Mont St. Michel – France

It is not a little confusing to find, when you sit down to write of a picture town of France, that you must write at the same time of a little town in England, yet such is the necessity imposed by a curious geographical coincidence.

It has been said Nature never repeats herself, and that all her masterpieces are unique. Nevertheless, she has very nearly reproduced on the northern shore of the English Channel the wonderful Mont St. Michel that, upon the southern coast, stands as a monument marking the beginning of the boundary line between Brittany and Normandy, two of the most charming provinces of France.

The French Mont St. Michel is an isolated cone of rock, three hundred feet in height, that rises from the sea a half-mile or so from shore. Of almost the same circumference and of practically the same general appearance, the English St. Michael’s Mount lifts itself half a mile off the Cornwall coast to a height but little less. The ancient legends of the land that now is France tell us that early in the Eighth Century St. Michael appeared in a vision to the Bishop of the Diocese embracing the Mount, and commanded that on that Mount he build a church, of which Michael should be the patron saint. The old-time folklore of Cornwall has precisely the same tradition, coming from a somewhat earlier period, concerning the St. Michael’s Mount. On the summit of each rose a Gothic church in honor of this Saint. Later, a castle appeared on one and fortifications on the other. On each humble fishers built their villages, protected on the English rock by the castle, on the other by the walls. Around both sweep the Channel tides.

The English Mount of St. Michael is easily reached in any tour of Cornwall, or the journey can be quickly made from Plymouth, or even London.

Mount’s Bay is a huge sheet of water, with Land’s End for the distant western coast line. Dominating this bay is the Mount, about half a mile out from the little village of Marazion, which nestles on the mainland directly opposite, and where there is a very comfortable inn, with rooms looking out on the bay and the Mount. A narrow causeway runs from the island to the shore, but high tide covers it, so that the numerous little launches form a main dependence of travel between the two. Most visitors prefer to stop at Penzance, three miles to the west, and between which and the Mount there is constant communication.

Away at the back of history, away beyond the time when Caesar came to Britain, the tin mines of Cornwall were worked by unknown miners, and their products transported by ocean ways to eastern lands. From various bits of folklore, and fragmentary legends even yet told by the Cornish folk, and from the remains of records and monuments in distant ancient Phoenicia, it is now accepted as a fact that, before there was a Rome, and while Britain yet lay bleak, a tangled wood and treacherous morass, the Phoenicians knew of Cornwall and its tin. It is also believed that here, at what now is known as St. Michael’s Mount, was the market-place where the earliest of Britons brought their tin and sold it to the traders from the east.

A graphic picture of this early time is presented by the author of A Short History of Penzance, and though the quotation is a long one, it is worth the reading. ” It is not easy to realize Mount’s Bay, as it was in those primeval days. Probably the surrounding hills were mostly covered with a virgin forest. Here and there along the shore the ancient inhabitants had their beehive huts, circular wigwams, with now and then a chief’s hut with its central court. The Mount was a mere granite pile, ` the Castle of the Sun,’ more of a peninsula than now, with low-lying woodland stretching from it, which the sea at every great storm threatened to submerge, as at last it did. Lo, to the south ships are coming, strange, quaint galleys, with bronzed, Jewish-looking crews in long Asiatic robes, making for the Mount, the appointed emporium of their trade with the natives, who are jealous of foreigners landing on the mainland. Out of the huts now stream to the shore little crowds of natives. They are fair-skinned, bright-colored people, and talk in odd Celtic language. Their dress is very queer, ‘long, black cloaks and tunics reaching to the feet, girt about the breast,’ and they are walking with long staves in their hands. They make for the Mount and have with them their hardy little horses laden with blocks of tin. These they barter with the Jewish-looking merchants for money, clothes and pottery.”

Even when Rome ruled Britain the land reached far out beyond its present shore, and a great forest covered what is now the bottom of the bay-covers it yet, for on still days the voyager looks over the side of his launch into the branches of trees that sway with the tides beneath his keel, and in times of storm oaks are uprooted from their submarine home, and strewn upon the coast from Marazion to Penzance and beyond.

The old Saxon name for the Mount signified ” The Gray Rock in the Wood,” and on its summit there was blood of Druid sacrifices, just as on that other rock across the Channel. Christianity had not been long established on the Cornish coast when, as related, St. Michael appeared in a vision to the Abbot of a nearby monastery and commanded him to build a chapel in his honor on the island which then rose from the sea, that had engulfed the forest of the Gray Rock.

Long before the Conquest the monastery was built, and there, with its chapel, it stands today, changed first to a castle, and now to a home, but still with many of its walls and rooms intact. Indeed, the great Gothic hall where the monks used to dine is practically untouched, and the chapel, too, is little altered.

Of course, the wonderful similarity in name, situation, use and tradition between these two Mounts was early apparent, and, influenced largely by that similarity, Edward the Confessor, with the approval of the Bishop, gave the Cornwall Mount, monastery, village, monks and all to the establishment of the monks of Mont St. Michel in Normandy, so for a long time France may be said to have had territory in England, and these two most extraordinary places were united under the rule of one Abbot, and were, so far as a legal existence went, one in fact, though in different lands and separated by the stormy waters of the Channel.

It was not until the Seventeenth Century that the monks were driven forth and the castle came to absorb the monastery. Since then the Mount has been in the possession of the family of the present Lord St. Levan, who now occupies it as a permanent home. Not only is the castle itself but little changed, but much of the furniture made by the monks is still in use. In one of the chambers is a bed of beautifully carved oak over three hundred years old, and beside it a chair stands, antedating it by two centuries.

Similarity of tradition between these two Mounts has been brought down to a very recent period. About the same time that the skeletons were discovered in the secret dungeon in Mont St. Michel (the French form of the name), which discovery is detailed later, some workmen repairing the chapel on St. Michael’s Mount found a place in the floor that gave forth a hollow sound. The tiles were taken up and a small pit or dungeon was disclosed in which was the skeleton of a man considerably over six feet in height. Was he some heretic buried alive by the pious monks, or was he some knightly foe of an old-time lord of the castle, thus conveniently disposed of by his enemy? We shall never know.

But the parallel cannot be followed forever. Turner idealized the English Mount in one of those glowing paintings of his, but the glory on the canvas is not wholly present in the fact, and St. Michael’s Mount lacks many of those peculiar elements that distinguish the French island as one of the two or three most romantic and interesting places in Europe. The Cornish hamlet lacks the ancient walls, the marvelous tides, the strange, gray waste of sand, and the tier on tier of medieval buildings clinging dizzily to the precipitous cliff. The color scheme, too, is different. Over the Cornwall rock hang skies of blue with drift of fleecy cloud, while always the waves flash by its shores. The monotonous buildings merely fringe the beach, then come stretches of vivid green hillside, and finally rise the beautiful. walls and pinnacles of the castle. The sense of light, of space, of flowing winds and vivid color, that so distinguish this English coast, are all lacking from that bit of Norman shore where the great bay of St. Michel makes deep indentation and holds within its clasp the French Mont St. Michel, long known to Europe as ” The Marvel.”

Fifty miles from St. Mala, and well off the path of the average tourist, this great bay, a hundred square miles in extent, is reached by leaving the main line of railroad at Pontorson and taking a branch that runs seven miles northward to the shore, and thence over a causeway to Mont St. Michel itself.

We came to the bay at noon; a gray sky stooped over the vast expanse before us, an expanse not of water, but of sand, gray as the day and the sky. Nowhere was any water to be seen. From the dead level of the sands, half a mile from the shore, rose abruptly this cone of rock girdled by walls finished in 1264, encircled from base to summit by ancient buildings, and crowned by the beautiful spire of a monastery nine hundred years old.

This mysterious rock has always been the object of superstitious awe. When the faint dawn of historical light first discloses it, the Druids had a temple there. When the Romans mastered Gaul, a shrine to Jove took the place of the Druid altar, and in 708 a Christian chapel to Saint Michael was built from the ruins of these earlier Pagan homes of worship.

Richard of Normandy began the foundations of the present church. Far underground there are weird, half-lit halls upheld by mighty columns hewn from the living rock. There are stairways cut from the very heart of the mountain leading by strange ways to dark dungeons, and through lofty subterranean chambers to great halls, where the monks of gone centuries gathered for their daily toil. And deeper and gloomier yet are the catacombs still tenanted by all that remains of the bodies of these same monks.

For hundreds of years political prisoners were confined here, and fearful cells are shown; and in a great pit, where uncanny shadows lurk, is the treadmill where they trod out their unhappy lives. Not many years ago some workmen broke through a wall into a space of absolute blackness, which, when a torch lent its murky light, was seen absolutely to reek with horror, for there hung in rusting chains a score and more of moldering skeletons. There is nowhere to be found a stranger, more uncanny place than these grewsome halls, and they have been well reproduced in the scenery with which the stage is sometimes set in the opera of ” Robert the Devil.” And, above all, is the marvelous Gothic chapel, vying with Sainte Chapelle in Paris as the most exquisite bit of Gothic architecture in the world.

The train runs out along the narrow causeway connecting the Mount with the mainland, and stops just outside the gate.

As you walk under the massive thickness of the walls you can look up to the ironbarred portcullis still in position as when it stopped the way to hostile entrance six hundred years ago. Over and over again the English battled unavailingly for possession of this fortress, for such in the Middle Ages the island had become; the most serious attempt being in 1434, where, eight thousand strong, they struggled with the defenders who sallied forth upon the sands to give them battle. The two great, queer bomb ketches the defeated English left behind that day still guard the inner gateway of the walls.

It is a curious fact about this place, where everything is curious, that the inhabitants not only depended upon their own valor for defense, but, from the Twelfth Century, had kept a regiment of great dogs trained to attack and to defend. These dogs not only took part in the battles so frequently fought, but were turned loose at night to act the part of sentinels. There is a reference to this in a decree of Louis XI in 1475, granting an additional annual income for the care of these animals. It is, perhaps, equally curious to note that this custom of training dogs to defend a city was not unique to Mont St. Michel, the records of more than one medieval town showing that the custom was more or less common throughout Europe during the dark times of the Middle Ages.

Numberless legends are connected with the Mount. I referred before to St. Michael himself appearing to the Bishop in the Eighth Century, and commanding that a church should be built upon the summit. It seems that the Bishop was too deliberate in the matter, whereupon the Saint appeared a third time and emphasized his orders by putting his finger through the Prelate’s skull and writing instructions on his brain. Anyway, if you go to the nearby town of Avranches they will show you this Bishop’s skull, with the hole plainly visible where the Archangel’s finger went through.

These are primitive folk who live along the one street that sharply zigzags up the steep wall of the Mount, and their lives yet respond to the old traditions that even more powerfully affected their forefathers. There is, for instance, a rock that juts boldly out from the face of the cliff on the southwest side of the island, and from the earliest times weird tales have clustered around it. Undoubtedly it was a sacrificial spot in Druid worship, and the agony of countless victims who suffered there must have lingered, a terrible memory, in the minds of the people. At all events, the place came to be regarded as the haunt of an evil spirit, and a legend centered round it that ill luck would follow the passerby who did not propitiate the spirit dwelling there, and to this day, as the fisher folk sail out to sea, they invariably bow the head as they pass La Gire, as the rock is called.

The influence of the past is also manifested in what is possibly the only industry, save fishing, that the island boasts. Bayeux, near which William the Conqueror was born, is but a short distance inland, and he and the long line of Norman dukes were always intimately associated with the life of the place. At Bayeux is still preserved the famous tapestry woven by the women of William’s family during those middle years of the Eleventh Century just preceding the Conquest. At Mont St. Michel there has been for ages a factory, if one may use so large a term for so small a thing, where pottery has been made. Now upon the vases here manufactured are reproduced the quaint and misdrawn forms that appear on the famous tapestry. The writer has a large vase of artistic shape and rich, warm coloring, on which appear two charging knights, copied literally from the work of those long dead women of the Conqueror’s household.

You leave the train outside the walls, and, passing through the double gateway, find yourself in the queer, steep street and close to a hotel thoroughly in keeping with the atmosphere of the place. From the little hall you enter a large room set with tables. At one side is the largest fireplace I ever saw. On a great spit a sheep is roasting, while on smaller spits above it ducks and chickens sizzle. You give an order, the meat is sliced off before your eyes, and the spit continues slowly to turn.

After exploring the one street, and having been guided through the wonderful monastery, church, prison and fortress in one, it is well to visit the museum. It contains, of course, much that is conventional, but it possesses one thing that is absolutely unique in all the world-a collection of fifteen thousand watch cocks.

Now a watch cock was in use in France, perhaps elsewhere, from some time in the Sixteenth Century until toward the end of the French empire. These cocks may be described as open-work covers to protect the mechanism, and add at the same time to the beauty of the timepiece. A vast number of those now exhibited in the museum are bits of consummate art, carved with the rarest skill, and of the most dainty and intricate design. Why this beautiful collection, without parallel in the world, should be found in this remote corner of France, I am unable to say, but here it is, and well worth seeing.

At five in the afternoon everyone gathers on the causeway, and on the western point of the island, to watch the coming of the tide, one of the sights of the world. As far as the eye can reach stretches the gray sand, silent, empty. Seven miles and a half lie between the ocean and the rock. Presently a strange murmur pervades the air; it seems to come from nowhere, and yet to be everywhere. And then, far on the horizon, lifts a line of white. Every moment it draws nearer, and the sound in the air swells louder; and then, with astonishing speed, sweeps up the line of crested sea, and in a moment the sands are but a space of swirling water. And on the wave ride in the fishing-boats that went out to sea on the tide at dawn. Many a tragedy has been caused by the swift inrush of this true tidal wave, for, save along narrow paths, the bottom of this vast, strange bay is quicksand, and, after the tide has once turned, and the sound of its coming is heard, no man can hope to escape its reach unless he be close, indeed, to the Mount or the shores of the mainland. In autumn, when fierce northerly gales drive in the sea, this wave comes with such a rush across the seven miles of sand, that no horse is swift enough to evade it. So, at least, runs the tale they tell you at the Mount, and, having once seen the speed of even the tide of August, there is no disposition to question the statement.

A few years ago a Parisian sculptor desired to portray in marble the acme of human horror. Accompanied by a movingpicture machine, its operator, and an assistant, he went to Mont St. Michel and deliberately permitted himself to sink into the sands not far from the causeway, upon which the machine was placed to catch his expression. Of course, he was to be rescued at the proper moment. But almost immediately he felt the awful pull of the unseen forces down below, and, recognizing the imminence of his danger, gave the signal to be released. But it was misunderstood, lower and lower he sank, while the conviction that he was thus miserably to perish turned intended acting to horrible reality. Fortunately some peasants, attracted by his screams, and familiar with the spot, succeeded in saving him at the last moment.

The guidebook of the Mount was written by the Marquis de Tombelaine, who was thoroughly familiar with the quicksands and the tides, and yet, on April 3d, 1892, he was engulfed a short distance from the ramparts, and his body was never recovered.

The French Government has a sensible way of acquiring the remarkable and beautiful places within its territory, and making them ” National Monuments,” thus preserving them from encroachment and providing for their care and maintenance at public expense. This has been done with Mont St. Michel, securing to the future traveler one of the most unusual and interesting sights of Europe.