The abbey and surrounding town, located atop a solid single rock in the middle of a bay, was originally only accessible as the tides allowed. It is located less than half a mile off the coast of Normandy, and now receives more than 3 million visitors each year. Mont Saint Michel and its bay are on the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
The abbey was originally built to the schematics of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, after, according to the legend, both an abbot and a count had had visions of St. Michael. This place also is of interest for those, who are interested the Arthurian mythology, as Thomas Malory claims that this is the place where King Arthur himself battled a virgin devouring giant, before going off on his campaign against the emperor of Rome. This islet was not always called Mont Saint Michel. Before the construction of the first church, in the 8th century, the island was called Mont Tombe. There are different legends linked to this place, which may also explain the change of name.
We are in the year 708. One night the Archangel Michael, leader of God’s armies against Satan, appeared to St. Aubert, the bishop of Avranches, in a dream. The archangel ordered the bishop to build a sanctuary in his name at the top of the island. Aubert ignored this order because it was only a dream. The next night, the Archangel Michael appeared again and repeated his order to build a sanctuary at the top of Mont Tombe in his honor. Again, Aubert was unconvinced, and of course, building a church on a wild and rocky terrain on an isolated mount surrounded by the sea would be an impossible undertaking. So, the bishop ignored his recurring dream. As Aubert slept the following night, the Archangel Michael pressed his finger into Aubert’s forehead and repeated his command. Aubert awoke the next morning to find that the archangel had burned a hole in his head. Of course, he needed no further convincing, and in late 709, a church was built in honor to Archangel Michael.
It seems, that it is no coincidence that St. Michael chose this location for the church. Some believe that it was on this mount that St. Michael won his great victory against the dragon, described in the New Testament’s Book of Revelations (12:7-9):
“And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, and prevailed not… the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent called the Devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him“.
In fact, in the next legend, St. Michael clashes with the devil once again!
One of the masters of the French Literature, Guy de Maupassant’s, gives an account of a battle between St. Michael and Satan. In this story, the narrator is at Mont Saint Michel, stunned by its beauty, but also for its colossal size and delicate architecture. While he is gazing up in incredulity, a peasant approaches him and tells him the story of the great quarrel between St. Michael and the devil.
To escape from his malicious neighbor Satan, St. Michael built himself a home on an islet in the open ocean (what would eventually be known as Mont Saint Michel). Only a saint could build a residence of such splendor, and for protection, he surrounded his island with treacherous quicksand. The devil lived in a humble cottage on the hill across the bay, and owned all the salt marshes and rich lands which produced the finest crops. St. Michael, instead, had nothing but sand. After a few years of poverty, St. Michael decided to bargain with the devil. One morning, he walked across to the shore and found the devil eating his soup in his garden. When he saw the saint, he warmly invited him in for a drink. St. Michael told Satan of his proposition: he asked the devil for all his lands, he would work the land and then they would both share the crops equally. The lazy devil agreed to this, in exchange for some gray mullet fish from the waters around the mount. St. Michael agreed and asked Satan whether he would prefer the part of the crops that grew above the ground or the part that grew underground. Satan declared that he would take everything that grew above the ground, St. Michael agreed and the devil was delighted. Six months later, the lands had produced only carrots, turnips, onions and parsnips, which all grew underground and Satan was furious. He declared St. Michael a trickster and said the deal was off. St. Michael told the devil how sorry he was about this unfortunate turn of events and offered to give him everything that grew in the ground the next year. The following year, all of Satan’s lands were covered with golden wheat, giant oats, peas, cabbage, artichokes, and everything that thrives above ground. Once again, Satan received nothing, and this time he took back his fields in anger and would not hear another word from his cunning neighbor. A whole year passed and St. Michael could do nothing but watch in frustration as the devil worked his fertile lands below and reaped his harvest. St. Michael decided he would have his revenge on this smug devil, and he went to invite him to dinner the following week. He told Satan that he regretted what had happened in the past and did not want there to be any hard feelings between them. This dinner was meant as a peace-offering. The greedy Satan accepted, dressed his finest clothes and set out for the castle. St. Michael had prepared a magnificent meal. They ate some delicious tender lamb from the salt-marshes, vegetables which melted in the mouth and a hot pancake covered with melted butter. They also enjoyed some of Normandy’s best sparkling cider and apple brandy. The devil drank and ate to his heart’s content until he was so drunk and full that he felt quite nauseous. St. Michael saw his chance and in a fit of anger chased Satan out of the castle with a stick. Satan was sick, and no match for St. Michael. Before long he was cornered at the top of the highest tower. On a beautiful day, the devil might have stopped to enjoy the breath-taking views over Normandy, but on this occasion was concerned only with escaping the wrath of St. Michael. However, there was no escape and the saint gave the devil an almighty kick up the rear, launching him across the bay like a cannonball. He landed heavily by the town of Mortain, sinking his claws deep into the rock, leaving his traces there for all eternity. According to this peasant from Guy de Maupassant’s story, St. Michael vanquished the devil in this way, taking him by the throat!