Mont Saint-Michel and its town didn’t always bear the same name. Originally called Mont Tombe, then “Mont Saint-Michel at the risk of the sea,” the island went through centuries of change until finally becoming the third most visited site in France.
Saint-Aubert, the Bishop of Avranches, founded Mont Saint Michel in 708 after having seen the archangel Saint-Michel appear in his dreams three times. It was after this third and final vision that he decided to have an oratory built in honor of the divine persona, but where? A bull attached to Mont Tombe was the sign Saint-Aubert was looking for; he thus decided that Mont Saint Michel was the place.
During construction of the oratory, the Bishop of Avranches sent two religious dignitaries to look for the relics of Saint-Michel. They brought back a section of wall and a red cape, as well as a piece of marble on which the archangel had placed his foot.
The Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel would become a place of worship, prayer, and pilgrimage over the years. Benedictine monks, who have been there since 966 and translated Aristotle’s texts, and the relics of Saint-Michel, attracted the faithful in search of spirituality. The abbey’s strategic location also made it a target. Extensions made to the abbey were coupled with the reinforcement of the island’s defenses. One can see the vestiges of the One-Hundred Year War during a visit. And in 1204, the abbey was attacked by war-hungry Breton knights acting under the command of Guy de Thouars.
It was under the reign of King Louis XI that Mont Saint-Michel became France’s version of Alcatraz. Transformed into a detention center, it took in prisoners until 1860. The French Revolution locked up dissidents and put them in holding cells located in the abbey. When the prison closed a century later following an imperial decree, the 650 prisoners were transferred to the continent. Victor Hugo, an ardent lover of the abbey, was one of many who called for the prison’s closure.
The worship grounds were restored in 1922 but it was in 1966, during the abbey’s 1,000 year anniversary, that pilgrimages came back with force. The French government, owner of the abbey, managed the renovations that took place. The Benedictine monks again set up in the prayer halls but would bit by bit neglect the abbey. The friars and sisters of the Monastic Fraternity of Jerusalem came to the abbey in 2001 and have since organized daily celebrations.
To make access easier for pilgrims, a road built on an embankment was constructed in 1879. In 1983, a project to restore the maritime aspects of the island was begun. However, the project is now seriously questioned as it provokes sand build-up. The parking lot was removed and an access constructed on pillars was built, thus allowing the English Channel waters to flow freely. As for the old road, it is being progressively eroded by the incoming water.
The challenge in the 21st century is to continue providing access to the abbey for the 3,500,000 visitors who come every year. Registered as a national historic monument since 1862, Mont Saint-Michel and its bay have also been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979.