint Michel has all of these may be the reason, that millions visit each year, and that the French government is so interested in protecting it’s landscape.
Whether it’s day or night, Mont Saint Michel is one of the most beautiful sights you could ever gaze upon in France.