Off the northwest coast of Normandy is an unusual site – an entire island designated as a UNESCO world heritage site, as well as a protected site by the Commission des Monuments Historiques (the French government’s preservation agency). Le Mont Saint-Michel, founded in the early 8th century, was originally a church and assertion of Christianity in a European setting that was still vulnerable to Viking raids on its northern coasts. Two centuries later, the Duke of Normandy gave the site to a group of Benedictine monks, who set about building a larger abbey (under the protection and patronage of William the Conquerer). The abbey, situated at the top of the island, became a major pilgrimage site and a major center of medieval learning. Later, at the time of the 100 years war, the island evolved into a military citadel – the only spot in Normandy that never fell to the British. Today, the site is the 4th most visited heritage location in France, bringing in about 1.3 million visitors a year.
When the abbey was originally constructed, the shore was a full seven kilometers (4.3 miles) from the island – which is five kilometers farther than it is today. At the time, one had to wait until low tide, leaving a flat space of mud and get the timing right to cross – the abbey truly was situated on an island. Over time however, that status has deteriorated. The flow of tides bring in alluvial soil ideal for vegetation growth – the people of Normandy realized such over the centuries and began using irritation techniques to reclaim land, pushing out the edge of the shore. Eventually the buildup of reclaimed land reached within two kilometers of Mont-Saint-Michel.
In 2004, the French government began to work on a major project to de-silt the site, to “restore the maritime character” of Mont-Saint-Michel – without work, the island would permanently connect to the mainland by 2040. It was a rather serious decision – after all, the buildup of silt was the work of generations – it is in a way part of the history of the site. Yet, one of the main attractions of Mont-Saint-Michel – home to a large number of tourist industries – is the fact that it is an island. In some ways, it is not actually climbing up the island to the abbey that is the most attractive – it is actually seeing the site from shore, watching the tide move up and down in front of it. In France, one in five heritage sites pays for the other five – and the Mont-Saint-Michel is one of those. To lose such an appearance, and therefore a major tourist attraction, might actually decrease the ability of the government to continue to preserve other sites.
In 2014, a new project to de-silt the area was put in motion, exciting greater controversy as the aims of the government clashed with those of the small community that actually lives on Mont-Saint-Michel. Many of the implementations – the elimination of parking lots at the site, forcing people to walk across the bridge or use shuttle buses, the creation of a large concrete platform cut out of the rock for emergency vehicles, etc – are felt to either make life more difficult for those who live there, or in fact turn the place into that much more of a tourist post-card, losing some of its original charm and authenticity in the process.
More to the point, the de-silting project may not actually accomplish all that much, as the accumulation of silt is a natural byproduct of the ocean movement, and all the engineering in the world is unlikely to stand up to the forces of nature for very long. The project is however an interesting one for those studying the effects of sea level rise and changes in coastal climate on heritage preservation – is trying to push the natural side effect of living by an ocean the solution? Should we let the island connect to the shore naturally and thereby lose out on an aspect of that heritage? For the moment, it seems, the island is going to remain detached from the coast, though no one can yet estimate for how long.
Adams, Henry. Democracy, Esther, Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. Library of America, Vol 14. 1904.
Erlanger, Steven. “Restoring Sea and Romance to a French Treasure” The New York Times.´April 23, 2013.
Stille, Alexander. “The Massive and Controversial Attempt to Preserve One of the World’s Most Iconic Islands” Smithsonian Magazine. June 2014.