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Mont Saint-Michel: the angel’s thousand-year-old abode

A medieval abbey built on top of a rocky tidal island only accessible at low tide. That’s Mont Saint-Michelone of the oldest pilgrimage destinations in Europe. In fact, it is three centuries older than the Way of St. James. All throughout the Middle Ages, pilgrims walked there from Italy, Germany and England, as well as from other parts of France. These pilgrims were then known as Miquelots. Modern pilgrims can follow the very same routes these early travelers did.

In 2023, Mont Saint-Michel celebrates its 1000th anniversary. It is a rather unique opportunity to walk along the chemins montais all the way to the bay and admire the imposing abbey, crowned with a sculpture of the archangel Michael slaying a dragon at the top of its highest spire.

Abbey of Mont Saint-Michel

This relatively short pilgrimage can easily become an adventure. Travelers can decide to do as medieval pilgrims did and walk all the way from Mont Saint-Michel to Compostela. An old French saying echoes this old costume, somehow mocking those who embarked in these pilgrimages with some penitential intention:

Les petits gueux vont au Mont Saint-Michel, les grands à Saint-Jacques (Little rascals go to Mont-Saint-Michel; the big ones go to Santiago).

The guarding angel

San miguel
Medieval anonymous manuscript showing pilgrims going to Mont Saint-Michel

Tradition has it that back in the year 708 Saint Aubert, the then bishop of Avranches, was visited several times by the Archangel Michael in his dreams. The Archangel repeatedly asked him to build a shrine on what was then called Mont-Tomb. The rocky hill was already a sacred place for the Gauls, who believed it to be linked with Belenus, “the shining one” –a health-giving, light-related deity. It is no wonder that the bishop would consecrate the place to St. Michael: according to Christian tradition, Michael is archangel who defeated Lucifer, the diabolical angel of light.

Devotion to the archangel Michael is rather ancient. He is one of the three angels named in the Hebrew Bible. The Book of Daniel portrays him as the one who protects the people against evil.

“In that day shall Michael arise, the great prince who defends the children of your people” -Daniel 12:1.

The devotion was passed on to the first Christians before what historians have referred to as the parting of the ways. Later on, according to tradition, Emperor Constantine had a vision of the Archangel Michael before the battle of Adrianople (324) against Licinius, in which the heavenly messenger predicted victory. The emperor had a first church built in present-day Istanbul, the Michaelion. Soon enough, shrines devoted to Michael were rather popular.

The first important sanctuary in Western Europe is on Monte Sant’Angelo in Gargano, Italy. Local tradition claims the Archangel appeared to St. Lawrence of Manfredonia, asking him to build a sanctuary in an ancient cave –and promising he would protect the city against the Longobards.

The Michaelic alignment

In short, every story involving Saint Michael has to do with protection and victory against evil. It is only natural that that is exactly what Mont Saint-Michel is about: a fortified, impregnable rock surrounded by water that has been besieged over and over again throughout history –from the Vikings to the Nazis.

Tapiz de Bayeux
Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry mentioning Mont Saint-Michel

Mont Saint-Michel belongs to a family of European shrines that share the same characteristics: they are all dedicated to St. Michael, on virtually unconquerable rocky mountains, close to pilgrimage paths. When seen on a map, they form a straight line. It’s called the Michaelic alignment –better known as St. Michael’s Sword.

The other sanctuaries forming the Sword are the aforementioned Gargano, the Sacra di san Michele (near Turin, Italy, by the Via Francigena); St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall (England, an imposing setting for a 1979 Dracula movie) and Skellig Michael, in the Skellig Islands (west of Ireland, where Star Wars’ episodes VII, VIII and IX were shot).

This post is also available in: Español Italiano

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