I visited Mont St. Michel more than six years ago, but it doesn’t take much to recall the tidal island with its abbey—though it is a difficult task to decide what should be described first. My visit took place a long time ago, in 2014, though I only come to write about it now.
The first thing one sees on their approach is the church spire, rising high above the lands to either side. As the visitor approaches, the features of the island and the monastery bloom out into a massive stronghold, almost too large to grasp.
What is difficult to approach at this remote time and juncture is how well protected the site is. Not only the walls, built by man, but the tides, enforced by the Sun and Moon that sweep the tidal flats between the island and the mainland twice a day, ensure that access to the island can be very tricky. The option to be driven or to walk across is there for the taking but if calculated wrongly can result in one’s demise. This is also well known to the pilgrim who is aware that the sea may stop them from reaching their site of worship.
The monastery, dating back to a prior stronghold, has developed immensely since its start as a small church at the top of the island. It is perhaps expected that certain defensive encampments were in order, in a land riven by civil wars and feuding rival princes, but also the monks found it concurrent with their faith to expand their site of worship. The monastic aspect lends the island a certain peace, otherwise present in ruins of abbeys and churches, where one can see aspirations of former ages. Of course, Mont-Saint-Michel is not just an abbey, but this is a large part of the site with the cloister definitely retaining its Medieval spirituality.
One of the under-appreciated aspects of the cloister is the gallery, allowing monks to ponder the vitality of the garden inside. There are many places where the cloister survives very well, including my former home city of Norwich where the cathedral has an adjoining cloister. In there, a labyrinth calls for the visitor to step inside. No such frivolities existed at Mont-Saint-Michel. In retrospect, while the island is definitely a fortress, the monastic aspect I remember better if only because many of the ramparts were being reconstructed while I visited which led to a bit of construction interfering with the scenery.
The series of ramparts are mostly a 14th and 15th century construct that finally modified the purpose of the site to be mainly a defensive location. The abbey had essentially been made unconquerable unless sufficient force was brought to bear and in the cases the English tried to siege the site, that force was unavailable. As such, the island stayed unconquered and loyal to the French kings though, originally belonging to Normandy, the site’s loyalties for two centuries (or more) had lain with the Dukes of Normandy and Kings of England whose patronage allowed the abbey to grow to such heights.
The site that might remember this most would be St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, across the Channel. The two are linked by history, with monks from Mont-Saint-Michel crossing the seas to Cornwall (after being granted lands there) to live there, though St. Michael’s might also be on the site of an older monastery. Not having visited the location in Cornwall, I can only remark that I have always found it symmetrical to find two tidal islands, on opposite ends of the channel, linked in common cause.