Nestled off eastern Normandy Mont Saint Michel, a magical site that dates back to the Middle Ages. Wrapped in a picturesque village and topped by a soaring tower, this tidal island looks like it’s been pulled from the pages of a storybook.
Although it may look like a castle in the clouds, the history of Mont-Saint-Michel is not as dreamy as one might think. Beginning as a place of power in the 6th century, the island eventually evolved into a strategic stronghold, the site of an abbey and even a prison during the time of the Revolution. Combined with its fairy-tale appearance, this fascinating history has made Mont-Saint-Michel one of the most popular destinations and most beloved monuments in France.
Classified as a rocky islet at tide, Mont-Saint-Michel is connected to the mainland by a dike that is completely submerged at high tide and uncovered at low tide. Because of this phenomenon, the single site will ultimately be of great strategic importance.
Prior to its military role, the island served a different purpose. established as Mount Grave by an Irish hermit in the 5th century, it served as a center of gallo-roman culture for about 300 years. This ended in the 7th century, however, when it was conquered by the Franks and, soon after, transformed into a place of pilgrimage.
According to legend, in 708 AD, Aubert d’Avranches, bishop of a town in Normandy, received a visit from the Archangel Michael. In this vision, Michel, the “chief of the celestial militia”, tells Aubert to build a sanctuary in his name at the top of Mont-Tombe. In 709 CE, Aubert granted the angel’s wish, building and dedicating a small church on the island.
Over the next hundred years, this church will undergo a number of changes. In 966 CE, it was redesigned in the pre-Romanesque style, an aesthetic that blended Mediterranean and Germanic elements. In the following century it was rebuilt again. This time he adopted a novel aesthetic characterized by shallow arches, vaulted ceilings and small windows.
In the 13th century, a fire resulting from a siege by the Bretons burned much of the abbey. It was then rebuilt one last time, now with elements of Gothic architecture. The church was enlarged and raised, culminating in the dizzying silhouette of the Wonder that has enchanted visitors for centuries. “Mont-Saint-Michel appears as a sublime thing”, said the French writer Victor Hugo in the 19th century, “a marvelous pyramid”.
Besides the abbey, Mont-Saint-Michel has been home to a flourishing village for more than 1000 years. “At the same time as the abbey developed, a village developed from the Middle Ages”, explains the Mont-Saint-Michel website Explain. “It thrived on the southeast flank of the rock surrounded by walls mostly dated to the Hundred Years’ War.”
While Mont-Saint-Michel had been fortified since Antiquity, the enclosure erected during the Hundred Years War proved to be its most effective means of protection. Flanked by several defensive towers, the outer wall managed to defend the island from English attacks for almost 30 years.
By the time the Reformation was underway in 16th century Europe, the island had lost both its military and religious importance. The abbey closed in 1791, just two years after the start of the French Revolution.
“Bastille of the Sea”
At that time the abbey was converted into a prison to accommodate priests and others who opposed the new First Republic. Due to its role as a detention center during the Revolution, Mont-Saint-Michel became known as the “Bastille of the Sea” – a reference to the Paris prison which was stormed and, by the suite, sparked the movement.
Mont-Saint-Michel continued to hold prisoners until 1863, when influential French figures like Victor Huge campaigned for its closure. Once closed, its 650 prisoners were transferred to other locations and the abbey was leased by a bishop. In 1922, the monks returned to the mountain, making it a place of religious pilgrimage again.
In 1874, shortly before a major restoration project, the abbey was declared a historic monument. Likewise, in 1979 it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Today, it remains one of the most visited places in France, with 2.5 million visitors per year.
Whether drawn to its ancient roots, eclectic architecture or religious significance, visitors are undoubtedly enchanted by this medieval masterpiece and will continue to be so for centuries.
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