... St Michael in peril from the sea, as it became known in the Middle Ages, sea-girt and tenuously connected to the land, a connection which could be severed at any time. Yet it wasn't always so; in our hotel restaurant, one wall was taken up by this map:
a reconstruction of how the shape of land and sea was over thirteen hundred years ago. The Mont of that time is the little triangular point standing alone towards the bottom right of the image. The land was marshy and prone to flooding from sea and rivers, but nevertheless the island of today was inland; the Forêt de Scissy no longer exists, having been entirely inundated, and the peninsular of Scissy at the top of the map is now the islands of Chausey (though this seems uncertain). The forest in question was a desert; an old Roman road just about cut through it, and a few lonely monks and hermits lived there somehow. It was all swept away by a series of monster tides in the eighth century and later; the known history and wild legends of abbots and angelic visitations are all mixed up together. I love the dark ages.
And now, despite the high tides which have been known to wash away cars from the car park, it is not so much in peril of the sea, but in danger of becoming landlocked again, hence the massive changes and works that are now taking place. The factors of geology and sedimentation that have led to this, the reclamation of land by the engineers of the last couple of hundred years, the building of dam and dykes and polders and the natural changes in coastal geography - which are not always those of erosion and destruction even in these times of climate change and rising sea levels - are complex, and actually quite fascinating, but rather than attempt to go into them here, I'd recommend this excellent article, on the blog of a professional geologist whose lifelong specialism has been sand and what it does, he's even written a book all about it.
It contains many interesting maps and pictures, of which I've pinched one, showing the way the Mont has looked until very recently, with the causeway and car park (left) running alongside the mouth of the Couesnon river,
and on the right, how it will appear in about 2025, when the sea has been allowed to take back so much more of the space around it, and the only access will be a new road - open only to pedestrians and the electric shuttles - suspended on pillars over the water.
This road will end on a sandy ford which will, at times of the highest tides, be covered with water, so the Mont becomes, momentarily, truly an island again. The projections above are from this document (an on-line PDF) in a reasonable English translation, and this site, in a somewhat quaint but rather endearing translation (don't they ever think to get a native English speaker to check them? I'd do it...) which explain more about this impressive project, and why it is considered necessary - they're worth browsing around for some of the videos and fly-through simulations.
One goes to le Mont St Michel, of course, to marvel. That is why it is called la Merveille, though originally that referred only to the structure on the north face, built in the 14th century on top of the original 11th century church building, which was a marvel in itself. Henry Adams in his (rather marvellous) book Mont St Michel and Chartres describes how
instead of cutting the summit away to give his church a secure rock foundation, which would have sacrificed about thirty feet of height, the Abbot took the apex of the rock for his level, and on all sides built out foundations of masonry to support the walls of his church. The apex of the rock is the floor of the croisée, the intersection of nave and transept. On this solid foundation the Abbot rested the chief weight of the church, which was the central tower, supported by the four great piers which still stand; but from the croisée in the centre westward to the parapet of the platform, the Abbot filled the whole space with masonry, and his successors built out still farther, until some two hundred feet of stonework ends now in a perpendicular wall of eighty feet or more.
It was always a place of pilgrimage - indeed one of the places, for a trip there could let you off many years of purgatory - and one could marvel at God there; the mediaeval pilgrims shouted for joy at their first sight of it from Montjoie, and the sight of it hanging in the sea haze like a vision still never fails to make the heart leap, even a glimpse of it, tiny through the clouds, from the cross-channel plane makes one start with wonder. We look out at the blue and silver beauty of the sea and sands and their patterns and we marvel at nature for sure, but chiefly, we marvel at the works of man*, and of so very long ago. Looking up at the sheer walls of the abbey and its culminating angel, defying gravity, the sea and the weather, one marvels 'how did they do that?'
But we mustn't forget to wonder at the works of our own times. We were not alone in spending as much time gazing and marvelling at the new constructions taking shape as at the ancient ones already there.
The road on pillars;
busy machines shifting sand and silt;
the road nearing its end on the beach under the Mont;
men at work with noisy kit;
view from further up on the Mont. On the right are a party of horses and riders, about to set off across the sands, a popular activity, inspired perhaps by Victor Hugo, who pleaded for the site to be valued for the treasure it is when it was still a neglected prison in the 19th century, and who said that the tides came in across the Bay with the speed of a galloping horse, possibly a slight exaggeration.
The knowledge of how to navigate the sands safely on foot or horseback is a special one; the dangers of the tides and quicksands are not exaggerated. I've not been able to find out how the re-shaping of the bay and the water-flow will affect this, but it seems the guides and experts were consulted with.
The other major element is the new barrage across the mouth of the river. This is certainly an imposing bit of gear and tackle,
but is hailed as a thing of beauty too, so the trim's not bad either: heavy bronze parapets and hubs and hatchway covers which are already taking on a rich verdigris hue. The parapet rail is engraved with script from the four alphabets - Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic - represented in the mediaeval manuscripts from the abbey's scriptorium, and the hatchways are numbered in the same scripts:
Zero, of course, only existed in Arabic and Hebrew at those times.
Postscript correction: It has been pointed out to me (see comments) that the above is not strictly true: the concept of, and a figure for, zero had long been in use in Indian mathematical notation, from which it was transmitted into Arabic, and hence into the European system. I would argue though, that this does not necessarily, as was asserted, make the term 'Arabic numerals' a misnomer; French bread originated with techniques acquired from Austria (as I understand, unless this is another 'urban myth' better called a 'popular misconception' to my mind!), we can still call it French bread. In any case, the scripts used in the bronze work of the barrage were the four to be found in the mediaeval manuscripts in the scriptorium of the abbey, of which there were presumably no Sanskrit or Jain ones...
I should have taken more note and more photos of the barrage and its details, instead of having to do much of this research afterwards.
However, after all our adventures and foot-slogging, our tongues were hanging out, so like the other changes which have still to be realised - the new road will be brought into commission and the old one finally demolished and flooded over next year - we'll have to go back and have another look at a future time.
1st, 4th, 5th, 7th, 9th and 13th photos (I think) in this series taken by Tom. Thanks dearie!
* and it is man, I'm prepared to go with Adams on that: the guardian spirit of the Archangel and his church is masculine, as was the Norman 11th century that raised them, while the animating, embracing soul of Chartres, blue and black Madonnas, Blanche of Castille and the 12th century, is feminine; it may sound flaky and I'm wary of such glib, romantically sexist distinctions, but to me it still has a ring of truth.