Secret history of buildings - September 2018

Mont St Michel has always attracted visitors, from pilgrims to today’s tourists. Jane Hanks traces its buildings’ evolution

29 August 2018
By Jane Hanks

Mont-Saint-Michel, also called the Wonder of the Western World, was the 7th most visited tourist site in France in 2017, with 2¼ million people travelling to the Normandy village.

Its popularity is not a new phenomenon as it was one of the four most important pilgrimage destinations in Europe for nearly 1,000 years, alongside Rome, Santiago de Compostela and Jerusalem. 

Since the 1990s the association Les Chemins du Mont-Saint-Michel has been researching the ancient routes to the village, which stretch from Italy, Ireland, Great Britain, Spain and Germany and include a dense network in Normandy.

They are called the “paths to paradise”, and there are now people walking those routes, just as there are on the Camino de Santiago.

The village’s story began in 708 when Aubert, the bishop of the nearby hilltop town of Avranches claimed the Archangel Michael, told him he must build a church on the top of the island, just out to sea.

In 966, Benedictine monks settled there and very quickly it became a major place of pilgrimage as well as a cultural centre. It was given the nickname the “City of Books”, because so many manuscripts were written and stored there. Among the pilgrims there were several Kings of France and England.

The building of the Abbey continued over the centuries meaning there is a diversity of architectural styles.

From the Middle Ages onwards, a village grew up on the south-east side of the rock and has always been there to cater for and do business with the thousands of visitors.

Archaeologists from the Institut National de Recherches Archéologiques Préventives have found evidence to show that it has changed several times over the centuries. They have found what they think were the city walls built in 1256 and since destroyed, and during these studies they unexpectedly came upon the remains of an early cemetery next to the church.

The tombs and the skeletons they found have revealed valuable information about the style of burial and the people who lived there before the 13th century.

One of their most important finds has been a number of moulds which show there was a workshop near to the church between the 14th and 15th centuries which produced badges for pilgrims.

In the 14th century powerful fortifications were built to resist attacks by the English army during the Hundred Years War and were strong enough to resist a 30-year-long siege.

People have not always gone there willingly. After the Revolution, when Church buildings were declared “national property”, the monks were driven away and in 1793 it was turned into a prison for non-reforming priests. In 1811 an Imperial decree transformed the Abbey into a reform prison for common law prisoners and political prisoners.

The continued use of the building, even as a prison, meant that the monument was not destroyed but it was in a severe state of dilapidation when the prison was closed in 1863.

In 1874 it was classified as a historical monument, and the long restoration task began. In 1878 a causeway was constructed to make access easier, followed by a tramway as the numbers of visitors began to grow.

Benedictine monks returned to the Abbey in 1969, and these were replaced in 2001 by the Monastic Fraternities of Jerusalem, who continue to live there. In 1979 it was listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site.

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