1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Mont St Michel

MONT ST MICHEL, a rocky islet of western France, off the coast of the department of Manche, some 6 m. N. of Pontorson. Pop. (1906), 238. It forms a towering mass of granite about 3000 ft. in circumference and 165 ft. in height, rising near the mouth of the Couesnon nearly a mile from the shore, to which it is united by a causeway. The fortress-abbey to which Mont St Michel owes its fame stands upon the more precipitous side of the islet towards the north and west, the sloping portion towards the east and south being occupied by houses. A strong machicolated and turreted wall surrounds the rock, running along its base on the south, ascending halfway up the cliff on the north, on which side it stands close to the abbey wall, and again descending on the west. The northern and oldest portion of the ramparts dates from the 13th century; the single gateway by which they are pierced is on the south and is a good example of the military architecture of the 15th century. The single street of the island curves from the gateway up to the abbey, ending in flights of steps leading to the donjon or chatelet. It is bordered by old houses, among which is one built by Bertrand du Guesclin in 1366, and contains a parish church of the 15th century. The abbey itself consists of an assemblage of buildings in three storeys upon massive foundations around the church, the most important portion, the Merveille, extending to the north. The floor of the church, built partly on the rock, partly upon foundations, and, at the east end, over a crypt, is on a level with the uppermost storey of the monastic buildings. To the north of and below the apse lies the group of buildings known as the Belle-Chaise. It comprises the chatelet (15th century), a square entrance structure strengthened by flanking turrets and machicolation, the adjoining guard-room (13th century) with the salle des officiers above it, and behind all the Tour Perrine. The Merveille (1203–1264) consists of two continuous buildings of three storeys, that on the east containing, one above the other, the hospitium (aumônerie), refectory and dormitory, that on the west the cellar, knights' hall (salle des chevaliers) and cloister. Of the apartments, all of the finest Gothic architecture, the chief are the refectory, divided down the centre by columns and lighted by large embrasures windows, and the knights' hall, a superb chamber, the vaulting of which is supported on three rows of cylindrical pillars. The cloister, one of the purest and most graceful works of the 13th century, is surrounded by double lines of slender columns carrying pointed arcades, between which delicate floral designs are carved. The exterior wall of the Merveille is of remarkable boldness; reaching a height of 108 ft., it is supported by twenty buttresses and pierced with a variety of openings. The church, which rises high above the buildings clustering round it, consists of transepts and four bays of the nave of Romanesque architecture and of a fine choir (1450–1521) in the Flamboyant Gothic style with a triforium surmounted by lofty windows. This choir replaced one which collapsed in 1431. In 1776 three of the seven bays of the nave were pulled down, and soon after the incongruous western front was added. The finest part of the exterior is the choir, which is ornamented with a profusion of carved pinnacles and balustrading. The central tower terminates in a Gothic spire surmounted by a gilded bronze statue of St Michael.

Mont St Michel was a sacred place from the earliest times. In the 8th century an oratory was established there by St Aubert, bishop of Avranches, in obedience to the commands of an apparition of St Michael. The place soon became a noted resort of pilgrims, not only from all parts of France, but also from Great Britain, Ireland and Italy. In 966 Richard I., duke of Normandy, founded in place of the oratory a Benedictine monastery, which in the succeeding century received a considerable share of the spoils of the conquest of England. In 1203 the monastery was burnt by the troops of Philip Augustus, who afterwards furnished large sums for its restoration (La Merveille). St Louis made a pilgrimage to Mont St Michel, and afterwards supplied funds which were spent on the fortifications. A garrison and military governor subordinate to the abbot were also installed. During the last thirty years of the Hundred Years' War the abbey offered a persistent resistance to the English. In 1469 Louis XI. instituted the Order of St Michel, which held its meetings in the salle des chevaliers. During the Wars of Religion, the Huguenots repeatedly made unsuccessful attempts to seize the fortress, which opened its gates to Henry IV. in 1 595 after his abjuration. In 1622 the Benedictine monks of Mont St Michel were replaced by monks of the Congregation of St Maur. In the 18th and 19th centuries the abbey was used as a prison for political offenders, serving this purpose until 1863, when an extensive restoration, begun in 1838, was resumed. The building is the property of the Commission of Historical Monuments, which has carried on the work of restoration with great architectural and antiquarian ability.