The history of Mont Saint-Michel
From the Archangel to the pilgrims
The history of Mont Saint-Michel begins during an October night in 708, when the Archangel Michael appeared in a dream to Aubert, Bishop of Avranches, asking him to build a church on Mont Tombe (the original name). The first chapel was built a year later. The Benedictine monks arrived in the Xth century and started to build an abbey. From this moment, Mont Saint-Michel became one of the most important pilgrimage destinations of the Middle Ages. The Romanesque-style abbey having been partially destroyed in a fire, rebuilding began in the XIIth century. New Gothic structures were also added on the northern side, the whole complex being called "La Merveille", "The Marvel", as it is still known today.
In the XIVth century, walls were built around the village which protected the Mont against English assaults during the Hundred Years' War.
The monks having been expelled during the French Revolution, the abbey became a prison, which continued until 1864. Ten years later, it was classified as a French Historical Monument and major renovation work began. The present silhouette of Mont Saint-Michel dates from the end of the XIXth century with the addition of the new bronze Neo-Gothic spire and its famous golden statue of the Archangel on its tip.
Classified as an UNESCO World Heritage site in 1979, Mont Saint-Michel welcomes nearly 3 million visitors and pilgrims each year.
Mont Saint-Michel's Abbey
Major spiritual centre, pilgrims from the world over have come to honour St.Michael since the Middle Ages
Built from the Xth century, the Abbey is a gem of Carolingian, Romanesque and Gothic style architecture. It is divided into two main parts: the Abbey itself on the top and "La Merveille" on three levels around the slopes. The access to the Abbey is by the "Grand Degré", a wide stairway of some 350 steps, interrupted half way up by a revolving door once guarded by a watchman. Since 1874, the Monuments Historiques (Historic Monuments of France) are responsible for the Abbey.
Beginning in the Middle Ages, pilgrims from the world over have come to honour St.Michael at the Abbey. The first Benedictine monks arrived in 966 and remodeled the existing lodgings to create a monastery.
In 1791, during the French Revolution, the monks were expelled, and did not return until 1966 for the monastery's millennium celebrations. Since 2001, two communities of monks and nuns of the Fraternités Monastiques de Jérusalem (Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem) live in the Abbey and hold the daily services.
The Abbey is open all year round, and for further information consult the Centre des Monuments Nationaux (National Historic Monuments Centre) website. You can also buy entrance tickets for the Abbey at your hotel and thus avoid the queues at the entrance.
The village and its life
Mont Saint-Michel: a surprising and lively village.
Protected by its walls, Mont Saint-Michel is also a medieval village full of hidden treasures. Its charm is due not only to the architecture of the stone and half-timbered houses, most of which are classified by the Monuments Historiques, but also due to the originality of some of their names: "The Inn of the Running Away Trout"; "The House of the Artichoke"; "The Garden of the Isle of Stockings".
First governed by the welcome given to pilgrims, the life of the inhabitants of the Mont Saint-Michel is now more tuned to tourism with many shops, as well as houses turned into museums. But to really appreciate the village, quickly leave the main street – the "Grande Rue" – with its busy shops, and explore the little passages, alleys and hidden gardens behind the houses. The walk along the walls offers splendid views of the Bay and the twice-daily tides.
If there is one famous character of Mont Saint-Michel, it is Mère Poulard – "Mother Poulard" – who, at the end of the XIXth century, served her famous omelettes to pilgrims rich and poor, famished after crossing the sand flats. In the village's tiny cemetery, her reputation for hospitality is enshrined in her epitaph : "Here lies Victor and Annabelle Poulard – Good husband and wife – Good hoteliers – May the Lord receive them as they received their guests."
For further information:
Guided tours of the village with Gaëlle Lotton or Amélie Saint-James
For further information
The Bay of Mont Saint-Michel
Pilgrimages and legends
Since the Middle Ages, crowds of pilgrims cross the Bay on foot each year to Mont Saint-Michel. Leaving from Le Bec d'Audaine, the pilgrimage across the sand flats is considered a journey of initiation and redemption. Each July, more than 1,000 pilgrims meet at Genêts to make the crossing, and at the time to discover the Bay's rich biodiversity.
There are many legends about the Bay of Mont Saint-Michel. For example, in 1011, it is said that the Archangel Michael held back the rising tide with his sword to save a young woman who had been abandoned by a group of pilgrims just as she was about to give birth.
Once the tide had receded, the young woman and her new-born were found safe and sound. It is also said that during the time of the Gauls, Mont Saint-Michel and the nearby islet of Tombelaine were in the middle of the Forest of Scissy, which was swallowed up by the equinoctial tide of 709. But scientific tests have shown that the existence of this forest is purely legendary.
Route du Mont Saint-Michel, BP 8 50170 - Le Mont Saint-Michel - France
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