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.


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