Retro Saint-Michel

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Will a Half-Century Old Guidebook Help a Tourist View an Attraction Differently?

mont-saint-michel-cover0001-copy-2Picking up an old guidebook on Mont Saint-Michel that was published in the 1960s, I flip through to find out what highlights were deemed important 50-plus years ago. In this guidebook, the photos are black and white except for the covers, and the text focuses more on the architecture of the place than on the drama of what went on here.

I wonder whether the Mont looks the same as it did back then. In The cloister of 50-odd years ago seems not to contain the green garden it does today. Overall, Mont Saint-Michel seems to be billed by all as more a miracle of construction than one of real religion. Interestingly, its purpose seems as much fortress as loftiness. Early on, the reader is informed, the Mont was “built for soldier monks by architects of poetic inspiration.”

Vintage guidebook image of Mont Saint-Michel cloisterI learn that Archangel Michael, who had appeared to a priest in the 700s and encouraged him to build the sanctuary, also helped out in the 1400s when the Mont was under siege by the British. Michael arranged for a storm to smash the enemy’s boats against the rocks of the Mont. I suppose that those soldier monks might have begun, then, to appreciate the architecture of the place. A military order under St. Michael was established by Louis XI in 1469, but I think the knights who then opted to hang out in Knights’ Hall, the former scriptorium of monks, were soldiers rather than priests.

Mont Saint-Michel's cloisters seem much greener now than they were in the 1960s. Photo credit: V. Laino

Mont Saint-Michel’s cloisters seem much greener now than they were in the 1960s. Photo credit: V. Laino

Eventually the place began to house political prisoners such as a Dutch journalist who managed to annoy Louis XIV. One can’t help but wonder what Archangel Michael was up to when the Mont was transformed into a prison during the French Revolution and for a long period after. The first prisoners were the monks who had not embraced the spirit of the revolution in quite the same way that France’s new rulers did.

—Lori Tripoli

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