The History of Mont Saint-Michel part 4: Decline and Fall and Rise Again

Photo by Lubosz

The Mount, set in a tidal bay, did not need defences until the outbreak of the Hundred Years’ War. During the course of the war, battlements were built around the island, and the abbey itself was fortified.

By 1520, the last great addition to the abbey church, the late-Gothic choir, had been completed. It was just in time. In 1523, King Francis I granted the abbacy in commendam to the nobleman (and later cardinal) Jean le Veneur. This was basically a grant for an absentee abbot to milk the abbey of its income. Le Veneur, and the succeeding abbots in commendam, did so, to such an extent that there were barely any monks left at the outbreak of the French Revolution. The rabidly anti-clerical Revolutionary government closed the monastery and turned it into a prison, mainly for priests and religious. They also renamed it Mont Libre, apparently without any intended irony. To haul provisions to the top of the mount, the prisoners had to tread a huge wheel that pulled a cart up a steep incline: wheel, chain and incline (called ‘poulain’ in French) are all still visible.

The Mount remained a prison until 1863, when a campaign by French men of letters, including Victor Hugo, led to it being declared a historic monument. Some urgent repairs were needed to stabilise and restore the building after the modifications made to hold prisoners. As part of the restoration, the spire atop the central tower was added, with the statue of St Michael crowning it.

In 1966, after a gap of over 150 years, monks returned to the abbey. Appropriately, they were Benedictines, and once again the great work of monks, the daily office of prayer and chant, was heard flowing through the choir. In 2001, the Jerusalem Community, a joint institute of monks and nuns, took over at the abbey. They chant lauds and vespers in the morning and evening, with a midday mass; for those wanting to engage more deeply in the spiritual heritage of Mont St-Michel, the Community have a retreat house on the Mount. These are the best times to visit the abbey: as the chant silences the tourist chatter and the sound, more profound than silence, reaches to heaven.

Michael, looking down from his high vantage point, must be pleased.

Adventures in Words: The First Showman by Karl Shaw

The First Showman by Karl Shaw

It’s a real shame that this book seems to have died on the shelves. It tells the story of Philip Astley, showman extraordinaire, who astonished Georgian England, and indeed Europe, with his stunt riding skills as well as inventing a form of show, with lots of acts within a marked out oval, that was the origin of the modern circus. Astley was physically large and well built but his personality was even larger, while his life story, encompassing humble beginnngs, astonishing turns of fortune, fires, disasters, recoveries, is the stuff of a biographer’s dream.

Indeed, it’s such a vivid recreation of the man’s life and times that I earnestly wish more people would read it. Hearing of some of the stunts Astley and his team performed, one can only marvel at their skill and their courage – somersaults on the back of a galloping horse is merely par for the extraordinary course.

The book also offers a fascinating insight into the life of a Georgian entrepeneur, a man making his way into the expanding world of show business and, by his own energy and imagination, expanding it further. Highly recommended to anyone interested in the period or in the circus.

The History of Mont Saint-Michel part 3: A Miracle in Stone

Mont Saint-Michel as it appeared in 1865.

Faced with a lax community of monks, Richard the Fearless (933-996) brought in those great renewers of monastic life: the Benedictines. Richard gave the epicurean monks of the mount an ultimatum: accept a properly rigorous monastic life as a Benedictine or leave. All but one left. This year, 966, marks the start of the Benedictine foundation that would work miracles in rock.

As the power of the Dukes of Normandy grew, so did their reliance on the protection of their great patron, St Michael. In 1020, Richard the Good (ruled 996-1027), son of Richard the Fearless, commissioned Abbot Hildebert to build a new abbey church upon the mount.

Romanesque architecture was in its infancy, but in their ambition to glorify the archangel, Richard and Hildebert asked extraordinary things of their new church. The rock of St Michel was shaped like a sugar loaf, rising 78.6 metres (258 feet) above the mean sea level. The obvious architectural choice would have been to cut the top off the mountain to create a solid and level foundation for the new church. But that would have been to step down from heaven. Instead, Abbot Hildebert took the apex of the rock for the the ground level of his new church, and built out in all directions to provide the foundations.

The apex of the rock is the centre of the church, the crossing point where nave and transept meet and join. On this rock, Hildebert built his church, the central tower rising directly from the apex of the mount, supported by the four piers that still hold the tower up, thrusting the statue of St Michael (a 19th-century addition) into the sky. Abbot Hildebert and his successors built out westward about two hundred feet from the cross of the church.

A great medieval church never being properly finished, they were still building 150 years later, when Abbot Robert de Torigny rebuilt the west front of the church with two towers. That was two towers too many. One fell in 1300. Slowly, slowly the west front gave way, so that in 1776 the whole façade and three spans of the nave had to pulled down. Today, four of the seven original seven spans of the nave survive.

Looking up at the abbey church today, standing serenely above the world, it seems untroubled and stable. This appearance masks the reality of its history. For the abbots built out as enthusiastically eastwards as they did westwards, with the same result. On the east, Abbot Hildebert’s foundations stood until 1421, when they gave way while the mount was beseiged during the Hundred Years’ War. It was rebuilt and completed in 1520 in a last flowering of Gothic architecture. Stand in the western door and you can see the original and terminal styles of medieval architecture, the Romanesque and the Gothic, together, the sober spans of the Romanesque nave framing the flamboyance of the Gothic choir.

Adventures with Words: The Stranger Diaries

The Stranger Diaries by Elly Griffiths

I don’t read much detective fiction but if it were all as good as this then I would certainly read more! What makes this story so enjoyable for a literature nerd like myself is the way that Elly Griffiths weaves the present-day detective story into the narrative of a faux Gothic short story, sitting somewhere between Edgar Allan Poe and The Castle of Otranto, which she reproduces in the course of the novel. Griffiths does a wonderful job of writing the story in the style of the early masters, a bit heightened for the sake of the plot, and then placing it into the story. A more seasoned reader of detective fiction might have guessed the perpetrator but I didn’t – and I was glad of that. For this newbie to detective fiction the story was a delight.

Adventures in Words: The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker

Christopher Booker doesn’t keep the reader in suspense: they’re right there, on the cover: Overcoming the Monster (Beowulf), Rags to Riches (Oliver Twist), The Quest (The Lord of the Rings), Voyage and Return (The Odyssey), Comedy (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), Tragedy (Hamlet) and Rebirth (A Christmas Carol). The stories in brackets are just a very few examples of the stories he quotes: one of the most impressive aspects of the book is that Booker seems to have read everything.

For the purposes of this review, I will take it as read that Booker makes his case: there really are only seven basic plots and all stories fall into these, although some incorporate more than one plot. For instance, The Lord of the Rings encompasses all seven of the plots. Instead, what I would like to consider is the why that Booker advances. Why do the stories that we tell, starting with the earliest stories known to us such as the Epic of Gilgamesh and continuing into the present day revolve around these seven basic plots? According to Booker, it is because they are shaped by the archetypes that, according to Carl Jung, sit deep in our unconscious, archetypes such as the shadow, the anima, the wise old man and so on, with the archetype of the self, the undivided whole adult human, being the gravitational centre around which the other archetypes revolve and to which they all aim to resolve.

According to Booker, the ideal story ends with its elements united and the Self realised, which is most often symbolised in stories by the hero marrying the heroine. This is the point and end of stories and, according to Booker, this is what gives them their unique power when told well.

I have some sympathy with this idea. But as sources of the fundamental meaning of life, Booker is asking purely human psychological constructs to take more weight than they can bear. Meaning, fundamentally, cannot be derived from the structures of our own psyches as, to use a metaphor, it is like blowing up a balloon and then expecting it to act as its own foundations. The sort of universal meaning Booker is talking about in his book cannot be located purely in the psychological structures of the mind, although these can be intimately connected to it, but has to be grounded in something deeper, wider, older and broader. Really, Booker is talking about God but seems unable or unwilling to acknowledge that.

So, curiously, the book suffers from something like the flaw that Booker ascribes to modern literature: an obsession with the the surface forms of things, the ego and its gratification at the expense of the deeper Self. The Seven Basic Plots likewise stops short before it reaches its destination, placing too much meaning in psychology while consciously or unconsciously avoiding the source of psychology, its ground and fountain.

However, the book remains a monumental body of work, deserving the highest accolade. I recommend it whole heartedly – and it will leave you wanting to read many more good books!

Adventures in Words: The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

The Most Dangerous Game by Richard Connell

In a story of tables being turned, big-game hunter Sanger Rainsford finds that he is the prey and someone else in the hunter. It’s a taut, sharp thriller, a short story rather than a novel but one that’s deservedly remained in print since it was first published almost a hundred years ago.

But it makes me think: humans are pursuit hunters. We can run longer, farther and further than any other animal, having traded fur for the ability to sweat and thus regulate our temperature as we are running. As hunters of the African savannah, the ice plains of northern Europe or the deserts of Australia, that’s what we did: we pursued the prey relentlessly, running after it as it fled and never giving it time to rest so that, in the end, it simply collapsed. That is what we were. But it is also what we most fear: the relentless, implacable pursuer (think the first Terminator). What we fear most is an image of ourselves. And that is the fear that drives the plot of The Most Dangerous Game: man the hunter, hunted.

Adventures in Words: The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

The Great God Pan by Arthur Machen

A literary sensation when it came out, Arthur Machen’s The Great God Pan was not quite what I expected. Yes, it shares some of the lurid prose as well as the tendency to drop off writing and add ellipses (…) when things start getting especially lurid of much other Victorian melodrama but then the stuff Machen is alluding to probably is better elided rather than spelled out. What I had not expected was the complexity of the narrative, with the point of view, time span and even the prose shifting during the course of the book. Perhaps I should have expected that – after all, Stevenson plays with points of view in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – but for some reason I had not. As such, the book requires a bit more thought and concentration than usual but it will repay the effort: this story really did push horror into the 20th century.

The History of Mont Saint-Michel part 2: the Normans

Mont Saint-Michel by Antoine Lamielle

When the founder of the Norman dynasty, Rollo, was given Normandy by the king of France, Mont Saint-Michel was not originally part of the package. But Rollo’s son, William Longsword, won the monastery from the Dukes of Brittany and the Dukes of Normandy became enthusiastic patrons of the monastery.

By this time, Mont St-Michel had already been a place of pilgrimage for two hundred years. Pilgrimage was the great passion of the Middle Ages, bringing together every class of society in a shared pursuit that accommodated the sacred and the profane. To imagine the gusto with which people embraced pilgrimage, think of the trackways and roads of Europe thronging with people off to see their favourite football team play, taking their summer holiday, trawling the information channels of the internet for gossip and searching for healing of body and soul. Pilgrimage encompassed all these human needs and desires, and more. As Chaucer wrote in the 14th century of another group of pilgrims setting off after a long winter:

Then longen folk to gon on pilgrimages
And palmeres for to seken strange strondes.

Far from keeping to their manors from birth to death, medieval men and women, no less than those today, were keen to seek out strange strands and new worlds. Mont St-Michel, which by its physical and spiritual geography united sea and sky, and heaven and earth, was a major stop on the developing network of pilgrimage routes.

But for the monks on their once lonely mount, the influx of pilgrims brought spiritual dangers, for wealth flowed in the wake of the wanderers. Rollo, full of zeal for his new religion, repaired the damage caused to the buildings during the vicissitudes of the Viking incursions and his son, William Longsword, endowed the abbey further. The rich and powerful, no less than the poor, enjoyed going on pilgrimage, but they expected to be received with proper pomp and the monks of Mont St-Michel began to accommodate their behaviour to that of their rich guests, rather than the other way round.

The History of Mont Saint-Michel part 1: Foundation

Mont Saint-Michel by Arnold Prentl

‘La Merveille’ – the Marvel.

That’s what they call Mont Saint-Michel. Approaching it across the polders and salt marshes, with the sea melting into the sky, you’ll see the truth: it is a marvel. Looking at the walls rising to heaven, you’ll think such a creation impossible without the aid of Hollywood CGI (indeed, should it appear strangely familiar, the design of Minas Tirith in The Lord of the Rings films was inspired by Mont Saint-Michel). But this is real, the work of men’s hands. And, mostly, it was the work of men who lived a long, long time ago.

La Merveille began, appropriately enough, as miracle. In 708, according to tradition, the Archangel Michael appeared to Aubert, bishop of Avranches, and ordered him to build a shrine, dedicated to the angel, on the rocky outcrop in the middle of the vast shallow bay where the River Couesnon drains into the Channel. The bay, now named after its most famous landmark, has the widest tidal range in Europe: at low tide, the mud flats stretch for miles out from the shore, the highest tides see the water level rise 16 metres and the mount upon which the abbey stands transformed into an island.

Bishop Aubert, faced with the order to build an oratory in such an unpromising place, prevaricated. Michael, not to be put off, appeared again in dream, and a third time, when still the bishop hesitated. This time, to drive home his point, the archangel repeatedly poked his forefinger at Aubert’s head. According to tradition, the angel’s touch burned a hole in Aubert’s skull; the relic is on show today, at the Basilica of St Gervais in Avranches, with a hole clearly visible (sceptics maintain the hole is evidence of prehistoric trepanation rather than medieval angelology).

Michael, the leader of the army of heaven, would prove an apt patron for the men who were to become lords of the mainland near the angel’s mount.

St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall

St Michael’s Mount, Cornwall

Lying east of Penzance, in the bight of sea between Land’s End and the Lizard, a rocky tidal island rises from the water. Now crowned with a castle rather than an abbey, St Michael’s Mount is the Cornish cousin of its cousin in Brittany, Mont St Michel. The story of how St Michael’s Mount was given and then lost by Mont St-Michel is fascinatingly twisty.

First, there is the question of whether the monastery on the island predated the Conquest. The monks there claimed it did, citing an ancient charter in which Edward the Confessor granted St Michael’s Mount to the Benedictines many years before William arrived in England. The problem with this claim is that the charter is, historians now agree, almost certainly forged. But, if so, it was forged by Norman monks who came over from Mont St-Michel after the Conquest. So why would Norman monks need to prove to Norman lords that they had long had title to a monastery that they might have expected those same Norman lords to give them?

Two answers have been proposed. Firstly, that by proving their ancient title to the land, the community on St Michael’s Mount would free themselves from the play of great lord politics, with its shifting alliances and occasional spectacular falls. With title to their monastery, the monks of St Michael’s Mount would be able to stand back and watch as spectators the clash of ambitions of powerful lords. The other, related, proposal is that the charter was forged as ammunition during a dispute with the Norman lord, Robert de Mortain.

De Mortain was half brother to William (they shared a mother) and one of his key allies. He was a member of the councils that agreed to William’s plan for invasion, he provided 120 ships and he fought at the Battle of Hastings. In return, De Mortain was given Cornwall. There is a charter, with copies surviving in Exeter and Avranches, which gives St Michael’s Mount to the abbey of Mont St-Michel in De Mortain’s name. A later dispute apparently developed between the monks of St Michael’s Mount and De Mortain over the ownership of the manor of Truthwall, and this may have led the monks to assert their ancient and immemorial rights – even if this required a little finessing of the past.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the Hundred Years’ War broke the connection between the houses on either side of the Channel. Henry V made the definitive break in 1414, giving St Michael’s Mount into the keeping of Syon Abbey. The monastery itself was broken by England’s greatest vandal, Henry VIII, when he appropriated the country’s monastic inheritance and the mount became a coastal fortress. It served as such through the centuries – pillboxes mark its most recent defences during World War II – but it is now one of Cornwall’s main tourist destinations, accessible via causeway at low tide, or by boat the rest of the time.