Road Trip Through History: Mont Saint Michel
My Own True Love and I are in Normandy.* We are part of a D-Day tour run by the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, with a couple of days devoted to events other than D-Day. I am an outlier in the group in that I am more interested in William the Conqueror than I am in D-Day. (Sorry, guys.)
Our first day was devoted to Mont Saint Michel: an enormous fortified abbey built (and rebuilt) on an island off the coast of Normandy and Brittany, beginning in the eighth century. It was a major pilgrimage site in the medieval period, a contested stronghold in the Hundred Years’ War, a prison in the years of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, and became a tourist destination (another sort of pilgrimage) the late nineteenth century. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.**
From my perspective, the real interest was looking at details of Romanesque and Gothic architecture up close and in person after a lifetime of fascination with architectural history. If I were a better photographer, and if the flow of tourists was more forgiving of someone standing taking a picture, the best blog post about the site would be a series of photographs of ribbed bays and fabulous stonework.
In the absence of such photos, I offer some of the details that caught my imagination:
- The abbey is huge, but the monastic community that inhabited it was small. At its height, the community numbered about sixty people. For the most part the abbey housed no more than ten or twelve monks, thought it served large numbers of pilgrims.
- During the years that it served as a prison, supplies were hoisted up into the building using an enormous wheel powered by prisoners walking inside the wheel. Picture a hamster wheel large enough to hold five adult men.
- Because the cloister was built above living space, it was impossible to create a true cloister garden. (Roof leaks in a giant stone building are a pain to repair.) Instead the monks built the stone equivalent of a garden with carvings on the pilasters and arches that surrounded the open space.
- The abbey made a cameo appearance in the Bayeux tapestry, in which Harold of England rescues two Norman knights from quicksands in the tidal flats that surround the abbey. (Presumably a knight in chain mail sinks more rapidly than a tourist in capri pants and flipflops.)
- The scriptorium, just because.***
My only disappointment is that we didn’t get to see the museum of medieval manuscripts from Mont Saint Michel, located in nearby Avranches. *Sigh*
*Actually, by the time you read this, we will have been home for a couple of days, though not quite long enough to recover from jet lag.
**As far as we’re concerned, this is the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for history sites.
***Scriptoria, libraries and bookstores are inherently interesting. Right?
Travelers’ tip: Cidre rose is unexpectedly good. Really.
So so glad that Hitler left this abbey and incredible edifice intact!!
Particularly amazing given how much damage towns thoroughout Normandy suffered.