The Abbey of Mont-St-Michel is one of the most amazing architectural and engineering achievements of the Middle Ages. A magnificent edifice perched on the top of an immense rock jutting out of the sea off the northern coast of France; it is one of the most awe-inspiring constructions on Earth. That said, Mont-St-Michel is something of a puzzle. On one hand, it is one of France’s most beloved religious institutions, and has been a popular pilgrimage destination for almost a thousand years. On the other, it is largely devoid of anything of particular historical or religious importance. There is no major relic buried there, nor did any great event in Christian history or legend take place there. However, the feeling of sanctity at the abbey is almost otherworldly. The sheer magnificence of the place can inspire awe in even the most jaded of pilgrims. The Abbey of Mont-St-Michel is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Mont Tomb, the island upon which the Abbey of Mont-St-Michel now stands, has been a place of great religious and military importance since Roman times. Evidence suggests that the island was originally revered by the Celts as a sacred place. After the Romans abandoned the area in the 5th century AD, Mont Tomb was annexed by the Romano-British as a stronghold and foothold on the continent. It was later seized by the Franks who by the 7th century were the dominant Germanic power and largest nation in Western Europe.
During the reign of the Merovingians, France entered into a golden age of monastery construction. Mont Tomb was considered an ideal location, and was reconsecrated Mont St. Michel in 708. Unfortunately, the first monastery constructed there was closely followed by the first Viking raids into Northern France. After being sacked and destroyed numerous times over the next two centuries, Mont St Michel was conquered outright by the Normans in 933.
During the 11th century, the Normans decided to rebuild the monastery on a magnificent scale with jaw-dropping fortifications. By the time of its completion, it was hailed by the Catholic Church as one of its most inspired cathedrals and by the French monarchy as one of its strongest military citadels. This proved well for France in the future. During the Hundred Years War, it held out against a siege by the English in 1424, and was the only French stronghold to remain unconquered north of the Loire River Valley throughout the duration of the conflict.
After the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, Mont-St-Michel Abbey fell into decline, along with many of the monasteries of Western Europe. During the late 18th century and early 19th century, as France was caught up in the throes of Revolution and the reign of Napolean, Mont-St-Michel was seized and converted into a political prison. In the 1860’s, after centuries of neglect, an effort was made to restore the site. Today, Mont-St-Michel draws more visitors than any other sacred place in France other than Lourdes and the collected churches of Paris.
Although it may not be as historically important as many other places in this writing, the Abbey of Mont-St-Michel is among the most dramatic and stunning churches ever conceived. Perched at the pinnacle of a solitary rocky outcropping just off the coast of Brittany, the Abbey towers over a small town of residences, churches, shops and inns, all built for the use of the monastic community and its auxiliary businesses. Until the construction of a permanent causeway, the island was isolated at high tide. Most of Mont-St-Michel is jam-packed with buildings lining narrow streets and alleyways that wind their way up to the cathedral.
The abbey itself, properly known as the La Merveille Monastery, is a veritable maze of chapels, halls and refectories, with the cathedral piled on the top of the heap. Because of the steep slope below the structure, the main entrance to the abbey is actually beneath the cathedral. A long flight of stairs disappears into the wall of the abbey and comes up through the floor of the main sanctuary. The layout of the church and its labyrinth of rooms is so complex that it has been hailed as one of the finest achievements of engineering in the Middle Ages. On the top level, in addition to the main sanctuary, there is a broad deck which offers a magnificent, sweeping view of the bay. The cloister garden offers similarly spectacular views.
Mont-St-Michel is located close to the large, isolated angle of land where Normandy meets Brittany, fifty miles north of Rennes and more than two-hundred miles west of Paris. The entire island is a fortified city accessed by a long permanent causeway. The abbey is open May through August from 9:00am-7:00pm; and September through April from 9:30am-6:00pm. Admission is E8.50. Web: www.ot-montsaintmichel.com (official website)
The Kingdom of Normandy dominated much of the coast of Northern France during the 10th and 11th centuries, and the Normans left a string of impressive towns, castles and churches in their wake. Their greatest legacy was at Caen, their capital, where they built a pair of enormous abbey cathedrals: the Abbaye aux Hommes and the Abbaye aux Dames. Another church, the Cathedral of St. Etienne, houses the Tomb of William the Conqueror. The Cathedral of Bayeux, ten miles to the west, was the long time home of the famous Bayeux Tapestry which is now housed in a museum next door.