CHAPTER VII. Concerning Mont St Michel

  So, when their feet were planted on the plain 
  That broaden'd toward the base of Camelot, 
  Far off they saw the silver-misty morn 
  Rolling her smoke about the Royal mount, 
  That rose between the forest and the field. 
  At times the summit of the high city flash'd; 
  At times the spires and turrets half-way down 
  Pricked through the mist; at times the great gate shone 
  Only, that open'd on the field below: 
  Anon, the whole fair city disappeared.

  Tennyson's Gareth and Lynette

"The majestic splendour of this gulf, its strategetic importance, have at all times attracted the attention of warriors." In this quaint fashion commences the third chapter of a book upon Mont St Michel which is to be purchased in the little town. We have already had a glimpse of the splendour of the gulf from Avranches, but there are other aspects of the rock which are equally impressive. They are missed by all those who, instead of going by the picturesque and winding coast-road from Pontaubault, take the straight and dusty route nationale to Pontorson, and then turn to follow the tramway that has in recent years been extended along the causeway to the mount itself. If one can manage to make it a rather late ride along the coast-road just mentioned, many beautiful distant views of Mont St Michel, backed by sunset lights, will be an ample reward. Even on a grey and almost featureless evening, when the sea is leaden-hued, there may, perhaps, appear one of those thin crimson lines that are the last efforts of the setting sun. This often appears just behind the grey and dim rock, and the crimson is reflected in a delicate tinge upon the glistening sands. Tiny rustic villages, with churches humble and unobtrusive, and prominent calvaries, are passed one after the other. At times the farmyards seem to have taken the road into their own hands, for a stone well-head will appear almost in the roadway, and chickens, pigs, and a litter of straw have to be allowed for by those who ride or drive along this rural way. When the rock is still some distance off, the road seems to determine to take a short cut across the sands, but thinking better of it, it runs along the outer margin of the reclaimed land, and there is nothing to prevent the sea from flooding over the road at its own discretion. Once on the broad and solidly constructed causeway, the rock rapidly gathers in bulk and detail. It has, indeed, as one approaches, an almost fantastic and fairy-like outline. Then as more and more grows from the hazy mass, one sees that this remarkable place has a crowded and much embattled loneliness. Two round towers, sturdy and boldly machicolated, appear straight ahead, but oddly enough the wall between them has no opening of any sort, and the stranger is perplexed at the inhospitable curtain-wall that seems to refuse him admittance to the mediaeval delights within. It almost heightens the impression that the place belongs altogether to dreamland, for in that shadowy world all that is most desirable is so often beyond the reach of the dreamer. It is a very different impression that one gains if the steam train has been taken, for its arrival is awaited by a small crowd of vulture-like servants and porters from the hotels. The little crowd treats the incoming train-load of tourists as its carrion, and one has no time to notice whether there is a gateway or not before being swept along the sloping wooden staging that leads to the only entrance. The simple archway in the outer wall leads into the Cour de l'Avancee where those two great iron cannons, mentioned in an earlier chapter, are conspicuous objects. They were captured by the heroic garrison when the English, in 1433, made their last great effort to obtain possession of the rock. Beyond these, one passes through the barbican to the Cour de la Herse, which is largely occupied by the Hotel Poulard Aine. Then one passes through the Porte du Roi, and enters the town proper. The narrow little street is flanked by many an old house that has seen most of the vicissitudes that the little island city has suffered. In fact many of these shops which are now almost entirely given over to the sale of mementoes and books of photographs of the island, are individually of great interest. One of the most ancient in the upper part of the street, is pointed out as that occupied in the fourteenth century by Tiphane de Raguenel, the wife of the heroic Bertrand du Guesclin.

It is almost impossible for those who are sensitive in such matters, not to feel some annoyance at the pleasant but persistent efforts of the vendors of souvenirs to induce every single visitor to purchase at each separate shop. To get an opportunity for closely examining the carved oaken beams and architectural details of the houses, one must make at least some small purchase at each trinket store in front of which one is inclined to pause. Perhaps it would even be wise before attempting to look at anything architectural in this quaintest of old-world streets, to go from one end to the other, buying something of trifling cost, say a picture postcard, from each saleswoman. In this way, one might purchase immunity from the over-solicitous shop-keepers, and have the privilege of being able to realise the mediaeval character of the place without constant interruptions.

Nearly every visitor to Mont St Michel considers that this historic gem, in its wonderful setting of opalescent sand, can be "done" in a few hours. They think that if they climb up the steps to the museum - a new building made more conspicuous than it need be by a board bearing the word Musee in enormous letters - if they walk along the ramparts, stare for a moment at the gateways, and then go round the abbey buildings with one of the small crowds that the guide pilots through the maze of extraordinary vaulted passages and chambers, that they have done ample justice to this world-famous sight. If the rock had only one-half of its historic and fantastically arranged buildings, it would still deserve considerably more than this fleeting attention paid to it by such a large proportion of the tourists. So many of these poor folk come to Mont St Michel quite willing to learn the reasons for its past greatness, but they do not bring with them the smallest grains of knowledge. The guides, whose knowledge of English is limited to such words as "Sirteenth Senchury" (thirteenth century), give them no clues to the reasons for the existence of any buildings on the island, and quite a large proportion of visitors go away without any more knowledge than they could have obtained from the examination of a good book of photographs.

To really appreciate in any degree the natural charms of Mont St Michel, at least one night should be spent on the rock. Having debated between the rival houses of Poularde Aine and Poularde Jeune, and probably decided on the older branch of the family, perhaps with a view to being able to speak of their famous omelettes with enthusiasm, one is conducted to one of the houses or dependences connected with the hotel. If one has selected the Maison Rouge, it is necessary to make a long climb to one's bedroom. The long salle a manger, where dinner is served, is in a tall wedge-like building just outside the Porte du Roi and in the twilight of evening coffee can be taken on the little tables of the cafe that overflows on to the pavement of the narrow street. The cafe faces the head-quarters of the hotel, and is as much a part of it as any of the other buildings which contain the bedrooms. To the stranger it comes as a surprise to be handed a Chinese lantern at bedtime, and to be conducted by one of the hotel servants almost to the top of the tall house just mentioned. Suddenly the man opens a door and you step out into an oppressive darkness. Here the use of the Chinese lantern is obvious, for without some artificial light, the long series of worn stone steps, that must be climbed before reaching the Maison Rouge, would offer many opportunities for awkward falls. The bedrooms in this house, when one has finally reached a floor far above the little street, have a most enviable position. They are all provided with small balconies where the enormous sweep of sand or glistening ocean, according to the condition of the tides, is a sight which will drag the greatest sluggard from his bed at the first hour of dawn. Right away down below are the hoary old houses of the town, hemmed in by the fortified wall that surrounds this side of the island. Then stretching away towards the greeny-blue coast-line is the long line of digue or causeway on which one may see a distant puff of white smoke, betokening the arrival of the early train of the morning. The attaches of the rival hotels are already awaiting the arrival of the early batch of sight-seers. All over the delicately tinted sands there are constantly moving shadows from the light clouds forming over the sea, and blowing freshly from the west there comes an invigorating breeze.

Before even the museum can have a real interest for us, we must go back to the early times when Mont St Michel was a bare rock; when it was not even an island, and when the bay of Mont St Michel was covered by the forest of Scissey.

It seems that the Romans raised a shrine to Jupiter on the rock, which soon gave to it the name of Mons Jovis, afterwards to be contracted into Mont-Jou. They had displaced some earlier Druidical or other sun-worshippers who had carried on their rites at this lonely spot; but the Roman innovation soon became a thing of the past and the Franks, after their conversion to Christianity, built on the rock two oratories, one to St Stephen and the other to St Symphorian. It was then that the name Mont-Jou was abandoned in favour of Mons-Tumba. The smaller rock, now known as Tombelaine, was called Tumbella meaning the little tomb, to distinguish it from the larger rock. It is not known why the two rocks should have been associated with the word tomb, and it is quite possible that the Tumba may simply mean a small hill.

In time, hermits came and built their cells on both the rocks and gradually a small community was formed under the Merovingian Abbey of Mandane.

It was about this time, that is in the sixth century, that a great change came over the surroundings of the two rocks. Hitherto, they had formed rocky excrescences at the edge of the low forest-land by which the country adjoining the sea was covered. Gradually the sea commenced a steady encroachment. It had been probably in progress even since Roman times, but its advance became more rapid, and after an earthquake, which occurred in the year 709, the whole of the forest of Scissey was invaded, and the remains of the trees were buried under a great layer of sand. There were several villages in this piece of country, some of whose names have been preserved, and these suffered complete destruction with the forest. A thousand years afterwards, following a great storm and a consequent movement of the sand, a large number of oaks and considerable traces of the little village St Etienne de Paluel were laid bare. The foundations of houses, a well, and the font of a church were among the discoveries made. Just about the time of the innundation, we come to the interesting story of the holy-minded St Aubert who had been made bishop of Avranches. He could see the rock as it may be seen to-day, although at that time it was crowned with no buildings visible at any distance, and the loneliness of the spot seems to have attracted him to retire thither for prayer and meditation. He eventually raised upon the rock a small chapel which he dedicated to Michel the archangel. After this time, all the earlier names disappeared and the island was always known as Mont St Michel. Replacing the hermits of Mandane with twelve canons, the establishment grew and became prosperous. That this was so, must be attributed largely to the astonishing miracles which were supposed to have taken place in connection with the building of the chapel. Two great rocks near the top of the mount, which were much in the way of the builders, were removed and sent thundering down the rocky precipice by the pressure of a child's foot when all the efforts of the men to induce the rock to move had been unavailing. The huge rock so displaced is now crowned by the tiny chapel of St Aubert. The offerings brought by the numerous pilgrims to Mont St Michel gave the canons sufficient means to commence the building of an abbey, and the unique position of the rock soon made it a refuge for the Franks of the western parts of Neustria when the fierce Norman pirates were harrying the country. In this way the village of Mont St Michel made its appearance at the foot of the rock. The contact of the canons with this new population brought some trouble in its wake. The holy men became contaminated with the world, and Richard, Duke of Normandy, replaced them by thirty Benedictines brought from Mont-Cassin. These monks were given the power of electing their own abbot who was invested with the most entire control over all the affairs of the people who dwelt upon the rock. This system of popular election seems to have worked admirably, for in the centuries that followed, the rulers of the community were generally men of remarkable character and great ideals.

About fifty years before the Conquest of England by Duke William, the abbot of that time, Hildebert II., commenced work on the prodigious series of buildings that still crown the rock. His bold scheme of building massive walls round the highest point, in order to make a lofty platform whereon to raise a great church, was a work of such magnitude that when he was gathered to his fathers the foundations were by no means complete. Those who came after him however, inspired by the great idea, kept up the work of building with wonderful enthusiasm. Slowly, year by year, the ponderous walls of the crypts and undercrofts grew in the great space which it was necessary to fill. Dark, irregularly built chambers, one side formed of the solid rock and the others composed of the almost equally massive masonry, grouped themselves round the unequal summit of the mount, until at last, towards the end of the eleventh century, the building of the nave of the church was actually in progress. Roger II., the eleventh of the abbots, commenced the buildings that preceded the extraordinary structure known as La Merveille. Soon after came Robert de Torigny, a pious man of great learning, who seems to have worked enthusiastically. He raised two great towers joined by a porch, the hostelry and infirmary on the south side and other buildings on the west. Much of this work has unfortunately disappeared. Torigny's coffin was discovered in 1876 under the north-west part of the great platform, and one may see a representation of the architect-abbot in the clever series of life-like models that have been placed in the museum.

The Bretons having made a destructive attack upon the mount in the early years of the thirteenth century and caused much damage to the buildings, Jourdain the abbot of that time planned out "La Merveille," which comprises three storeys of the most remarkable Gothic halls. At the bottom are the cellar and almonry, then comes the Salle des Chevaliers and the dormitory, and above all are the beautiful cloisters and the refectory. Jourdain, however, only lived to see one storey completed, but his successors carried on the work and Raoul de Villedieu finished the splendid cloister in 1228.

Up to this time the island was defenceless, but during the abbatiate of Toustain the ramparts and fortifications were commenced. In 1256 the buildings known as Belle-Chaise were constructed. They contained the entrance to the abbey before the chatelet made its appearance. After Toustain came Pierre le Roy who built a tower behind Belle-Chaise and also the imposing-looking chatelet which contains the main entrance to the whole buildings. The fortifications that stood outside this gateway have to some extent disappeared, but what remain are shown in the accompanying illustration.

In the early part of the fifteenth century, the choir of the church collapsed, but peace having been declared with England, soon afterwards D'Estouteville was able to construct the wonderful foundations composed of ponderous round columns called the crypt of les Gros-Piliers, and above it there afterwards appeared the splendid Gothic choir. The flamboyant tracery of the windows is filled with plain green leaded glass, and the fact that the recent restoration has left the church absolutely bare of any ecclesiastical paraphernalia gives one a splendid opportunity of studying this splendid work of the fifteenth century. The nave of the church has still to undergo the process of restoration, for at the present time the fraudulent character of its stone-vaulted roof is laid bare by the most casual glance, for at the unfinished edge adjoining the choir one may see the rough lath and plaster which for a long time must have deceived the visitors who have gazed at the lofty roof. The western end of the building is an eighteenth century work, although to glance at the great patches of orange-coloured lichen that spread themselves over so much of the stone-work, it would be easy to imagine that the work was of very great antiquity. In earlier times there were some further bays belonging to the nave beyond the present west front in the space now occupied by an open platform. There is a fine view from this position, but it is better still if one climbs the narrow staircase from the choir leading up to the asphalted walk beneath the flying buttresses.

About the middle of the fourteenth century, Tiphaine de Raguenel, the wife of Bertrand du Guesclin, that splendid Breton soldier, came from Pontorson and made her home at Mont St Michel, in order not to be kept as a prisoner by the English. There are several facts recorded that throw light on the character of this noble lady, sometimes spoken of as "The Fair Maid of Dinan." She had come to admire Du Guesclin for his prowess in military matters, and her feeling towards him having deepened, she had no hesitation in accepting his offer of marriage. It appears that Du Guesclin after this most happy event - for from all we are able to discover Tiphaine seems to have shared his patriotic ideals - was inclined to remain at home rather than to continue his gallant, though at times almost hopeless struggle against the English. Although it must have been a matter of great self-renunciation on her part, Tiphaine felt that it would be much against her character for her to have any share in keeping her husband away from the scene of action, and by every means in her power she endeavoured to re-animate his former enthusiasm. In this her success was complete, and resuming his great responsibilities in the French army, much greater success attended him than at any time in the past. Du Guesclin was not a martyr, but he is as much the most striking figure of the fourteenth century as Joan of Arc is of the fifteenth.

All through the period of anxiety through which the defenders of the mount had to pass when the Hundred Years' War was in progress, Mont St Michel was very largely helped against sudden attacks by the remarkable vigilance of their great watch-dogs. So valuable for the safety of the Abbey and the little town were these dogs considered that Louis XI. in 1475 allowed the annual sum of twenty-four pounds by Tours-weight towards their keep. The document states that "from the earliest times it has been customary to have and nourish, at the said place, a certain number of great dogs, which are tied up by day, and at night brought outside the enclosure to keep watch till morning." It was during the reign of this same Louis that the military order of chivalry of St Michael was instituted. The king made three pilgrimages to the mount and the first chapter of this great order, which was for a long time looked upon as the most distinguished in France, was held in the Salle des Chevaliers.

For a long while Tombelaine, which lies so close to Mont St Michel, was in the occupation of the English, but in the account of the recovery of Normandy from the English, written by Jacques le Bouvier, King of Arms to Charles VII., we find that the place surrendered very easily to the French. We are told that the fortress of Tombelaine was "An exceedingly strong place and impregnable so long as the persons within it have provisions." The garrison numbered about a hundred men. They were allowed to go to Cherbourg where they took ship to England about the same time as the garrisons from Vire, Avranches, Coutances, and many other strongholds which were at this time falling like dead leaves. Le Bouvier at the end of his account of this wonderful break-up of the English fighting force in Normandy, tells us that the whole of the Duchy of Normandy with all the cities, towns, and castles was brought into subjection to the King of France within one year and six days. "A very wonderful thing," he remarks, "and it plainly appears that our Lord God therein manifested His grace, for never was so large a country conquered in so short a time, nor with the loss of so few people, nor with less injury, which is a great merit, honour and praise to the King of France."

In the early part of the sixteenth century, Mont St Michel seems to have reached the high-water mark of its glories. After this time a decline commenced and Cardinal le Veneur reduced the number of monks to enlarge his own income. This new cardinal was the first of a series not chosen from the residents on the mount, for after 1523 the system of election among themselves which had answered so well, was abandoned, and this wealthy establishment became merely one of the coveted preferments of the Church. There was no longer that enthusiasm for maintaining and continuing the architectural achievements of the past, for this new series of ecclesiastics seemed to look upon their appointment largely as a sponge which they might squeeze.

In Elizabethan times Mont St Michel once more assumed the character of a fortress and had to defend itself against the Huguenots when its resources had been drained by these worldly-minded shepherds, and it is not surprising to find that the abbey which had withstood all the attacks of the English during the Hundred Years' War should often fall into the hands of the protestant armies, although in every case it was re-taken.

A revival of the religious tone of the abbey took place early in the first quarter of the seventeenth century, when twelve Benedictine monks from St Maur were installed in the buildings. Pilgrimages once more became the order of the day, but since the days of Louis XI. part of the sub-structure of the abbey buildings had been converted into fearful dungeons, and the day came when the abbey became simply a most remarkable prison. In the time of Louis XV., a Frenchman named Dubourg - a person who has often been spoken of as though he had been a victim of his religious convictions, but who seems to have been really a most reprehensible character - was placed in a wooden cage in one of the damp and gruesome vaults beneath the abbey. Dubourg had been arrested for his libellous writings concerning the king and many important persons in the French court. He existed for a little over a year in the fearful wooden cage, and just before he died he went quite mad, being discovered during the next morning half-eaten by rats. A realistic representation of his ghastly end is given in the museum, but one must not imagine that the grating filling the semi-circular arch is at all like the actual spot where the wretched man lay. The cage itself was composed of bars of wood placed so closely together that Dubourg was not able to put more than his fingers between them. The space inside was only about eight feet high and the width was scarcely greater. The cage itself was placed in a position where moisture dripped on to the miserable prisoner's body, and we can only marvel that he survived this fearful torture for so many months. During the French Revolution the abbey was nothing more than a jail, and it continued to be devoted to this base use until about forty years ago. Since that time, restoration has continued almost unceasingly, for in the prison period nothing was done to maintain the buildings, and there is still much work in hand which the French government who are now in control are most successfully carrying out.

These are a few of the thrilling phases of the history of the rock. But what has been written scarcely does the smallest justice to its crowded pages. The only way of being fair to a spot so richly endowed with enthralling events seems to be in stirring the imagination by a preliminary visit, in order that one may come again armed with a close knowledge of all that has taken place since Aubert raised his humble chapel upon the lonely rock. Who does not know that sense of annoyance at being conducted over some historic building by a professional guide who mentions names and events that just whet the appetite and then leave a hungry feeling for want of any surrounding details or contemporary events which one knows would convert the mere "sight" into holy ground. I submit that a French guide, a French hand-book or a poor translation, can do little to relieve this hunger, that Mont St Michel is fully worthy of some preliminary consideration, and that it should not be treated to the contemptuous scurry of a day's trip.

The tides that bring the sea across the great sweep of sand surrounding Mont St Michel, are intermittent, and it is possible to remain for a day or two on the island and be able to walk around it dry-shod at any hour. It is only at the really high tides that the waters of the Bay of Cancale give visitors the opportunity of seeing the fantastic buildings reflected in the sea. But although it is safer and much more pleasant to be able to examine every aspect of the rock from a boat, it is possible to walk over the sands and get the same views provided one is aware of the dangers of the quicksands which have claimed too many victims. It is somewhat terrifying that on what appears to be absolutely firm sand, a few taps of the foot will convert two or three yards beneath one's feet into a quaking mass. There is, however, no great danger at the foot of the rocks or fortifications, but to wander any distance away entails the gravest risks unless in company with a native who is fully aware of any dangerous localities. The sands are sufficiently firm to allow those who know the route to drive horses and carts to Tombelaine, but this should not encourage strangers to take any chances, for the fate of the English lady who was swallowed up by the sands in sight of the ramparts and whose body now lies in the little churchyard of the town, is so distressing that any repetition of such tragedies would tend to cast a shade over the glories of the mount.

You may buy among the numerous photographs and pictures for sale in the trinket shops, coloured post-cards which show flaming sunsets behind the abbey, but nothing that I have yet seen does the smallest justice to the reality. Standing on the causeway and looking up to the great height of the tower that crowns the highest point, the gilded St Michael with his outspread wings seems almost ready to soar away into the immensity of the canopy of heaven. Through the traceried windows of the chancel of the church, the evening light on the opposite side of the rock glows through the green glass, for from this position the upper windows are opposite to one another and the light passes right through the building. The great mass of curiously simple yet most striking structures that girdle the summit of the rock and form the platform beneath the church, though built at different times, have joined in one consenescence and now present the appearance of one of those cities that dwell in the imagination when reading of "many tower'd Camelot" or the turreted walls of fairyland. Down below these great and inaccessible buildings comes an almost perpendicular drop of rocks, bare except for stray patches of grass or isolated bushes that have taken root in crevices. Then between this and the fortified wall, with its circular bastions, encircling the base of the rock, the roofs of the little town are huddled in picturesque confusion. The necessity of accommodating the modern pilgrims has unfortunately led to the erection of one or two houses that in some measure jar with their mediaeval surroundings. Another unwelcome note is struck by the needlessly aggressive board on the museum which has already been mentioned. However, when a sunset is glowing behind the mount, these modern intrusions are subdued into insignificance, and there is nothing left to disturb the harmony of the scene.

A walk round the ramparts reveals an endless series of picturesque groupings of the old houses with their time-worn stone walls, over which tower the chatelet and La Merveille. Long flights of stone steps from the highest part of the narrow street lead up to the main entrance of the abbey buildings. Here, beneath the great archway of the chatelet, sits an old blind woman who is almost as permanent a feature as the masonry on which she sits. Ascending the wide flight of steps, the Salle des Gardes is reached. It is in the lower portion of the building known as Belle-Chaise, mentioned earlier in this chapter. From this point a large portion of the seemingly endless series of buildings are traversed by the visitor, who is conducted by a regular guide. You ascend a great staircase, between massive stone walls spanned by two bridges, the first a strongly built structure of stone, the next a slighter one of wood, and then reach a breezy rampart where great views over the distant coasts spread themselves out. From here you enter the church, its floor now littered with the debris of restoration. Then follow the cloister and the refectory, and down below them on the second floor of the Merveille is the Salle des Chevaliers. Besides the wonderful Gothic halls with their vaulted roofs and perfect simplicity of design, there are the endless series of crypts and dungeons, which leave a very strong impression on the minds of all those whose knowledge of architecture is lean. There is the shadowy crypt of Les Gros Pilliers down below the chancel of the church; there is the Charnier where the holy men were buried in the early days of the abbey; and there is the great dark space filled by the enormous wheel which was worked by the prisoners when Mont St Michel was nothing more than a great jail. It was by this means that the food for the occupants of the buildings was raised from down below. Without knowing it, in passing from one dark chamber to another, the guide takes his little flock of peering and wondering visitors all round the summit of the rock, for it is hard, even for those who endeavour to do so, to keep the cardinal points in mind, when, except for a chance view from a narrow window, there is nothing to correct the impression that you are still on the same side of the mount as the Merveille. At last the perambulation is finished - the dazzling sunshine is once more all around you as you come out to the steep steps that lead towards the ramparts.