Finger of the Archangel Michael
At the time of the ancient Romans, Mont Saint-Michel was not yet an island. The gloomy uninhabited rock washed by the waves of the Atlantic was then called the Grave Mountain – perhaps the Celts used this place for their burials. Druids came here to worship the setting sun, and the Romans subsequently kept this ritual for a long time. Dazzling legends were born in the rays of a light plunging into the sea: according to one of them, Julius Caesar was secretly buried precisely in Mogilny Mountain – in a golden coffin, in golden sandals … almost six kilometers of sea. Only twice a day, at low tide, did the sea expose a muddy bottom and open a dangerous passage to the island. Mont Saint Michel’s own history began in 708, when one bishop from the town of Avranches appeared in a dream to the archangel Michael and ordered a chapel to be built on Grave Hill. At first, Aubert, as the bishop was called, later canonized, was embraced by doubts: neither the first nor even the second phenomenon of the archangel convinced him. For the third time, Archangel Michael, who again invaded a peaceful priest’s sleep, was surrounded by a formidable and majestic glow: repeating his previous order, he struck a half-hearted Norman with a radiant finger on his forehead. Awakening from sleep, Aubert felt a dent in the skull and, without hesitation, went to the Grave Mountain. Miracles accompanied the construction of the chapel. A huge boulder, occupying a platform on the top of a mountain, rolled down from the touch of a child’s foot. The rocky island in the middle of the sea was deprived of fresh water. But Saint Aubert, who had already felt the miraculous touch of the archangel, hit the staff on the rock, and from under it a healing spring was scored. Yes, and Michael himself, surrounded by a heavenly shine, occasionally was the builders of dark, stormy nights. Since the Benedictine monks settled on Mont Saint-Michel, thousands of people began to come to the island to win the patronage of Michael the Archangel, the devil smash guard from evil. Many died in the shifting sands of the bay, sank in tidal waves, and not reaching the cherished goal. A legend is told about a woman who, in the last month of pregnancy, went alone to Mont Saint-Michel. Leaving the bay ashore and seeing the so close and alluring silhouette of the Mountain ahead of her, she succumbed to the illusion and walked through the sands, but did not calculate the force: the distance was too great. The tide has begun. The wind intensified, frothy tongues of a rapidly approaching sea appeared from behind the Mountain. The woman realized that she was dying, lay down on the sand, prepared for death and begging the Virgin Mary for support. The roaring sea closed around her, but – lo and behold! – forming a kind of water tower, the waves did not even touch the poor woman. Staying inside this wonderful “well”, the woman resolved to be a boy and, when the sea subsided, baptized her baby with sea water. Fishermen, who went in search of the body, were amazed to find her safe and sound with the baby in her arms. In memory of this miracle in 1011, Hildeber, then abbot of the abbey, installed a huge cross in the bay. For a long time he stood in the midst of sand and waves, until the sea swallowed him …
The bay of Mont Saint-Michel has always been famous for its tides – the difference between the highest and lowest sea levels here reaches a record value of 15 meters. Because of the shallow depths and even bottom, the sea retreats 15–20 kilometers from the coast at low tide, but usually returns back at a pedestrian’s speed – about 4 km / h, although, they say, in some places with strong tail wind this speed can increase and up to 30 km / h. Legends about the tides, catching up the rider, stories about the carts, disappearing without a trace along with the horses in the huge shrines, descriptions of the terrible death of travelers, dragged into the wet sand – what is more in all this, truth or fiction? The ebb in the bay always begins somehow unexpectedly: more recently, everywhere, wherever you look, the whitish and muddy sea was splashing, as the sand, which almost all French classics — from Hugo to Maupassant, have everywhere hypnotized everywhere, splashed around. This sand seems to be quite harmless, until you descend on its treacherously unsteady surface, all covered in puddles. The fact is that the sand of the bay looks more like silt; it is dense when it dries out, but, mixing with water, it turns into a viscous clay mass. The bottom is abundantly wedged with riverbeds and streams – and they, apparently, are a real danger. Streams of water liquefy the sand, and in the channels (as well as under the beds) even small streams can form those insidious shakes in which the overly arrogant traveler risks to please. And although today near Mont Saint-Michel there is no more such dramatic tides, as before, very few people risk to go for a walk along the bottom of the bay, not knowing the “schedule” of the sea. For a thousand years, the tides brought so much sand into the bay that the coastline advanced almost 5 kilometers to the west, coming close to Mont Saint-Michel. People completed this process by building a dam in 1879, which is now racing cars. Today, Mont Saint Michel is a real island only 2-3 times a year, when especially strong tides flood the highway. Thanks to the dam, the number of people visiting Mont Saint-Michel annually exceeds 2.5 million, the TGV high-speed trains bring day-trippers from Paris here – but to the top of the Mountain, where the 11th century church and monastery of La Mervey is located, arrivals. The tradition of pilgrimage to Mont Saint-Michel dates back to the days of St. Obera, but even today people go to the Mountain not only paying tribute to fashion – many try to stay here for a few days. In the evenings, when the Mont Saint-Michel leaves the buses with tourists, the Grand-Rue Street, leading up, becomes less busy, the monastery halls become empty. This late afternoon clock is the best time to explore the Mont Saint-Michel architectural ensemble. Construction of the monastery church began in 1023 and lasted almost a century. The tower and the nave, built in the Romanesque style, retained the original appearance. The church rose high above the Mountain (the spire on the tower was not yet familiar, though) and was immediately attacked by lightning. Every 25–30 years, large fires broke out on the island. And after France annexed Normandy in 1204, the obstinate Mont Saint-Michel was set on fire by the will of the people. The old abbey completely burned down, and in 1211 the French king Philip II, wishing, obviously, to atone for his sin in front of the archangel Michael and his burnt abode, began the construction of the famous abbey La Merwei (translated as “miracle”). In just 17 years — an incredible time for that time — an architectural masterpiece was created, now considered a generally accepted example of medieval Gothic.
La Merwei, striking in its size, is built on a narrow rock and therefore, unlike other monasteries, has a vertical structure: it consists of two three-story sections. The eastern section, according to the creators, was designed to meet bodily needs. On the ground floor there was a hall for the poorest pilgrims, here they had to live and eat. Above them, in the guest hall, the abbot received and regaled high-ranking officials, the third floor was a refectory for the monks. In the western section of the first floor occupied the pantry. The second was the Knight’s Hall, which, with its huge ovens, actually served to heat the monastery. This hall, originally called the scriptorium, was intended for works with manuscripts, but it was too dark in it, so the monks carried out all the handwriting in the refectory, where from the unusually narrow, high and closely spaced windows flowed even and clear light. The third floor in the western wing was occupied by a covered gallery – a kind of “shelter of calm”, intended both for reading and reflection, and for walks of monastic brethren. The unique architecture of this gallery, as if hanging between heaven and earth, in the words of one of the chroniclers of the monastery, “allowed the Lord to descend to the person without losing its greatness.” During the Hundred Years War (1337-1453), Mont Saint-Michel, who was never taken by the British, inspired the famous Joan of Arc for his exploits, and after the war his fame went far beyond the borders of France. In this period, the inexplicable mass pilgrimages of children reached their peak. Throwing homes and parents, thousands of boys and girls between the ages of 7 and 15 were headed for Mont Saint Michel. The mysterious heavenly call gathered them from all over Europe – from Poland and Flanders, Germany and Switzerland. They walked through France, lining up in columns by two, and chanted: “In the name of the Lord we walk, we go to Saint-Michel!” The adults were afraid to disturb them. So, the father of one child, trying to stop him, exclaimed in his hearts: “I implore the devil in the name: come back home!” – and immediately fell dead. The mother of another minor “pilgrim”, who tried to keep him by force, was numb and deaf. Many children died on the way, froze with cold – parents were terrified and confused. Finally, the religious authorities began to speak out in condemnation of such exaltation, and one German theologian generally called the heavenly call, prompting children to pilgrimage, “the voice of the devil.”