Friday, May 17, 2013

Saint Michiel de la Mer del Peril...

... 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.



marja-leena said...

Fascinating place and history. Sure wish I could visit. I think it is commendable that it is saved though the new road seems almost a futuristic engineering feat compared to the ancient cathedral.

This reminds me a bit of our accidental coming upon an ancient town near Rome which had been buried under sand for centuries, and with the receding seas had emerged again to be restored: Ostia Antica

But they will not allow the Mont to be buried.

Unknown said...

I have often wondered if there is any connection other than the name and island base with St Michael's Mount on the other side of the Channel in Cornwall. The Mont seems more impressive.

Your and Tom's photographs no picture postcard clichés - always bring it to life

Lucy said...

Thanks both for taking the time to read and comment.

ML - I shall look up Ostia Antica, it sounds fascinating.

Joe - St Michael's Mount was the first of the two for me, and for a time I think I believed the French one was a copy of it! I've not been to St Michael's Mount since I was a child but I loved it: the waiting on the tide for the causeway to appear, or taking those high-wheeled amphibious vehicles to get there. And I remember it having one of those old-fashioned gift shops that sold snowstorm paperweights and things made out of shells, and a stuffed porpoise in one of the passageways. In the course of my researches, I found out that the priory there was a dependence and possession of the abbey on Mont St Michel in mediaeval times, so yes, there was an actual connection. There's a tiny islet with a causeway and a St Michel chapel on the headland above Erquy here, I've yet to explore it. Of course almost all churches and chapels on high eminences are dedicated to St Michael; as Henry Adams said: 'the Archangel loved heights'!

Rouchswalwe said...

I am fascinated by the scripts used on the hatchways amidst this futuristic building. Past and present and future aligned somehow.

Ellena said...

Interesting. Do you know when these works started. Could so much have been achieved since April 2001? My photos only show sheep in fields on each side of the paved road and on the road and with me on a pathway along the paved road.

zephyr said...

so fascinating!
"...marvel at God there..." yes, but i confess i also marvel at what people have done and are continuing to build there!

i so appreciate your sharing all this with us. 'specially the bits with Molly in them. :^)

Giles said...

V. nice and informative feature, tho a pity no comment about when these works will complete sufficiently to enable one to marvel again without their distraction.

Pity also about your comment on the use of “zero”, which reflects a sad and erroneous urban myth that needs correction. Wikipedia has an interesting article. Summarized extracts as follows.

The concept of zero as a number is attributed to India, where, by the 9th century CE, practical calculations were carried out using zero, which was treated like any other number. The Indian scholar Pingala (c.5th-2nd century BCE) and his contemporary Indian scholars used the Sanskrit word śūnya to refer to zero.
The oldest known text to use a decimal place-value system, including a zero, is the Jain text the Lokavibhâga, dated 458 CE, and the first known use of special glyphs for the decimal digits that includes the a symbol for the digit zero, a small circle, appears on a stone inscription in India dated 876 CE.
The rules governing the use of zero appeared for the first time in the Brahmasputha Siddhanta (The Opening of the Universe), written in 628 CE.

The Arab world: [So called] "Arabic" numerals and the zero were [in fact] brought from India into the Arab world.

Lucy said...

Thanks again.

R - yes, the bronze work is beautiful, wish I'd paid more attention to the rest of it, but another time...

Ellena - it certainly has progressed, but in fact it's still the old road being used now, and will be for a year or two yet, though probably no sheep allowed anywhere near! When we were there about three years ago the barrage was still under construction, with a certain amount of access denied, but otherwise much as you describe it.

Zephyr - I suppose one can't really draw clear distinctions between the works of God, man/humanity and nature anyway. I doubt the Mont was quite so impressive when it was just a rocky outcrop in a sandy waste, though there must always have been something special about it... Anyway, Molly always adds something to the scene!

Giles - thanks for visiting, and for your informative and interesting contribution. I don't myself know definitively the date when the works will be complete and the waters cover the sea, since I am not actually personally involved with them. The documents and sites I link to can probably tell you as accurately as anyone, but of course it is only projected, and both the works of (hu)man(ity), in terms of French civil engineering, and of nature, in terms future course of tides, river flow and sedimentation, are not always totally predictable. But it would seem that the new road will be ready, and the old one destroyed, by next year or the year after, and the sea should surround the Mont as in the projections by 2025, both of which facts I think you'll find I have included.

Neither do I profess to be an expert on the history of the number zero; my reiteration of an urban myth (not sure which urban centres I picked it up from...) may well be erroneous but I don't think there's any need to be sad about it! However, I may not have been clear or exact in saying that zero 'only existed in Arabic and Hebrew'; my meaning was that in the scripts of the period of the scriptorium in the abbey in mediaeval times - Latin, Greek, Hebrew and Arabic, as reflected in the engraving of the bronze work of the barrage - zero was only to be found in Arabic and Hebrew. I don't know, but rather doubt there were any manuscripts in Sanskrit to be found there at that time.

Correct me if I'm wrong; I'm sure you will. Please call again! said...

Que voilà un joli exposé sur la Merveille !
A vrai dire en tant que Bretonne, je viens de découvrir l'histoire du Mont St Michel. J'en ignorais une partie. Pensez vous que la nouvelle route mise en circulation l'an dernier est un plus? On dit que non.
Je le vois de loin maintenant , car il faut être en forme, sportif même pour monter jusqu'en haut. Je l'ai fait autrefois. Il faudrait qui investissent dans un funiculaire ce ne sera pas demain! LOL! bonne journée bien au chaud Lise

Roderick Robinson said...

Cranes, structural steel, tracked diggers, giant site lorries, a bulldozer (I think), a man engaged in la soudure (again, I think), what looks like a mechanized barrage. You have a long and honourable tradition of not despising the symbols of work and I have great pleasure in presenting you - it's long overdue - with the Andrew Hatch Medallion for those who willingly publicise the quieter and under-appreciated charms of the greater technology. Not that I'm averting my eyes from the pretty-pretty but I can rely on others to sound its gong.

Lucy said...

Thanks et merci!

Lise - c'est vrai que c'est pas mal de pente! Il y a l'ancien apareil-ascenseur pour lever les poids lourds quand l'abbaye était un prison pendant la Revolution et après, peut-être on pourrait profiter de ça pour monter le Mont! Certes il y a certains qui n'aiment pas le nouveau projet, mais, selon ce que je lis, il faut faire quelque chose pour arrêter, ou au moins ralentir, l'ensablement de la Baie...

RR - cheers. I've always rather liked that kind of gear. My paternal family firm was in part a plant hire business, perhaps it's in the blood!

Roderick Robinson said...

Given there's a -ment noun I assume there's a sibling verb ensabler - to cover with sand. Now all I need is an opportunity to use it.

Lucy said...

RR - actually found that word in the sandman's blog linked to, he remarked that it's a much nicer word than the English 'sedimentation'. But you must be right about the verb; I wonder what one might ensabler...