Mont Saint-Michel is a rocky tidal island and a commune in Normandy, France. It is located approximately one kilometre (just over half a mile) off the country's north-western coast, at the mouth of the Couesnon River near Avranches. The population of the island is 44, as of 2009. The island has held strategic fortifications since ancient times, and since the 8th century AD been the seat of the monastery from which it draws its name. The Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay are part of the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites. More than 3,000,000 people visit it each year.
In prehistoric times the bay was land. As sea levels rose, erosion shaped the coastal landscape over millions of years. Several blocks of granite or granulite emerged in the bay, having resisted the wear and tear of the ocean better than the surrounding rocks. These included Lillemer, the Mont-Dol, Tombelaine (the island just to the north), and Mont Tombe, later called Mont-Saint-Michel.
Mont Saint-Michel was previously connected to the mainland via a tidal causeway, i.e. a trackway covered at high tide and revealed at low tide. This connection has been altered over the centuries. The coastal flats have been polderised to create pasture, thus the distance between the shore and the south coast of Mont-Saint-Michel has decreased, and the Couesnon River has been canalised, reducing the flow of water and thereby encouraging a silting-up of the bay. In 1879, the tidal causeway was converted into a raised or dry causeway. This prevented the tide from scouring the silt around the mount.
The construction of the dam began in 2009 and is now complete. The project also included the removal of the causeway and its visitors car-park. It will be replaced by a light bridge, allowing the waters to flow freely around the island, which will improve the efficiency of the now operational dam, and a replacement car-park on the mainland. Visitors will use small shuttles to cross the future bridge which will still be open to pedestrians and unmotorised vehicles.
Mont-Saint-Michel was used in the 6th and 7th centuries as an Armorican stronghold of Romano-Breton culture and power, until it was ransacked by the Franks, thus ending the trans-channel culture that had stood since the departure of the Romans in AD 460. Before the construction of the first monastic establishment in the 8th century, the island was called "monte tombe". According to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, in 708 and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet. Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel's instruction, until Michael burned a hole in the bishop's skull with his finger.
The mount gained strategic significance in 933 when William "Long Sword", William I, Duke of Normandy, annexed the Cotentin Peninsula, definitively placing the mount in Normandy. It is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry which commemorates the 1066 Norman conquest of England. Harold, Earl of Wessex is pictured on the tapestry rescuing two Norman knights from the quicksand in the tidal flats during a battle with Conan II, Duke of Brittany. Norman Ducal patronage financed the spectacular Norman architecture of the abbey in subsequent centuries.
The wealth and influence of the abbey extended to many daughter foundations, including St Michael's Mount in Cornwall. However, its popularity and prestige as a centre of pilgrimage waned with the Reformation, and by the time of the French Revolution there were scarcely any monks in residence. The abbey was closed and converted into a prison, initially to hold clerical opponents of the republican régime. High-profile political prisoners followed, but by 1836, influential figures – including Victor Hugo – had launched a campaign to restore what was seen as a national architectural treasure.
The prison was finally closed in 1863, and the mount was declared a historic monument in 1874. The Mont-Saint-Michel and its bay were added to the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites in 1979, and it was listed with criteria such as cultural, historical, and architectural significance, as well as human-created and natural beauty.
William de Volpiano, the Italian architect who had built the Abbey of Fécamp in Normandy, was chosen as building contractor by Richard II of Normandy in the 11th century. He designed the Romanesque church of the abbey, daringly placing the transept crossing at the top of the mount. Many underground crypts and chapels had to be built to compensate for this weight; these formed the basis for the supportive upward structure that can be seen today. Today Mont-Saint-Michel is seen as a Romanesque style church.
The tides in the area change quickly, and have been described by Victor Hugo as "à la vitesse d'un cheval au galop" or "as swiftly as a galloping horse". The tides can vary greatly, at roughly 14 metres (46 ft) between high and low water marks. Popularly nicknamed "St. Michael in peril of the sea" by medieval pilgrims making their way across the flats, the mount can still pose dangers for visitors who avoid the causeway and attempt the hazardous walk across the sands from the neighbouring coast.
In Modern Culture
- Mont-Saint-Michel is featured in the 1950 Powell and Pressburger film The Elusive Pimpernel.
- The 1985 IMAX film Chronos has several scenes of Mont-Saint-Michel and the surrounding tides advancing and retreating around it.
- The 1991 film Mindwalk is set on Mont-Saint-Michel.
- In 1904, the American intellectual Henry Adams privately published Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres, celebrating the unity of medieval society, especially as represented in the great cathedrals of France. It was released publicly in 1913.
- French composer Claude Debussy frequented the island and possibly drew inspiration from not only the legend of the mythical city of Ys, but also Mont-Saint-Michel's cathedral for his piano prelude La Cathedrale Engloutie.
- The movie Heartcatch Precure! is set on Mont-Saint-Michel, where The Pretty Cures defeat Baron Salamander.