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.


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